When to give up on a story.


Writers love their stories. It can be a love-hate thing throughout the writing process, but when a writer reaches the end and declares the story is done, they are hopelessly in love with it. Does anyone remember the intro scene from Romancing the Stone, when the sobbing Joan Wilder types in the final scene in her latest novel and all her tissue boxes in the house are empty, and she says, “This is SO GOOD?” That’s me. I really love my story when it’s done. It’s a serious story crush, and I am oblivious to its flaws or potential problems down the road.

At the beginning of my career I was over-confident at that giddy moment, and learned hard lessons. I soon stopped immediately sending my story out to an editor thinking they too, will run out of tissues because it was SO GOOD. I’ve learned to move on and come back to it later. And every time, even within a couple of days, I see lots of flaws, and start revising.

This goes on for varying amounts of time depending on the story. Eventually I will send it out to expert eyes for a critique or two. And then revise again. Finally I love the story even more than before. It’s no longer that first romance crush thrill with all the tears and tissues. Now this story and I are in a serious relationship, and I am committed to it for life. And it’s time to take the relationship to the next level: trust the story enough to send it out to the world.

During this often very long process, sometimes an agent or editor agrees that they will look at it again if we make certain changes. The thought of revising again after all the work we’ve put into a story can be excruciating. But we remember our solemn vow to love this story forever, and we revise it again. It can be very tough on a relationship. Rejection challenges our faith. Therapy is almost always required. But we stick with our beloved even as it changes and often grows into something we barely recognize. And, like a long-term relationship that goes through rocky times, love prevails.

One possibility is the story sells and we live happily ever after. But there is also the other possibility. What about a story that has been through it all with us? It has been revised countless times. Perhaps it made it to more than one interested editor’s desk, even to an acquisitions meeting or two! But alas, as we waited patiently, fantasizing about the award speeches we’d need to write (don’t tell me you never do this), our story was ultimately rejected. And now, our beloved has made the rounds to all of the possible markets, and has not sold. An agent will say it’s time to let it go, and after a lot of tears, we know she’s right. Sigh.

There are probably just three options:

1. Table it. A lot of successful authors have put a story or idea aside and revisited it later, sometimes years later, and sold it. That’s happened to me more than once, I’m happy to report. And sometimes, a story turns out to be just a story seed that needed to grow in a different climate to really flourish. A new story is born.

2. Self-publish it. If you choose the self-publishing route, do make sure you have a marketing plan and that your book is professionally edited and produced. Unless you are using a pseudonym, your name as an author is on the line. And while a lot of wonderful stories are rejected, a lot more not-so-wonderful stories are rejected as well or more often, have never even sat on an editor’s desk. Your book will be competing with a huge slush-pile and it will have to stand out. Do your research and honor your story.

3. Let it go. Kiss your story goodbye and call it quits. It’s like a friendly but nevertheless sad divorce. You will always love each other, but it’s never going to work. It’s time to move on.

While I have always chosen option 1, recently, I chose option 3. I gave up a story that was dear to my heart, called Lucy’s Little Church. I’ve never received so many beautiful editorial comments on a single manuscript that was not accepted for publication. So, since a descendant of the founders of the church that inspired the story also loved it, I gave Lucy’s Little Church to her. She had mentioned, after reading it, that she would love to have that opportunity, and I was humbled and flattered. Here is some of what she wrote when I released the rights to her a few months ago:

“We may never see each other face to face but we will always share Lucy’s experiences at Glendale Chapel. She may get a new name, Annie, for my sister who fell in the creek, Annie my mother, and Annie Shields who brought Glendale Chapel back to life.”

11986978_10207760295675214_5107976400581954905_nSo this time, I didn’t so much as give up on a story, I feel that I gave the story to its proper owner. I hope to see it come to life someday.



4 Comments Add yours

  1. lindamkwriter says:

    Love how you describe my own relationship to my stories. I had to give up on one of my non-fiction stories that had had two different contracts but never published. Sadly, it had become out of date. Another story didn’t seem publishable, but I loved it so much, I put it up on my website. I’m happy it will be enjoyed by some. http://www.lindamoorekurth.com/baby-bird-sitter.html

  2. Susan Jerde says:

    Hi Robin, I’m curious about that story and the pic.

  3. A wonderful story, Robin, and a loving, generous thing for you to do.

  4. betlw says:

    What a lovely thing to do to give the story to someone who loved it as much as you did. I might have been tempted to file it away somewhere no one will ever see it again. But you gave your beloved story another chance. The people of that little church will love the story too, because it’s about their church.

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