When It’s Time to Bench a Manuscript

Not too long ago, I met a few writer friends for coffee. A topic came up that many writers avoid. But we tackled it anyway.

When is it time to bench your manuscript? When do you know your manuscript will never be ready for the big game? When do you decide with finality that it will never garner the attention of agents or editors and needs to be taken off the playing field—demoted from a viable submittable story, to a story that should never see the light of day? To be blunt, how do you know when the hard copy needs to be locked away in a file cabinet (along with your other rookie manuscripts), and the electronic file needs to be moved to a folder named Training Manuscripts.

In listening to what my writer friends said, I considered my own experience.

I have one such middle grade manuscript that has been benched. Actually, it has been taken off my roster completely. I will never forget it (it was my original book baby after all!), but about a year after writing it, I realized I didn’t know the first thing about fiction writing. I had been doing a lot of research at that point and I soon realized just how much that manuscript was lacking. The problems were actually too many to list, but I’ll give you an idea… There was no voice. There were no stakes. There was no conflict. The writing mechanics were amateur at best. Shall I go on??

But was all that really enough to bench it forever? Not necessarily. I could have revised and worked on all of those problems. It’s not hard to add higher stakes and create conflict. I also could have rewritten it with all I had learned about writing mechanics, but I didn’t want to.

Why? Because at that point I didn’t love the characters enough to make it work. The world I had created was not all that exciting to me anymore and neither was the main plot. Besides, at that point I had a brand new story idea swirling in my head. So I decided to bundle up my first book baby and tuck her away in a comfy spot forever. I will forever love her though for what she gave me…the love of writing and desire to write stories for children. So instead of being a submittable story, one ready for the big game, I now see that manuscript as my developmental writing manuscript, the one I wrote well before I was ready to put a story out onto the playing field.

I have second manuscript that was temporarily benched several years ago as well. So why not just leave it there? Well, because this one was benched for a different reason. The plot had a hole—a big hole, and I just could not find a way to fix it. But I wasn’t ready to toss it off the team completely. I knew I needed a break from it and so I benched it temporarily. The decision to do so had more to do with the fact that once again, I had a new story swirling, one that I was way more excited to write. So I set it aside with the intention of returning to it someday and it’s been benched ever since.

It seems to me, the decision to bench a manuscript has more to do with needing to write the story that needs to be written. If you’re passionate about a story, even one that has problems, it most definitely can be saved from being benched. Plots can be tightened up, worlds can be clarified, characters can be fleshed out, stakes can be raised and conflicts can be resolved. Even voice can be practiced and revised for so that it’s present on every page of the manuscript.

So, what’s the big decision? If you’ve lost the love for that story, it’s time to bench it (maybe forever, maybe not) because if you aren’t excited to write it, your readers won’t be either.

But what happens when you do still feel passionate about your story? That’s when it’s time to take a good hard look at it. Critique partners can help. Is the plot really as strong as you think it is or that it can be? What about the story arc? Does your main character have a controlling belief, something that drives them through every decision they make? Have you added enough obstacles for them and an ending that gives them a satisfying new normal? There are numerous elements to look for in the revision process and when revised thoroughly and effectively, a story may never need to be benched.

The thing is, it’s so important to feel great passion for your story? It takes MANY read throughs to get your manuscript in top shape, ready to play in the big game. If you aren’t committed to it, the manuscript doesn’t have a fighting chance.

Sometimes, you just have to trust your instincts. If you’re honest with yourself, you probably know already whether or not your manuscript needs to be benched. And if it does, don’t feel guilty. It served its purpose and made you a better writer. Keep at it with the next one. That one might just win MVP.

It turns out, all of us pretty much agreed on when you just know. But we also agreed that nothing really is forever. Just like athletes, manuscripts can be taken off the bench. They can be put back into play again, if your passion for it returns or you figure out how to make it score- how to make it sparkle.

So that’s it for today, Guys. I hope your writing projects are taking shape this fall and that whatever it is you’re working on, you’re excited enough about it to make it amazing!

Have a great week!  I’ll catch up with you all again soon.

Jackie

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