Recipe for an Unfinished Novel

This week on the Debutante Ball, in celebration of the winter solstice, we are writing about the dark times of writing–moments when we thought about quitting or let our doubt get in the way. 

Recipe for an unfinished novel


1 work in progress

1 workshop, preferably your first one

1 bag of peanut M&Ms

1 famous author/instructor

1 bullying workshop attendee

8 other workshop students


1. Read aloud five pages. You want to speak slowly and clearly.

2. Take notes as the students say vaguely nice things about the setting. Don’t be concerned if it takes a little while for the conversation to get going.

crying3. Don’t get burned if the conversation comes quickly to a boil when a bullying student first talks about why he hates your story, and then goes on to criticize you personally for writing the characters the way you did.

4. Watch the instructor carefully to see if he will turn the conversation into a more productive critique. He doesn’t.

5. Temper the need to cry with a distraction like eating the peanut M&Ms you brought as a snack for the class. Don’t offer to share.

6. Let the conversation boil over for 20 minutes, your allotted critique time.

7. Have the instructor mention to you privately during the break that maybe the bully’s take wasn’t accurate.

8. Tell yourself you need to develop a thick skin, that being a writer means being able to take feedback.

9. Receive a well-meaning email from one of the other workshop students who remained silent during the critique saying that she liked your piece.

10. Let the anger, doubt, insecurity and confusion about your work fester while your Word file sits dormant on your laptop. I recommend six months.

And voila! An unfinished novel!

Variation—If you don’t like the taste of an unfinished novel, remember what you love about your story, open your Word file, and get back to work.

Author: Louise Miller

Louise Miller is the author of THE CITY BAKER'S GUIDE TO COUNTRY LIVING (Pamela Dorman Books/Viking/August 9, 2016), the story of a commitment-phobic pastry chef who discovers the meaning of belonging while competing in the cut-throat world of Vermont county fair baking contests. Find out more at

11 Replies to “Recipe for an Unfinished Novel”

  1. Ugh, I am so sorry. This is a major reason I don’t permit my students to comment negatively on works in progress, and if I happen to be leading a workshop where we’re critiquing finished work, I guide the conversation very tightly. Shame on that instructor, mostly, but also shame on the other students for not saying anything.

    The only good part of this story is the peanut M&Ms.

    1. Thanks, Eleanor! I’m happy to say I eventually went in to take more workshops and had instructors who were amazing facilitators! It’s so important.

  2. Sounds like the bully overpowered the taste of everything else. Like green peppers. A shame he/ she wasn’t an optional ingredient.

    Sadly, these recipes are all too common. So glad you persevered, Louise, and found one for confidence and success!

  3. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. You proved him wrong. Success speaks for itself. Everything you do is a gift to others. Talent and hard work prevail.

  4. Glad this had a happy ending! I’ve had one miserable workshop where the teacher actually changed his positive comments to negative comments after the reaction of one of the class bullies (so to speak). I find the solution to be more M&Ms (or, in my case, gummy bears).

  5. This is what I stress to my creative writing students: vet a critique group or class carefully before entering. Much more harm than good can come from writing-bullies. They are blowhards who have no talent of their own, so they make it their practice to belittle others. Actually, wouldn’t a writing bully be a great evil character to include in a novel? 🙂

  6. I’ve actually thought that before you take a writing class that include critique you should have to take a class in how to give constructive critique. lol I took a short story class in college that was trial by fire because almost no one knew how to give notes. They only knew how to bash people over the head with opinion.

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