Monday, February 16, 2015

Rewrite an Old Manuscript or Let it Die?

Should I rewrite that old manuscript or let it die? This is a question many of us writers ask ourselves because the first book—or even the first couple of books—end up being a trial run. It may not feel it at the time of writing, but it’s where we first implement the storytelling rules we thought we’d learned, or ignore them completely out of ignorance rather than genius. More often than not, the first book doesn’t end up getting published. We move on to original ideas, we develop our skills as storytellers, our characters start to breathe realism. But those early manuscripts often stay in our hearts and sing sweet nothings to get us to work on them again.

If you’re tempted to listen to the croon, then be aware that it can often be harder to fix the broken has-been than to start a new project. Of course, it depends on the state of its brokenness. I tried to rewrite an old manuscript but it didn’t turn into the gem I know it could be. At the time, I hadn’t realized how much extra work was required to spit and polish the tarnish off, how flat the characters were, or how stiff the dialogue was, or even how hard it was to kill those darlings.

There’s a certain brutality required to work on an old manuscript. First we need to scrub off the rosy tint on our eyes, then we need to delve in where it matters most and ask those difficult questions:

Does the manuscript need a new foundation? That is, is the story as a whole original enough to be worth salvaging, or are there now a gazillion and one similar stories out there already? If it doesn’t stand on its own in the crowd, then can I come up with a twist or a change big enough to give it the strength it needs to shine?

How strong am I when it comes to killing my darlings? Because many darlings will have to die in the reshaping of an old manuscript. Those gorgeous page-long descriptions will have to go. That quirky dialogue that has no real place in the story will have to go. That awesome character who adds nothing to the plot will have to go. That wonderfully hilarious scene that no longer fits will have to go. If you have a powerful attachment to those darlings and aren’t willing to let them go, then it might be best to let the manuscript languish for a while longer.

How much time will it take to fix and how much time am I willing to give? If you’re looking for a quick project to knock off during a short break and think resurrecting an old manuscript is the trick, think again. Reworking an old manuscript can sometimes take as long, if not longer, than writing a new project. For starters, there’s all that pulling apart and putting back together again. Go in with your eyes open.

The little stuff is easy to fix—the weak grammar, the typos, the descriptions that don’t quite capture the moment. However, you’ll need a special passion to shape up those deeply-loved-yet-often-sloppy early creations.

Have you ever tried to resurrect an old manuscript? If so, what did you learn from the experience?


46 comments:

Christine Rains said...

Great post. I have several old manuscripts waiting for a new life, but most of them will remain on the shelf. It is easier for me to start something new and I'm not lacking story ideas!

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I have hundreds of short stories from over the years, most of which will stay right where they are. I did pull out one novelette that's bee revised twice. I hope to make it one of the stories in Four in Darkness, the book I'm working on now.

Pat Hatt said...

Fixing a broken has been can be a pain in the arse indeed haha

Murees Dupé said...

I couldn't give up my first darling, no matter how hard I tried. My darling is now with an editor and I hope to make it shine soon.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I can't imagine trying to fix one. Rewriting it from scratch? Now that I have done. (And we all know the rest of the story.) Sometimes it's just the nugget of the idea that is solid, or the characters. And that's what must be salvaged.

Jemi Fraser said...

I've learned rewriting is often SO much easier than fixing. I've got a 2nd series waiting on me doing just that :)

Southpaw HR Sinclair said...

I haven't done it, but I think if the plot is there, it's worth it. Characters, descriptions, etc. can be strengthened, but it's hard to work with a missing plot. :)

Debra McKellan said...

I'm actually resurrecting one right now! I don't know how well I'll do, but I have to try for my characters.

Linda Kay said...

It took me 10 years to finally publish a manuscript. When I decided to get it into print I had a lot of rewriting and research to do to make it feel right. I've learned from the experience, however, and now my writing has taken on a different tact for the future. It's still me, just a different time and place.

planetpailly said...

I tend to canibalize my old manuscripts. I repurpose characters, settings, or other story elements to suit whatever I'm working on now. It gives me a little satisfaction to know that even if I'll never return to an old manuscript, something of it still lives on.

-James

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

This is so interesting. I reworked an old manuscript that I had never finished and it turned out to be my first bestseller. I think it had a lot to do with timing and that I had improved my craft.

Patricia Lynne said...

I had one story I tried to rewrite, but there was a giant plot hole at the end that I wasn't sure I could fix and make the story work. Maybe one day I'll go back to it because I like the story and think it's something different.

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

It took 7 years to write my first book. I had to shelf it. But by then I was hooked on the process. Somethings are better left on a shelf.

Carol Riggs said...

Great points. The trouble with reviving old manuscripts is that you may end up with a Franken-story or even a zombie. Pretty scary. ;o) It's great practice though, of learning to let go for when editors ask you to re-purpose your plot or slash a character!

Shelley Sly said...

Lots of applause for this post! I totally agree with every point you've made, because I've experienced it firsthand.

I edited one of my manuscripts over and over, but it still wasn't good enough (in my own eyes.) I finally realized that it had some major problems that couldn't just be edited out. So I opened a new Word document and rewrote the entire thing. Didn't use any lines from the original. The new story is WAY stronger!

Haneen I. Adam said...

My first novel was with me for a long time, and before even writing the first word I was writing it in my head since my teenage years, so when I finally finished it I had high hopes but it was least to say terrible, now I’m working on another project that is way better than that one, I considered letting it go but I’m still thinking, it gets better on the next book in the series (in my head) so is it worth my time rewriting it? I don’t know.

Medeia Sharif said...

During my college years I rewrote two manuscripts several times, changing them drastically, but they remained unpublished.

Last year my middle grade, THE ATTIC OF SAND AND SECRETS, was published. I got the idea from an old, half-finished draft--I kept the main character and changed her age, and threw out most of the secondary characters.

Tyrean Martinson said...

Good questions and points! I have a manuscript in my closet/hard drive/etc. that one of my daughters and a few of my friends think I should dig out and give a go-to . . . but I don't think I'm ready yet. I know that thing is a mess - not just a grammar mess, but a plot-hole mess. I have four headstrong characters all vying for MC in that thing, and although I like multiple POV, I think I'm going to have to get a few of those characters toned down. Anyway, I'm still saving it for another day or another year.

Anne R. Allen said...

Great subject! I have three or four novels that are half written or finished in rough draft that I take another stab at now and then. For me the biggest obstacle is that they're dated and bringing them up to date technically might rob them of major plot points. So they stay in the drawer. But the characters may be salvaged some day...

cleemckenzie said...

I dove into an oldie and it took a long time to shake it free of some very bad writing. In fact, I'm still not sure I've succeeded. I may have to toss it in the end. Glad you open this topic, Lynda.

olgagodim said...

Wonderful post. I'm considering just that but I don't think my first novel - my writing school really - is ever going to be a novel, per se. I'm thinking of turning it into a collection of short stories united by the same protagonist. In this case, tons of unnecessary fluff will have to go by default (short story form can't support verbiage), leaving only the essentials: the story.
Olga Godim

Nadine_Feldman said...

It's great to see a post about this. I have one in the drawer that I still think is a good idea. I think it's waiting for me to have the skills to pull it off, so I work on other projects in the meantime. I hope to revisit it next year.

Tonja said...

I'm at the point of rewriting a novel I wrote about 2 years ago (maybe longer). I knew it wasn't done and am ready to finish it now. The one before that, probably not. Great post.

Lynda R Young said...

There's a wealth of different experiences in these comments. Best wishes to those in the throes of resurrecting the old manuscripts!

Lynda R Young said...

I love that you rewrote it from scratch, as a few others in these comments have as well, and it worked for you. It's far easier to rewrite the whole thing than to push and tug at the tired manuscript.

Lynda R Young said...

Yes! There is a deep satisfaction in knowing not all those darlings have to die when the manuscript is laid to rest.

Lynda R Young said...

That's another point to keep an eye on. When a manuscript dates. Some stories are just, well, old, especially when dealing with any kind of technology eg phones! The stories may have been fine when we first wrote them, but time has aged them. Technology really has changed the world.

Erin Fanning said...

It's extremely hard to allow a manuscript to simply fade away and disappear into a drawer... I've had mixed experiences reworking an old manuscript--sometimes I'm reminded of why I put it away to begin with and sometimes I find a new way to bring it back to life (one of my old manuscripts is actually get published in a few months!).

S.P. Bowers said...

Great tips and suggestions. I have one manuscript I'd like to rewrite some day. It wasn't my first manuscript, but it was the first one I queried. I wasn't planning on doing it for a couple years but this gives me some idea of what to expect and will help me decide if it's worth it.

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dolorah said...

I wrote my first novel at 15. I pull it out and laugh at it once in a while. I still have hope for the second I started writing 30 years later. I think I'm still practicing being a writer.

Emily R. King said...

Those are great questions. Often I find I can answer almost all of them, but if I can't do everything needed, I should devote my time to a new story. Thanks, Lynda!

J.L. Campbell said...

HI, Lynda,
I did that with my first two novels. I wrote them before I knew what I was doing, which meant I had to revamp both of them to get them where I wanted them before I could publish.

G. B. Miller said...

I'm actually doing that right now. I've been basically on a search and destroy with all my old stories looking for one that will pique my muse's curiosity enough to take another crack on it. So far, I've found one that looks promising enough to pique her curiosity. I hope.

Father Nature's Corner

Sheena-kay Graham said...

I'm now thinking of the song from American Hustle 'Live or Let Die'. Either way you have a decision to make. Thanks for all the info Lynn and at the end of the day the decision needs to be one you are willing to go along with.

Toinette Thomas said...

Some pieces need to be let go, but sometimes it's the foundation or idea that deserves a chance to shine. I've rewritten stories before and have been happy with the result, but trying to fix a story that just isn't working, doesn't work. For me, I either start over or walk away. Great post.

Patsy said...

I do have a manuscript I'm about to take another look at. I still like the original idea, but I know it'll need big changes if it's to work.

Michelle Wallace said...

Great post, Lynda!
I haven't put a half-finished ms away... yet!

Chrys Fey said...

I've rewritten a whole series of novels because I couldn't my my story or characters die.

eclecticali said...

I have a few that I'm hanging onto that I intend to revisit -- and honestly both projects I'm working on now were, technically, "old manuscripts." It may be a bit different since none of my previous writing got very far along, as far as having an ending, or even a completed plot, so I suppose they are more like works-in-progress that I'm resurrecting.
I do have one or two that are completed, and someday I might take then to revise and rewrite -- but I view it as a complete overhaul, I would be drawing inspiration from the previous material, but it would be a completely new writing.

Mark Noce said...

I've definitely ressurect old manuscripts, but the key for me is to come at it from a new angle each time, i.e. the same universe, but maybe come in earlier or later in the timeline of what I wrote in the last piece. Not sure it's working yet, but I try:)

Lynda R Young said...

Sometimes those early manuscripts are great to dust off for that reason alone--to laugh at them and realise how far we've come as writers.

Lynda R Young said...

Yep, some stories just can't be fixed.

Lynda R Young said...

It's all in the trying. And I'm a firm believer that no writing is wasted writing.

Victoria Marie Lees said...

Like you said, Lynda, you need to decide if it is only the premise that is resurrectable. I took a well-loved manuscript, performed open-heart surgery in it, left it on life support for about six months...and then sold it to Cricket Magazine, the literary magazine for young adults. My first fiction sale. But there are many more stories that I don't even know how to begin to resurrect them. You must first determine if the idea is truly unique and workable. But you are correct. It takes much time and patience. Thanks for sharing this with your readers.

Sharon Marie Himsl said...

Yes, I'm hopelessly devoted to mine, but I've had to be brutal in the revision. I cut out one character, then later resurrected her, when I finally understood her role. And so much has been rewritten. What hasn't change is the heart of the story, so happy about that.