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?