Monday, August 27, 2018

3 Ways to Tell if a Manuscript Is Worth Going Back to

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Some trunk novels really are worth going back to. The trick is identifying the salvageable ones.

The other day I read a post about why you should pull out the manuscript under your bed. It resonated with me, because earlier this year I returned to an old manuscript that had been poking at my brain for a month. It was a book I’d written almost eight years ago, revised a few times, gotten mixed and lukewarm feedback on, and had figured was an idea that just wasn’t ever going to work.

Yet I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

What triggered my desire to return to it, was an out-of-the-blue idea on how to make the premise I loved finally work—a prologue of all things. But it fit this particular book, and when I reread my earlier pages, I realized it had never been as bad as I’d thought. It had just been missing a few key elements.

Jump ahead eight months, and that manuscript is now with my agent. It needs a few more passes before it’ll be ready to submit to editors, but I was able to finish it and I’m quite happy with how it’s turning out. A manuscript I always feared was dead, wasn’t.

So what made this trunk novel different?

I was ready to write the book the way it needed to be written. When I first began this novel ten years ago, I didn’t have the necessary skills for this particular book. I was plot-focused writer, and this story required much stronger character skills than I possess at that time. But after a decade of study and practice, I was finally able to write the story I loved.

This happy ending won’t hold true for all manuscripts left behind, and I have several others I wouldn’t even attempt to try to resuscitate. But this book was different, because it wasn’t so much about the book’s failure, but my shortcomings as a writer at that time.

Should you revive an old manuscript?

If you have an old draft you keep thinking about, it’s worth taking a few minutes to consider if it’s worth going back to. Some things to ask:

1. Why did you stop working on it?

This is key for a left-behind manuscript. Not every idea is a good one, and some books just aren’t going to work no matter what we do. You may have abandoned it for a very good reason.

Was it a conflict issue? At the core, if the conflict isn’t strong the book probably won’t work. While some conflicts can be made stronger, a deep inherent flaw will likely never be overcome.

Were the characters weak? Sometimes we dive into a story before figuring out whose story it is. Identify this, and the story could suddenly work.

Was the idea boring? Ideas that seem exciting at first can run out of steam and stall. They might not play out the way we expected, or maybe they didn’t provide enough story to fill a whole book. We might also have grown as a writer or widened our knowledge of the genre and realized that “great idea” has actually been done to death.

Was it a technical issue? We all develop our skills at different paces in different areas, so it’s possible the skill you needed to write the book wasn’t there. If you’ve improved in that area, you might spot the problems immediately and see solutions you’d never considered before.

Was it personal? Life gets in the way sometimes, and that can sap our creative energy and focus. Maybe the novel was fine the entire time, but you were just in a bad place or needed a break that had nothing to do with writing.

Should you go back to it? If the reason you stopped is fixable, and the fix is something you want to write, yes. But if you still can’t see how to solve the original issues, let it stay in the trunk.

(Here’s more on being your own book doctor)

2. What about the idea intrigues you?

A manuscript worth a second chance is one that still makes you want to write it even after a lot of time has passed. It nags at you, pops into your head at weird times, or whenever you see something even vaguely similar, it brings back that desire to write it again.

Does the idea still appeal to you? Still loving the idea is vital to revitalizing an old manuscript, because if you’re only finishing it because it was done, or nearly done, or you don’t want to “waste it,” odds are it still won’t go anywhere.

Is the idea still relatively fresh? While there are no truly original ideas anymore, if your old manuscript is about a boy at wizard school or a girl who fights for her life in some type of reality entertainment, or anything that’s too close to a trend or concept that’s been copied dozens of times—maybe it’s better to let that one stay in the drawer. Unless…you’ve come up with a fresh take on that idea.

Should you go back to it? If you still love the idea and can’t stop thinking about it, yes. But if you merely like it, or can name a slew of books similar to it off the top of your head, it’s probably best to move on.

(Here’s more on the difference between idea, premise, plot, and story)

3. What would you do differently this time?

Be objective. If it didn’t work then, it won’t work now unless something has changed with you and your writing. You should be able to see where you went wrong and have a clear idea on how to fix it, otherwise you run a big risk of making the same mistakes again.

Does it fix what went wrong? Before you dive in and spend who knows how long just to wind up in the same spot, try outlining or summarizing the new direction. Does it fix the original problems?

Is the draft salvageable or do you need to start over? Reworking an old draft that didn’t work risks turning it into a Frankendraft (pieces of novel sewed together to form a plot, but it really doesn’t fit), so consider how you want to proceed carefully. Starting over can seem like more work, but not if it takes you three times longer to revise what’s there.

Should you go back to it? If you have a solid revision plan with a new direction, yes. But if you aren’t sure what to do and hope it’ll come to you as you write, it might be better to let it simmer a while longer.

(Here’s more on the difference between a revision, a rewrite, and a redraft)

Old manuscripts don’t have to wither and die if the reasons you stopped working on them have changed. If one is asking for a second chance, maybe it’s worth giving it another look. You might be ready to write it now.

Have you ever given an abandoned manuscript another chance? Do you have novels in the trunk you might go back to one day?

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A strong story has many parts, and when one breaks down, the whole book can fail. Make sure your story is the best it can be to keep your readers hooked.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft Omnibus offers eleven self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
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Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft Omnibus starts every workshop with an analysis and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. This easy-to-follow guide will help you revise your manuscript and craft a strong finished draft that will keep readers hooked. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Thanks for this list! It seems like it could also be handy for writers trying to decide if they SHOULD trunk their WIP...

  2. Thank you for this, I have a story that was half way through when I put it away. It keeps coming back to haunt me. Your comment about characters and the ability to write strong characters resonated with me and I realise that's what's missing for this story. I hope I can now do the characters justice and I'm heartened to begin the story again rather than rescue what is there. Thanks again for getting in my head, which you do with great regularity.

    1. Oh good! I hope your "second chance" manuscript works as well as mine did :)

  3. I have a trunk novel that I finished and submitted to several publishing houses a number of years ago that has been popping up in my head lately. I'm not quite ready to pull it back out, but maybe one of these days... The problem with it isn't the plot or characters. Both are sound (and still make me proud when I remember them). The book does have some pacing issues, but the biggest problem is that my world-building consisted of me throwing in every cool-sounding idea in that I could think of, without asking myself if they actually made sense. (Sigh.)

    1. Not too terrible, though. Maybe throw out all the world building and start over? If the plot and characters are working, recreating a new world shouldn't be too hard.

  4. Actually I have some novels written a few decades ago. 5 of them could be revived and improved into publishing, because the idea was interesting and the basic conflict was good. It got strengthened, the characters got deepened in the process of polishing the initial first draft, the logic and plot holes had been mended (I guarrantee that my logic at 16 or at 18 wasn't my late 40s one) and the writers appreciated them.

    I have others which aren't salvageable, though. But what I want to do some day when I have more time is to re-read them with a different purpose: to see which scenes and action pieces might work in a different setting (adapted, of course) and not let them to waste when they can give an interesting twist or flavour to a different story. It is possible.

    For example, from one of my novellas which can't make it as such, I can take several scenes to make them short stories in a themed short stories collection (adding other new ones too).

    1. That's a great idea for recycling your writing. Let me know how it works out! You might have to come on the site and talk abut your process and how you did it. :)

    2. I will, after some months :)

  5. Frankendraft! I love that. Well, I actually don't LOVE it but I totally get it. Thanks for this post. Made me think. :)