Monday, March 09, 2020

A Three-Step Plan for Returning to a Partially Finished Manuscript

salvaging half finished manuscripts, working on an old novel, writer's block
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Getting back to an old manuscript after a break is often harder than starting one anew.

Last week, I sent my new manuscript off to my agent (yay!). This was a bit trickier than usual, because I’ve been juggling two projects—revising this manuscript while drafting another. They’re completely different markets and genres (an adult science fiction and a middle grade fantasy) so there’s no cross-contamination of ideas or styles, but it did mean that after I received feedback on the adult novel, I had to give it most of my attention to meet my due date.

That left my poor little first draft languishing for two months while I revised the other manuscript. And after two months of ignoring it, it’s a little tough to just dive back in and start writing again.

Being away from a writing project for a while kills your momentum for that project.

I don’t love it any less, it’s just hard picking up where I left off and remembering what the heck the book was about and where I was going with it.

This isn’t the first time this has happened to me, so I know the drill. I have a process that reminds me what I was writing, why I wanted to write this novel, and where the story was going. It helps me regain my writing momentum and get up to speed on the novel.

Here’s my three-step process for returning to a manuscript you stopped working on:

1. Read the Entire Manuscript Again

Although it takes a little time, read what you’ve already written. This can be a much tougher step than you’d think, because you’re often eager to get back to a project and feel you’ve “lost time” by letting it sit. But this is a vital step because…

It’s hard to return to a manuscript when you can’t remember what you wrote.

You’ll remember parts, but the true flow and story are likely murky at best. You probably won’t remember every little foreshadowing detail or clue you sneaked in there, or all the subtle tweaks and nuances of the plot.

Re-reading it also lets you get back into the voice and style of the novel.

You’ll remember how each character sounds, what the tone of the story is, the pacing, the general flow of the plot. This is particularly useful if you’re like me, and spent your time away working on a different manuscript. You’ll be in “writer mode” for that novel, not this one.

There’s also a decent chance you’ll spot connections and ideas you hadn’t noticed while writing it.

A common writing tip is to let a manuscript sit a month or two before you start a revision. Going back to an older manuscript means you’ll spot things you wrote unconsciously and spark new ideas based on what you wrote—not what you thought you wrote.

(Here’s more on 5 Ways to Restart Your Writing After a Break)

2. Review and Update the Outline Past Where You Stopped Writing (Pansters can skip this)

Not everyone outlines, but if you do, updating and outlining what comes next helps you get back into the story and plot without “writing” the text. It’s a nice warm up, since you’re using part of your writer’s brain, but in a safe way that won’t result in pages of mediocre text because you haven’t regained your stride for this novel yet.

Remind yourself where the story was going.

Once you start outlining, it’s much easier to keep that momentum going and sketch out the next few scenes or even the rest of the book if you want. You get to see the big picture and focus on what you want to do now that you’ve read the actual draft again.

It’s not uncommon for new ideas and the general organic nature of writing to result in a slightly different plot than the original outline. The story is the same, but how it unfolds might be different.

(Here’s more on Clarifying Thoughts: Revising Your Outlines to Make the Writing Easier)

3. Revise Three Chapters Prior to Where You Stopped Writing

For some writers, reading and updating the outline will be enough to get them ready to write again, but I always need a little hands-on work before I can craft strong, new material. I’ll go back three chapters and edit. This is extremely useful, because it lets you “write” without the pressure of writing something new.

Revising existing text helps get your writing momentum back.

It puts you back into the story and gets you thinking about how the words go together, how the plot unfolds, how the characters interact. Tweaking the existing text also feels like progress, so you’re being productive even if you aren’t writing a new scene. It satisfies the “I need to get back to work on this now!” urge, while giving you time to prepare yourself to actually write good scenes.

By the time you get to the end of those chapters, you’re back in the zone and the next chapter picks up where you left off.

(Here’s more on So Where Were We Again? Salvaging Half-Finished Manuscripts)

Getting back into a half-finished manuscript is rarely easy, but it doesn’t have to be a daunting experience. Taking a few days or weeks to regain your writing momentum might feel like wasted time, but it gives you the time you need to get back in the writing groove. And you’re usually more productive than if you skipped that step.

How do you re-gain momentum on a manuscript that’s been sitting for a while?

Need help revising? Get all three Fixing Your Revision Problems books in one omnibus!

This book contains Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View ProblemsFixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems, and Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems--PLUS a BONUS workshop: How to Salvage Half-Finished Manuscripts.

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:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Create unpredictable plots that keep readers guessing
  • Develop compelling hooks to build tension in every scene
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
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 ShifterBlue 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 comment:

  1. Thanks Janice, this article came at the Absolute Perfect Time. Now ready to send off a completed manuscript to an agent this week, I pulled out a 36,000-word WIP which I haven't looked at for many years. I agree that revising the first few chapters really gets you back into the swing of things and re-ignites the passion and enthusiasm. So excited to get back to it. Thanks for your great advice.