Monday, October 13, 2014

Tips for Revisiting a Shelved Manuscript

This week, I'm working on getting my manuscript back to my agent with edits. It was a lot harder to dust it off when I hadn't really looked at it in months. And since then, I've been working on a project with a completely different tone, POV, and tense, so it took a little adjustment!

I'm sure you've read about this topic before, but here's some advice I've collected about returning to a project after an absence, whether you're revisiting edits, restarting a project that had been shelved for another, or reviving something you once believed was dead. The process is different for everyone, but hopefully you'll find something that works for you. It's worth a try. I promise!

Step 1 (for me): Reread what I've already written like I'm reading a book by a different author. To get back into the "voice" of my story and be able to successfully pick up where I've left off, I reread what I've written as removed as possible for a few purposes. I see if there are any major elements like choppy flow or inconsistencies that need to be fixed later (not yet!), but I mainly do this to see if it provides inspiration for how to continue the story.

Write off-script. If something inspires a non-canonical scene between my characters that has nothing to do with the intended timeline of the story or events in the envisioned plot, I write it anyway. If it helps me get reacquainted with my characters, it's worth it. And most of the time, I discover fun new layers to them, which gives them more depth in the actual story. Rewriting a meaningful scene from a different character's POV can also have this effect.

Don't be afraid to start from scratch. Even though it can be agonizing to cut precious word count and can feel like the most dejecting, derailing thing you can do to lose steam on a project (is this only me?), I'd venture to say that it's almost always more advantageous and timely to start an ailing scene over from scratch than to try to fix an existing mess.

Remember that you've grown as a writer since you started this project. Honoring that in all of your decisions ensures you produce the best story you're capable of producing! This technically was supposed to go with the last point, but I think it's important enough to deserve its own section!


Since I'm a self-professed "recovering know-it-all", I thought I'd open the floor to advice from some of my experienced author friends on returning to a manuscript, including the benefits some distance can provide. It's rehabilitating for me and educational for you :) Here's what they had to say:

Brandy Vallance, award-winning author of The Covered Deep (Releasing TODAY!!):
I came back to The Covered Deep after a lot of time had passed, and I actually rewrote about 60% of it (I think that was draft six?). Try to get tension on every page. Always heighten your scenes--make them bigger, bolder, and raise the stakes. Bring in the five senses. Layer your plot. And always portray real emotions. 
Carla Laureano, RITA® Award-winning author of Five Days in Skye and Oath of the Brotherhood:
Stepping away from a manuscript allows me to approach the story from the outside, as a reader and not a writer. I deliberately build some ' shelf time' into my writing process because I find it makes me a clearer and more efficient editor. 
Nicole Deese, inspirational contemporary romance author of the Letting Go series and A Cliche Christmas:
When you're rereading, don't look at all the things you know you need to fix like all the improved craft techniques and flaws of early writing. Read at least three excerpts from each of your characters. Read high and low moments. Emotional moments. The black moment if you have one written. Fall back in love with your characters.
Jessica Keller, multi-published author of Searching for Home, the Goose Harbor Series, the TimeShifters series, and more. 
Time away from a manuscript that isn't working helps me because, when I come back, I can see the characters in a fresh way and spot plot issues right away. Weird thing here - I make music mixes for every manuscript. I'll walk away from writing and when I decide to come back to it (or am forced to for deadline), I listen to the music mix for a day or two before I start writing. It helps me get in the characters' mind frames and understand their emotions. For some reason I can always finish the book after that. 

Jaime Wright, historical romantic suspense author represented by Mary Keeley of Books & Such Literary:
Returning to a stalled or shelved manuscript can be like returning to an old friend. If you can see the potential of a continued relationship and growing along with each other, the renewed friendship doesn't seem nearly as daunting. (And a good cup of coffee always helps to bind you together.)
Amanda G. Stevens, author of Seek and Hide, Book 1 of the Haven Seekers series:
The key for me is to get back into the character's head. What is he thinking/feeling at the point I left off, what is his goal, and how far will he go to get it? Sometimes I'll get past the stall by hand-writing that next scene in first person, present tense in a notebook (my books are third person, past tense). That gives me an instant POV link. I let the character ramble as much as they want. Pretty much I just free-write until I'm no longer stuck. Then I'll go back, of course, and rewrite it to third/past. As an extension of the "character interview" process, I have asked a character, "What is wrong with you, _________? Why won't you do what I want?" And I write out the character's reasons for not cooperating with me. That often shows me what they DO want or what they WILL do after I check off numerous things they won't do. So from there, I just started writing the scene itself in first person and I got results way faster.
What are some of YOUR best tips for reviving an older project? Is there one in your life that keeps coming back to you?


Laurie Tomlinson is a wife and mom from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who enjoys stories of grace in the beautiful mess. She is a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers and received the Genesis Award in 2013 (Contemporary) and 2014 (Romance). Her work is represented by Rachel Kent of Books & Such Literary.

You can connect with Laurie here:

Twitter - @LaurieTomlinson


Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

This is brilliant, Laurie. You have listed so many great ideas for getting back into the story. I particularly like the one where you write in 1st person to find out why they do what they do. Great stuff here, girl!

kaybee said...

Laurie, this is timely for me. My crit partner has strongly suggested I revisit the first MS we did together (almost 20 years ago, sigh). She really thinks it has potential and in point of fact likes it better than anything I'm working on now, though I think her liking it is clouded by the passing years (when I wrote it I didn't know about GMC, MRU or Deep POV!). But I agree with her that there's still something there, so I'm planning to go back to it after I finish a couple of other projects. I really hope there's something worth salvaging.
I also like the idea of writing in first person.
Kathy Bailey
Rebooting in NH

Casey said...

Your last point was brilliant to me. I have set writing all together aside for the time being and when I happen to pick it back up or glance at it, I'm still going "really, I can't do anything with this!".

But I've changed and will continue to change on that front going forward. Thank you for the reminder, Laurie!

Pepper Basham said...

This is GOLD, Laurie! What great tips and encouragement for those of us who have ms waiting in the background.

And the quotes from others?? Wowzers! GREAT STUFF here!

It's so hopeful to think that second chances can not only be a part of the theme of our stories, but actually be our story! :-)

Laurie Tomlinson said...

@Sherrinda - I like to believe my friends are geniuses. :) That's why I asked for their help!

@Kathy - I know it sounds scary, but it will be fun. Don't give up on it! Sounds like you have some good support to encourage you along the way. That definitely helps when someone else believes in it.

@Casey - It's so true. Even the books you've read in the meantime have helped you grow as a writer! Can't wait to see where your writing goes.

@Pepper - This is a beautiful way to put it. Redemption in the writing process begets redemption in the story and changed lives :)

Rebecca Gomez said...

I like that time away helps me be objective. But opening an old manuscript in a word program might not be the best idea for me, because I could be tempted to edit little things before I give it a serious read-through. Saving it as a PDF and reading it on my iPad helps me keep editorial distance and just read as a reader. Though I do take notes for the big things!

Susanne Dietze said...

Great advice--and I really needed to hear it! I'm about to dive back into something that's been on the sidelines for several months. This post was so encouraging. Thank you!

Courtney Ballinger said...

Your tips are great. Last year, I had to start from scratch with a story I'd spent months writing. It HURT. But the revision was completely worth the time. :)

Laurie Tomlinson said...

@Rebecca - I'm glad you realize the importance of not editing as you go during that read-through! It's so crucial to maintain a big-picture outlook on it. Thank goodness for e-readers, right? :)

@Susanne - Good luck! You'll do great!

@Courtney - I have experienced that pain. And it might have saved you time in the long run. You never know!

candidkerry said...

Great and timely advice! Thanks for the post and shared advice from other authors.

I've been working on a new ms but I'm about to jump back into my first ms to rewrite the second half.

And I agree - it seems daunting rewriting an entire scene, but whenever I've done it, the redone scene ends up better.

Congrats on the Genesis win, too!