Are old manuscripts gathering dust in your archives?
by Ruth Harris.
Every writer has (at least) one and probably more. They’re the old manuscripts we—most certainly including Anne and me—started but didn’t finish or did finish but somehow went off track. They’re our false starts, our duds and misfires, our first novels, our practice novels, our orphans, our cast-offs.
Abandoned, neglected, shunted aside, started but never finished, they’re the old manuscripts collecting dust somewhere in the distant reaches of our hard drives.
They also include books we finished that were never published, or else were published so badly they never found their audience.
1. Books we finished but…
- There’s the perfectly good book that was rejected by publishers. My post on rejection lays out the reasons why publishable manuscripts get turned down.
- Rejected by the agent who was once upon a time so enthusiastic.
- Turned down by the editor who “loved” it—but not enough to make an offer.
- Ghosted—agents or publishers never even bothered to send a rejection note.
- Dumped—the option book your publisher turned down.
- Published? Technically, yes, but your publisher kept it a deep, dark secret. No ads, no promo, the book ended up spine out on a bottom shelf next to the utility closet on the second floor at Barnes & Noble.
- Published! But. Wrong cover. Lousy title. Your publisher put a steam punk cover on your tender coming-of-age story and/or titled your hot, steamy romance Really Boring, Don’t Read. (In tiny, illegible font). What!? You think stuff like this doesn’t happen????
2. Books we started but didn’t finish.
We had reasons for abandoning the old manuscripts:
- The brilliant idea that turned out to be not so brilliant.
- The plot that meandered into a vast swamp of dead ends.
- And speaking of swamps, what about unused or underused settings? The haunted house that doesn’t scare anyone. The gold-plated McMansion whose status-conscious occupants never feel the sting of envy or confront the threat of Losing It All. The pleasant-on-the-surface small town that doesn’t harbor deep, dark secrets. Really?
- Poorly conceived or ineptly drawn characters. Arc? What arc? Noah’s arc? They’re unmotivated and so were you.
- Villains so horribly, vomitously, irredeemably, slime-drippingly evil even a four-year-old would just giggle.
- Protags so goody-goody the unwary reader risks diabetic shock.
- Turgid info dumps that bored even us because we didn’t know how to skillfully handle backstory.
- We lost our focus when we had a bigger, better, more fabulous idea and couldn’t resist the lure of the bright, shiny object of our new desire.
3. Not all value can be counted in dollars and cents.
Everything we write has value even if in our darkest moods we don’t think so. For writers, creative value counts as does the value accrued from experience, even the efforts that seemed to fail.
To use a sports analogy, think of your old manuscripts as bench players, ready to come in to save the day or relief pitchers who can save the game.
Or, to use a banking analogy, old manuscripts are a savings account of ideas/characters/plots from which we can draw.
To venture into real estate-speak, they’re fixer-uppers.
They’re the books we wrote when we still needed training wheels (but didn’t know it). Anne points the way to writing a publishable first novel.
4. A well-executed rescue mission of old manuscripts can turn a fizzle into sizzle.
Lots of times our false starts are not (nearly) as bad as we think.
If they’re kinda, sorta halfway there, we can perform makeover magic without too much anguish.
If your book was published into the wasteland of remaindered books, you can (and should) revert the rights and take over the publishing chores yourself.
Even if our early tries actually do stink on ice, no need to abandon all hope. We can certainly learn from them and even “borrow”—let’s be honest here, steal—from them.
- A half-forgotten character here, an ancient plot twist there, can be just what you need right now today to bust a block, shore up a floundering middle or transform a nothingburger ending.
- The plot twist that fell flat on first attempt can be corrected when viewed from different perspective the second time around.
- A clichéd villain/hero/sidekick might need just a few tweaks.
- The genre-confused plot. Half horror, half romance? (Not that that ever happens in real life. Oy.) Seriously, think like a pro and revise/rewrite with the relevant genre tropes in mind.
- Delete clichés along with the spongy, weasely, weak words that don’t get to the point, the ones that aren’t crisp and precise, the ones that drag out a description without adding anything except length or indicate an emotion without bringing it to life.
- Eliminate everything that doesn’t advance your story, define your characters or make optimum use of the setting. See if the resulting clarity doesn’t vastly improve your book. TIP: Duplicate your document (or in Scrivener, take a snapshot) before you embark on major surgery just in case you get too enthusiastic.
- Sharpen dialogue. Just as you leave out the um’s and ah’s of real life, leave out chitchat about the weather, the local gossip, the “warming up” before you get to the point.
5. Calling Dr. Kildare.
Don’t give up on books that went off track/ended in a ditch. Let them rest for a month—or a year if needed. Revisit earlier work with a clear eye and analyze flaws. Since you’ve upped your game in the intervening time (you have, haven’t you????), you’ve now have tools to correct the flaws of the past.
- Maybe the book really starts on Chapter Three. Happens. Anne and Ruth both chimed in on first chapters.
- Bad opener. Maybe you need to come up with a kick ass first line.
- A saggy middle? Here are some good ideas for the needed fix.
- A blah or confused or are-you-effing-kidding-me? ending can be sharpened, tightened, expanded or otherwise shaped up.
- Good guys who are too good and bad guys who are too bad. (Yes, it’s possible.) Characters require shades of grey to be believable.
- Too many sub-plots? The ones that go nowhere, wander off and disappear or result in a dead end? Decide if they should be combined and streamlined or even done away with.
- Too many characters? Do they get in each other’s way? Do they perform the same function in your book? Cut and combine is the answer.
- Plot holes and pot holes? Ruth’s post on plot holes can get you moving again.
- Wrong length? Maybe what looks like a shapeless mess is not a novel but a short story or a novella. Short is in. Mara Purl’s post on novellas, novelettes, and serial fiction lays out the details. And Paul Alan Fahey tells how to write a novella in a step-by-step guide.
- Blah, blah, blah. The boring, go-nowhere hi-how-are-you dialogue dump. Anne praises the value of indirect dialogue and how and when to use it.
You know, the usual suspects. ID them. Hunt them down. Fix them. There’s plenty of help out there.
6. The book doesn’t work and you still can’t figure out why.
Now what? Don’t despair and don’t give up. At least not yet.
- Write a synopsis. Boiling the book down to essentials can help provide a clearer path to problem-solving. Anne’s hacks will help.
- Try a reverse outline for organization and clarity and to uncover plotting oopsies.
- Write the blurb. A focus on the sizzle might lead the way to figuring out if the book you meant to write is actually the book you did write.
- First person or third? Perhaps the story needs to be told from a different POV than the one you originally chose.
- Review your earlier drafts. Sometimes an earlier draft is better than the one you worked so hard to “improve.” I’m not kidding. Happened to me last week. Here’s where Scrivener’s snapshot function makes the job easier and will also even let you compare drafts.
- Read bestsellers in your genre. The way other authors solved the issues you might be facing can nudge you in the right direction when you are lost.
- Read blogs. Read books about craft. Other writers are your best friends.
- Sometimes…though, when you’ve tried everything and nothing works, when you’re spinning your wheels and getting nowhere, giving up is the best revenge. Anne tells when and why abandoning a WiP is the right choice.
The end of July marks the seventh year since I joined Anne’s blog. She’s put up with me so far and, for my part, I’ve enjoyed every moment working with her.
More important, both of us love and appreciate our wonderful readers and the savvy commenters who’ve cheered us on—and kept us on our toes.
Can’t you hear the pop of the champagne we just opened to toast your indispensable contributions? The blog wouldn’t be the warm, friendly place it is without you! 🙂
by Ruth Harris (@RuthHarrisBooks) July 29, 2018
What about you, scriveners? Do you have any musty old manuscripts languishing in your archives? When was the last time you dusted one off and looked at it with new eyes? How about old books that were rejected again and again? Ever think they might not be as bad as you thought? Maybe their time hadn’t come? Have you ever revived an abandoned book?
Meanwhile Anne is poisoning people again over at her book blog. She’s examining sleeping pills as a murder weapon. Turns out they don’t work as well as they used to. Sleeping Pills: Poisoning People for Fun and Profit #36.
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ARTS AND LETTERS UNCLASSIFIABLES CONTEST Have a piece that doesn’t fit in a genre? Or it’s not quite poetry OR prose? This the contest for you! $8 ENTRY FEE. This contest is for unclassifiable works: works that blur, bend, blend, erase, or obliterate genre and other labels. Works of up to 5,000 words considered. $500 prize. Deadline July 31, 2018.
ORISON BOOKS ANTHOLOGY $15 ENTRY FEE. They’re looking for spiritual/literary poetry, fiction and essays for their next anthology. $500 cash prize as well as publication in The Orison Anthology. Submit up to three poems, one work of fiction or nonfiction up to 8,000 words. Deadline August 1, 2018
UNO PRESS PUBLISHING LAB PRIZE For book-length fiction. Any genre. $18 ENTRY FEE. The University of New Orleans Press is looking for full-length fiction manuscripts, either novels or short story collections, for the fourth annual Publishing Lab Prize. The selected author will receive a $1,000 advance on royalties and a contract to publish their winning manuscript with UNO Press. Deadline August 15, 2018.
Stories That Need to be Told Contest from Tulip Tree press. $20 entry fee.. $1,000 prize for a poem, a short story, or an essay that “tells a story.” Also publication in the anthology, Stories That Need to Be Told. Up to 10,000 words. Categories: Passion, Depth, Humor, Love. Deadline August 26.
Glimmer Train Fiction Open. $3000 prize for a short story. Second prize $1000. Entry fee $21. Any subject or theme. From 3000 to 20,000 words Deadline August 31
13 Imprints of Big 5 publishers who take unagented submissions. From the good people at Authors Publish Magazine.
48 Small Presses looking for children’s books. Collated and vetted by Authors Publish magazine. (Great resource!)