Bringing Up the Bodies: On resurrecting dead manuscripts

Every writer who’s been writing for a while has a dead manuscript stuffed away somewhere.

Be it a bottom drawer, bottom shelf, back of a closet, or in digital form in some dark oubliette on one’s hard drive, it’s something of a rite of passage for a writer to discover his/her novel (usually the first one) is an irredeemable mess, and for him/her to give it the axe.

But how many of those whacked novels refuse to go quietly into that good night? How many writers end up haunted by the ghost of what could have been – what still can be now that they’re stronger wordsmiths who have loved, lost, and learned the error of their once novice ways?

And for those who have had this experience, how many actually give into it and take another crack, as it were, at the title?

I’m seriously considering doing just that.

Journey of 1000 miles

Forget the fact that I’ve yet to finish my work-in-progress. All my writing projects seem to begin their lives as thought projects already well in mind before I’ve completed my current story.

Indeed, I was hard at work on my shelved novel when the desire for my WIP was born, so the reverse now occurring seems rather appropriate.

The SilmarillionMy first novel was a true labour of love, as all novels are, and first novels are in particular through being the one in which a writer first discovers s/he has something to say at length.

This novel was a work of epic fantasy, largely inspired by the polytheism of Ancient Greece, the TV show Xena Warrior Princess, and the works of J.R.R. Tolkien – Lord of the Rings a bit, but especially The Silmarillion, his epic bible of Middle Earth’s history, which remains one of my favourite fantasy novels of all time.

I worked on my novel for three years (2002-2005) while attending university, clocking a good portion of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours and Stephen King’s one million words to writing mastery.

No word of lie, I wrote 960 manuscript pages, and was still one page and one chapter away from completion when I quit.

Oh, and that was just the first book in what was meant to be a trilogy.

Clearly, this story had a few problems.

If at first you don’t succeed

I’ve been asking myself what it would take to re-create the story into something workable.

For one, there’s the question of genre. Although the story is currently fantasy, I’ve been considering converting it to historical fiction just like I did with my WIP, as this would keep me consistent with my brand.

(Did I seriously just use the words “brand” and “my” in the same sentence?)

However, unlike my WIP, this story doesn’t lend itself to that as easily, for the story world wasn’t conceived of using history as a guide.

As inspired by The Silmarillion, I devised my story world by writing a 20-page outline of its history, starting with its creation by the gods and spanning every dynastic event right up to the beginning of the novel.

I also wrote 18 poems meant to serve as various cultural songs, Masses, and celebratory chants. I even created a tiny bit of a language to help me create realistic and consistent-sounding place names.

I had a lot of fun doing all that.

But I’ll have to let some or most of it go to convert to story to historical fiction. Not to mention learn about the historical era is question, which I’m thinking would be either Ancient Greece (hence some of my influences), Ancient Rome, or the transition from the former to the latter.

To fix this story, I’ll also have to re-envision a large portion of the plot. For although the premise and backstory are good, I can’t deny at least part of the front story conveys a definite lack of sophistication in my 12-years-younger self.

Turn and face the stranger

Changing the genre and plot are easy decisions to make. A harder one I’ve waffled on is whether I want to retread all 960 pages.

On one hand, it would be great to relive the inspiration and joy I felt while writing this novel the first time. That was a wonderful time in my life – the moment I first felt confident enough to just call myself a writer (rather than “aspiring” writer), and to spend significant amounts of time indulging in the fruits of my imagination.

However, fear of getting hung up on what already exists within my dead manuscript instead of what will make it better makes me think I shouldn’t reread all those pages.

Cringe factor: through the roof.

Plus, think of how long reading 960 pages would take?

Plus, the cringe factor is sure to be through the roof.

Still, I did recently reread one scene, just to see. I held my breath the entire time, read with one eye shut, and angled my body as far from my laptop as possible.

But, you know what? Although the events dripped with hero worship of all my artistic influences, the writing – the actual assembly of words on the screen – wasn’t all that bad.

Currently, I’m rebuilding the novel’s outline as new ideas occur to me, and am willing to reread any key scene meant to be reprised in version 2.0. Over the summer, I plan to research Ancient Greece and Rome in search of a corner of history where my little story can fit.

I’m really excited to work on this novel again soon, and to this time craft the story I always wanted to tell in a new and improved version I can feel proud of.

Have you resurrected any dead manuscripts? If yes, was it easy or challenging? If no, are any of your dead novels calling to you? Let me know in the comments.

(Image source #1, #2, and #3)

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13 thoughts on “Bringing Up the Bodies: On resurrecting dead manuscripts

  1. I spent seventeen years working and reworking on my first novel (whilst writing others). It simply refused to become a forgotten manuscript.
    During those years, I rewrote the novel from first person to third, then it rewrote again to eliminate the plot holes, added more stuff, changed other things, then … broke the monster story into four.
    When I look back on the older copies I have kicking around the house, I do cringe. A lot. It’s bad. Horribly bad. And huge chunks made very little sense. And I’m still working on getting the last book up to the same quality as the rest.
    The way I see it, if I can hammer that mess into a publishable piece, nothing is beyond redemption.

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    • Wow! Seventeen years is a long time – it must be a story that’s very close to your heart that contains something very important that you have to say to the world. I really hope you’re able to make it work. You’ll be my inspiration.

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  2. I’m torn about you changing it from fantasy to historical (as if i had a stake in it!). You clearly view historical as your brand (which today’s social media-savvy writer must have before she even writes a word of fiction, sadly) and would probably have more passion for it that way, but I wonder how your back story would fit if you are eliminating the fantasy element. Either way, I’m quite intrigued by the classical ancient world and look forward to seeing what you come up with. Particularly Greece. No doubt I’ve bored you about my obsession with architecture already.

    I composed two manuscripts prior to my WiP, one in 2008-09 and the other in 2009-10. The first one could probably be reworked into an OK TV movie if I really wanted to add two hours of forgettable fluff to The Lifetime Network’s massive oeuvre of unnecessary made-for-cable romantic suspense flicks. The second actually turned out pretty well… fast paced, lots of twists, fun characters… but I committed a fatal flaw of not putting the heroine in danger. All the bad shit was happening to the people around her, and I didn’t turn her into an amateur detective, so why was she the main character? I actually had two sequels planned and was working on one as I queried the first. In my humble opinion, my second manuscript could be reworked successfully with about 35-40% rewrite. It had a lot of good stuff in it, but I lost my mojo after all the rejections (two requests for partials). And, as you discussed above, that’s not my “brand” anymore. In 2011 I had my epiphany (courtesy of my friend Lauren) that I was meant to write speculative fiction all along.

    And, for at least the twentieth time, your comments section is All About Eric.

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    • It won’t be a total loss making the change from fantasy to historical. All the characters will retain their individual back stories, and I’m totally willing to incorporate whatever fantasy-ish elements of the world will work within a historical context like I’ve done with my WIP (probably not the poems though, for I can admit they’re a little self-indulgent).

      It will be a fun challenge to learn about Ancient Greece and search for the gap in history where my story can fit. It was immensely satisfying when that happened with my current novel. I’m guessing that’s something all historical fiction writers experience. And who knows – maybe there’s a trip to Greece somewhere in my future.

      As for you, Mr. All About Eric – well, I did ask. Maybe your second dead manuscript could be rewritten into something speculative. Or maybe you can get your mojo back by killing someone off. Or bringing someone who’s dead back to life. This is the expert advice I’ve read for when you lose enthusiasm for your work. Maybe you could bring someone who’s dead back to life and that can be your speculative fiction angle.

      Or maybe you can just let the dead story rest in peace.

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      • I’ve actually thought of ditching the plot and reviving the characters in a sci-fi setting. The essential elements are a girl trying to make it in the big city against the wishes of her small-town family, her sidekick/best friend/foil, bitchy co-workers, and a serial killer (it’s a chick-lit/cop drama crossover/parody). There’s no reason I can’t take her out of New York City and put her on a Terra-formed Mars.

        Hmmm. This is going on a back burner while I finish my WiP. I don’t need any temptation.

        I’m not sure what is left of classical Greece to visit, but you’ll probably enjoy the beaches.

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  3. Janna you (and aldreaalien) possess remarkable dedication to your work. I simply can’t imagine having the time or energy to re-work an epic-length project time and again. Perfection I would not seek and in your position I would top, tail and publish. You have my total admiration.

    I have 24,000 words in the oubliette (great word) some of which you critiqued a while back. That is a story worth telling but it needs a fresh approach – I don’t know when.

    PS – Tolkien attended my old school in Birmingham (England) and the area influenced his work to some degree.

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    • I’m determined to get mine right the second time around, Roy. I don’t consider myself a perfectionist, but even if I did, my first attempt is so very far from perfect (so very far), it needs all the help it can get. It will be fun to return to that story, and I look forward to it in the near future. I hope you will feel the same way about your orphaned 24,000 words some day.

      That’s cool about Tolkien having attended your school. I’ve been the Birmingham, right after the riots in 2011. I was staying in a hotel at the edge of the city near the entertainment district where all the party kids would often stay the night. I turned up on the coach, having spent the past week backpacking. I looked quite out of place with my pack and hiking boots in amongst all the clubbers in sequins and silk shirts.

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      • Broad Street is the ‘night life’ spot and I’m guessing you’ll have stayed just outside there in Hagley Road which has many hotels. Our school (me and Tolkien’s) was in Hagley Road though it has closed now.

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  4. I have been working on Pride’s Children since 2001; I’m slow. I took time ‘off’ to write a play (great way to learn to handle a story with only dialogue and a few stage directions which the director would probably delete). And finish homeschooling. And getting the kids into and (mostly) out of college. And…

    The original idea hasn’t changed (much), but the skills have increased (yay!). Book 1 this Fall (God willin’ and the crick don’t rise).

    The one before that, the ‘trunk’ novel, is under consideration after that. Sometimes creating the world of a novel takes so much work that you just HAVE to save it. I think I know how – and I think I have the skills. Like you, I read a few scenes – and it isn’t half bad.

    The fun thing? It became a historical mystery in the interim – by accident – and I can see how to reinforce that. The Berlin wall came down, things changed. A prologue is going to be very short – and mirrored by an epilogue – but the possibilities are definitely there – and I already worked out good guys and murderer and deep dark secrets – what’s not to like?

    Good luck – think about the actual work of making major changes – but also think that you already know the core story. That part takes me quite a while to develop – because writing is slow, and I don’t want to waste it. If you love the story and your characters and most of your plot – go for it.

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    • Hi Alicia, thanks for the comment. I’m a slow writer too! It used to bother me a lot, but I’ve come to accept it.

      I think a lot of writers end up “trunking” their first novel(s) because writing is an “ooh, new shiny!” skill when we first decide to give it a try, we come up with the most expansive, convoluted ideas ever, but don’t yet have the chops to pull it off. I’m totally in favour of writers pulling out those would-be masterpieces again, if not to rework, than at least to read a little bit. They’re like time capsules to our hopes, dreams, and beliefs as artists when we started out. It’s like being a kid again! Good luck with all your writings. 🙂

      P.S. I’ve written one play in my life, while in high school. It had no dialogue at all, consisted entirely of stage directions, and was set to music. It was a hit when my friends and I performed it as part of our drama class final exam!

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      • But, but, but – the point of writing a play (as a grownup) is to hone your dialogue skills (or so I said in http://liebjabberings.wordpress.com/2012/11/16/for-better-dialogue-in-fiction-write-a-play/).

        What fun – I never got to do that kind of thing in college (I was in physics).

        You are correct: when you first write a novel, you are full of energy and ideas – then you find out how the execution takes some learning. It depends on how much of your heart and soul went into it, not the skill, whether it is worth resurrecting. It is always worth it – you had to start somewhere – to have written it. Which sounds obvious, but isn’t: most people who start a novel never finish it. MOST. It is a lot harder than you think to write something good – it is like walking into the street one day with your sneakers on – and deciding to run a marathon.

        I would have said that most trunk novels are too simple, but mine wasn’t and it sounds like yours wasn’t, either, so maybe I’m wrong. Sounds like a good blog question.

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