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.
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.
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.