Opening an old manuscript feels a bit like glancing at your own diary. There are things in there you’d forgotten about that you’re delighted to see again, but that’s probably outweighed by the blushing and embarrassment.
We grow as writers over time and our skills develop by small measures, something we don’t notice in the day to day, but are readily apparent when we look at a manuscript from years (or even months) ago.
People are often surprised when I tell them that The Female of the Species is the first book I ever wrote. It was, but the version that I banged out in my college dorm room in 1999 has absolutely nothing in common with the manuscript that sold fifteen years later, apart from the title and a few character names.
That manuscript went through multiple revisions in the intervening years, some with me laboring over already existing pages, and two entirely from scratch. Yet it wasn’t until 2014 that I considered opening it again and taking another crack. Once more, I glanced through a few pages and knew there was nothing salvageable.
File> New Document, here I come.
It is intimidating, definitely. I had hundreds of pages of existing words that had been revised multiple times. They served their own purpose on the journey towards creating the publishable manuscript, but those words were more like speed bumps on that highway. If I chose that route I’d have to hit every single one of them, consider it, rephrase it, re-work it, or – yes – delete it and rewrite it with my newly acquired skill set before I could move on to the next paragraph and begin the analysis anew.
It’s slow work, and hard.
I didn’t even consider this approach when re-drafting The Female of the Species because of a single element.
In itself, voice is a tricky element of a manuscript, one that is ephemeral and hard to describe, even for the author. The original version of The Female of the Species was an adult thriller, not a YA. I knew that the whole thing needed to be scrapped in order to change the voice so that it was appropriate for the age category, and that’s something that’s very difficult – I would almost argue impossible – to insert through a line-by-line breakdown.
Here are some things to consider when you’re trying to decide whether to revise that old manuscript, or start fresh with the concept.
- Voice – as I said before, voice is embedded in the manuscript, and trying to force it into each line through a broken and slow process can be extremely difficult. If you’re going for a new voice on this revision, I’d recommend a fresh start.
- Characters – who are these people? Did you think your female was hilarious a few years ago, but now you find her annoying and sarcastic? You’ve probably changed as a person, and the lens you’re looking at through her now is adjusted. Is she way off from what you were trying to portray, or can you take that edge off her by adjusting some dialogue?
- Setting – This is one of the hardest things (in my opinion) that a new writer struggles with. Is place important to what you were writing, or is it a story that could happen just about anywhere? If you took a whack at writing something deeply connected to a physical location as a young writer, take a look and see if you played that hand a little too heavily – or too light – and consider whether or not the struggle of drawing those connections can be inserted between the lines, or if you need to start fresh.
- Dialogue & Tech – Does it talk like a human? Great! Or maybe it talks like a human stuck in the 90s? If your book is heavy with pop culture references or depends on technology for plot twists, definitely do a serious consideration of whether or not it’s something that you can scrub, or if the simple presence of a cell phone makes your entire plot pointless.
Don’t be afraid to mix and match. You may have huge swaths of pages that only need a little tweaking, and then a really bad run of a hundred or so that have got to go. That’s fine. Always save multiple copies of your work, with titles that tell you exactly what it is so that you don’t have to go digging through files to find that one working version of your novel where the paranormal angle stayed in.
Also, don’t assume that seasoned writers have it all figured out. I started a new manuscript this week and currently have six different operating versions while I try to figure out POV, tense, and where the story is going to begin.
Lastly, as always, once you’ve got something you think might be workable, find a reader. Critique partners are how you improve. Find one that won’t be afraid to tell you that using AIM to have your teens talk to each other isn’t viable anymore.