Shelved but Not Forgotten: The Power of Continuing Old Projects - Writer's Digest

Shelved but Not Forgotten: The Power of Continuing Old Projects

In this article, author E.L. Tenenbaum discusses the importance on not tossing a project that isn't quite working and explains why putting a project away for a while might be the key to success.
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The second manuscript I ever attempted to write has so far proved one of the hardest. They say many writers are subject to a “sophomore slump,” but I was steamrolling forward, working and reworking, editing and re-editing the manuscript, determined to get it right. I watched it slowly creep over the hundred-thousand-word mark, a little voice warning that there were so many words because most of them weren’t the right ones.

And yet, I couldn’t stop. I loved the story, the world, the characters, their motivations, the beginning, the end, each part so clear in my mind. Yet, something wasn’t working. Something was getting lost between imagination and notation.

My brother was my unofficial beta reader then, and with each new draft I sent him I was certain this was the one, even as I simultaneously prayed he wouldn’t tell me what I knew deep in my gut to be true.

The idea was good, the execution wasn’t.

Tenenbaum

Eventually, after hours and days and months of sanding and sawing and scraping, I had to accept the manuscript was about to become one “which shall not see the light of day.”

I buried it reluctantly and moved on to other stories.

Many of us have been there before. Clutching characters we care too much about to let go. Fighting to write the story that works better in our minds than on paper. We’ll spend innumerable hours reworking and retooling and reediting a manuscript only to finally, defiantly, confess that, though we can’t exactly pinpoint it, something’s not working.

As we’ve already spent way too much time on writing it, we refuse to thoroughly incinerate the story. Instead, we shelve it, bury it in a bottom drawer somewhere, and only remember its existence when reassuring other writers, “We’ve all been there. Let it go.”

However, just because a story’s been shelved doesn’t mean it should be entirely forgotten. Even if it isn’t coming out right just yet, if you love the premise and/or characters enough, then don’t give up on them completely. That bottom drawer doesn’t have to be a final resting place when it can be a waystation along your overall writing journey. As time passes, you may yet come its way again.

Fast forward a handful of years. I have a number of books in print by now and am rotating work on a handful more. I’ve so accepted that second manuscript’s “never see the light of day” status that I bring it up as an anecdote when I speak to students at schools. I’ve even mined the story for moments and characters I’ve somehow always kept close, one of which appears as a secondary but pivotal character in three of my five fairytale rewrites. Evidently, even decidedly shelved as the story was, I hadn’t quite given up on all of it.

More importantly, in the years since it’s “burial,” I worked at my craft, so my writing skills and understanding of storytelling have gradually improved. Week by week, month by month, I’ve eked out experience in word-smithery through always trying and never giving up.

Then, one unremarkable day, my mind wandered over to that second manuscript, the one that should have been forgotten but wasn’t. I looked both ways, then snuck it off the proverbial shelf, fingers leaving noticeable prints in the thick dust.

I allowed myself to admit that I still loved the story and the scenes and the characters I have left. Moreover, I think the premise still stands. Maybe, despite its status, there’s yet a story to be told.

I took out the scissors and cut until I wrangled the manuscript down to a manageable word range. Then I took a closer look at the setup. I enjoyed reimagining fairy tales well enough for my series, so perhaps my manuscript could use a little myth or fable to ground it? I picked something known but vague. I tested the structure. It held.

Next, I looked at the characters. First, there was a small but important one that needed to be replaced. Second, having written dozens since then, I knew these ones had to be more than what they’d originally been. I needed to blur the lines so their positions are sympathetic, but their actions frightening when they prod their moral boundaries. The male and female leads had to be forced from passivity to activity, each displaying unique abilities and powers so their combined strength is formidable, but so is each when standing alone.

As I worked, the story, the setting, the characters were no longer just clear in my mind, but alive.

I told my brother about these changes, and he nodded as I spoke, agreeing I may have finally found a way to tell my forget-me-not story. Except, he pointed out, the climactic scene was not enough.

So, I edited again, but no longer as an act of desperation to save a drowning story but with renewed vigor because I knew the words were going to be right this time. And these words created a manuscript that’s finally ready for querying.

Good thing I never cleared off that shelf.

What about your “never see daylight” pages? Maybe the characters you loved can find homes in new stories you’ll spin. Maybe the story you still fiercely believe in is waiting patiently for what the years apart have taught you. Break out the toolbox, sharpen your quill, unleash your imagination.

Does the magic still hold you? Does it finally work?

There’s a good chance the story always worked; it just needed a better writer to give it shape. Keep practicing, keep growing, keep honing your craft, so one day that better writer will be you.

Don’t give up on something you’ve loved but had to shelve. You may yet become the writer your story needs.

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