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Resurrect a Forgotten Manuscript

Sometimes timing really is everything. Here’s why—and how—the key to moving ahead with your writing might just be to look behind you.

Have you considered that your next big book idea might be one you’ve already had? In fact, you might have had it years ago. There seems to be a negative attitude toward something that hasn’t fully manifested yet that I think is out of place. You can’t do everything all at once; time may be long but it is not all that wide. When I finished my last book, I went to my editor with four old projects in various stages of noncompletion—set aside, but not forgotten. And guess what? My editor deemed every one of them workable.

This guest post is by Stuart Horwitz . Horwitz is the author of Book Architecture: How to Plot and Outline Without Using a Formula and the founder and principal of the editorial firm Book Architecture.

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Is it time to dive back in?

Writing is an intuitive business. It may be glib to say that good books write themselves, but there should at least be a push and a pull with your material. Strong concepts give you ideas for taking them further: I want to read this book for research, I can see this scene being set there, etc.

Writers tend to fall into two camps: Those who renew their energies by having multiple irons in the fire, and those who can’t even do research on a second project while deep at work on the first one. If you’re in the latter group (as I am), then you’re pretty much forced to suspend work on every project idea you have aside from the one in front of you. For you, timing really is everything. Trust your gut. Look for signs. Walk into a bookstore and see what draws your attention. What is calling to you right now? You’ll need that call to make it to The End.

How do I assess where I left things?

In my case, as I weighed my options with those four previously abandoned projects, the one I decided to resurrect was a Franz Kafka–inspired play. I admit it was with a little trepidation that I went up to the attic to retrieve my notes. I’d started playing with the concept way back in 2001, in one of those periods of creative explosion where I just couldn’t get the thoughts down fast enough. Way back then, it felt like the right time for the outburst of characters, plot points, even snippets of dialogue—but then it was time to move, build a house, adopt a kid, write one book on writing and then a second one. … This is starting to sound like a cocktail party update for the friend you haven’t seen in a decade.

Thank goodness I never throw anything writing-related away (and you shouldn’t either). In retrieving my collection of notes, I was happy to discover that I really had in my possession a first draft of sorts. Some people might disagree, but I think there are really only three drafts:

  • First Draft: Material generated during the initial period of conception, whether a 50,000-word NaNoWriMo draft or a 100-page outline.
  • Second Draft: The next iteration of the project, with a beginning, middle and end.
  • Third Draft: The revision when you prepare for the final battle with your punch list in hand and resolve not to mess up anything that is already good.

Whether or not these distinctions work for you, I think they’re a useful diagnostic in turning back to a forgotten manuscript, because you need to meet your material where it is. If you find yourself looking at it and thinking, Why aren’t you finished already?—you won’t end up having much fun.

Where do I go from here?

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As a book coach, I’ve worked with clients who’ve been intent on returning to an old work, and sometimes they worry: Will I still remember the ideas that were driving this project? This is a good question. Will its essence be as if cryogenically frozen inside? Only time will tell. But the fact that a project continues to gnaw at you long after your initial experience of it has to be a good sign.

Rather than be daunted by what you might be forgetting, let’s consider the advantages to putting something away and then reconnecting with it: You’ve grown. Being a writer is not like being an athlete where you might peak at an early age—and thank goodness for that. As writers, we’ll always have good days and bad days, but overall our skill will improve with more practice, more feedback and more study. And as people, if we’ve been paying attention to human nature, then whatever half-step we may have lost in terms of forgetting a character’s motivation, for example, will be more than made up for by our enhanced understanding of what people like that character might do.

Creativity coach Starla J. King describes the process behind her first publication this way: “This book would be a mere shell of itself had I not waited four years to finish writing it. In those years, I lived deeply, read widely and wrote so consistently on my blog that the right version of the book took clearer shape and held my attention to the very end. In those years away from the manuscript, I had expanded my beliefs.”

Remember: The point is not to be done already; the point is to get started again. Keep your ears tuned for what resonates, keep looking for inspiration, and give your project room to surprise and challenge you.

You may find something in your resurrected project that is outdated or strikes a wrong note. This isn’t your cue to abandon your work again; it’s your cue to change it for the better. This is kind of the grown-up version of, Are we still having fun? Ask: What has to happen so I can reconnect with this?

In moments when we lack confidence, we might find any number of excuses for why we’re having trouble sitting down to write: We’re nervous about whether we chose the right direction, we’ll never be able to write our piece as well as we imagine it in our head, we’ll never be able to write something as moving and beautiful as (insert your favorite work here)— and we can throw “It’s too late!” onto the pile, too.

It’s never too late for an idea from the past to help transport you into the future. There may be a writing project whose time never comes, and perhaps it was not a very good idea after all—I’m thinking of one of my own right now. But you may also have a project that re-announces itself with the subtle yet unmistakable energy of an idea whose time has come.

And that time might be now.

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