Can you polish an old turd?
I read through an old manuscript the other day and still really loved the story. But given it is one of my earliest attempts at writing a novel, it is rife with inexperienced writing and pop culture references from the 1980’s. So can you rescue an old story without completely re-writing the whole thing…? I’ve given it a bit of thought and listed some things below to consider in giving on old piece of writing a new lease on life.
Firstly, deciding on an era. Maybe I want to keep it set in the ‘80’s. It is certainly on trend right now. What was once a current and relative setting is now historical fiction? But I was cringing with the use of snail mail and landlines, and feel the implementation of email, webcams, and mobile phones would help in the pacing of the novel so that it is not tied down with too many details – and can eliminate some locations for a better feel and flow. It’s a personal preference, but I agree that the story would benefit from this. Again, as an amateur writer all those years ago, I hadn’t learnt to get rid of details not relevant to the plot – so this will help a lot.
With setting it in a more contemporary time, all the pop culture references will need to be current – and easily identifiable. So bring on the research! What falls into this category of relevance and well-known, and will flow with the narrative? This can be fun, it means lots of television, movies, and scouring the internet.
Another big thing, and which seems to be on trend at the moment, are diverse characters: anti-heroes, women of colour, a spectrum of gender identities and orientations, differently abled characters, people living with mental illness… and the list could go on and on. We are seeing authors taking risks and exploring the human condition much more than ever before, so ensuring your cast is representative of the real world can only add interest and complexity. My earlier writing reads flat and is full of stereotypes and tropes – because that was all I had exposure to back then. So switching up my protagonist and supporting characters can only be a massive improvement.
I am also able to identify issues with pacing much more easily these days. Due to experience. The floundering, flowery writing of this early piece is in desperate need of some tightening up. I go paragraph by paragraph asking myself these questions. It this relevant to the plot, the scene, or the character’s motivations. If the answer in no, it gets cut. Can I express this in a shorter, more meaningful (or punchier) sentence? In this manner, I can also address grammar, spelling, tense, active/passive voice, and eliminate too many adverbs.
Another attribute of my early writing is the simplicity in plot. It is predictable and tends to only deal with the protagonists outcome. So adding in some story arcs for secondary characters, a bit of their background to support their motivations to favour the protagonist sounds appealing. Then brainstorm twenty ideas for some plot twists and decide on a few…
And hopefully you have a much improved manuscript. Beta readers will let me know if I’m on the right track.
Have you tried to re-visit some of your old writing and breathed some new life into it? What tools helped you?
In the meantime – happy writing and editing.
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