New Writing on an Old Story

story time for 3-5 year oldsLet’s say you stepped away from a project for a while–anywhere from 2 months to a year, or thereabouts–and now you’re ready to dive back in. How do you do it? It’s an intimidating prospect. The names of the characters are fuzzy, or you can’t remember which was the daughter of the failed violinist, and which has the secret dream of finding her long-lost brother. Or you’re ready to deal with and extend the main story arc, but there are two subplots that annoy you. It could be that you’re no longer in the head space to continue the original tone of the piece for that matter, but whatever the issue, the story is haunting you enough that you’re ready to sit back down and give it another chance. If the pressures of real life have made you step away and you love each and every inch of the manuscript, it’s still cumbers0me to get back into the groove. Here are some of the things I do to re-start the engine on a languishing project:

First, re-read the work, beginning to end. Every word. Keep your original character sheets handy, and jot down details about them that aren’t already in your notebook. What? You don’t write out character descriptions? Then write down the pertinent bits about them as you read, because it will help your sense of familiarity with them.

Re-map the story. Note the tone and style that you see, and draw out the story arcs. I like to use a visual diagram for these because it helps me spot patterns or deficits in the text. Are there too many scenes where people are talking and not enough action? Do I notice two characters who are too alike? Consistency errors? Transition glitches? I’ll have a decision on my hands: carve out new writing with an eye toward resolving those problems later, or fixing the issues straight away and then proceeding to the rest of the writing.

Note your thoughts and feelings as you read. Where are the bumps that take you out of the story? Invent a proofreader’s mark for “bump,” then mark it in the margins or note it in your e-reader and you can attend to those areas as you rewrite. At the end of the manuscript, take stock of the bumps—do they accumulate into some kind of larger issue, or is it just some editing that’s needed? If they’re part of a bigger problem, put that in your list of stuff to address. It could be something as simple as extra sentences that you just don’t need, or a jarring dialect you thought was brilliant six months ago (hint: dialects are almost never brilliant).

Write out what you want to shift going forward. You need to have this as a priority when you get back to writing so you don’t implant a new seam into the work—everything from before you stopped writing, and everything after. It will throw readers, so whatever shifts you ground into the manuscript need to be retroactively addressed too. If you’re changing the setting, you need to go through the text with a fine tooth comb. If you’ve consolidated two characters into one, do more than a search for the old character name. Tie up every instance of the old reality before you get rolling because you’ll learn more about what you formerly intended and this will help you place the new ideas down well.

Get another pair of eyes. Inevitably, we miss things in our own work; it’s part of how our brains work and fill in gaps. Other human beings, as they weren’t previously thinking our thoughts, don’t have this mortar hanging around as they read and they’ll be much better suited to finding the leftovers from the older version of the story. Remind them gently that the language is still rough (it is) and you’re looking for all of the spots where they stumble in reading.

Decide on your purpose, tone, storylines, and so on, and spend time working out the kinks before getting into the word-smithing. Rereading helps get you back into the story itself and your thoughts when you were writing originally. Life in the meantime has inevitably changed you (see: Pocahontas’ “You can never step in the same river twice”), so you will no longer be writing the same story as before. That’s okay. That’s good, even. But write with intention—I mean, you should write with intention in any case, but when stitching together a story from the old you and the present you, intention is even more critical. Keep attention on creating a whole novel, not a Frankenstein’s monster. Unless of course, you’re updating Mary Shelley’s masterwork.

It will come together if you give it a chance. Don’t make me list every famous book that sat around for a while before getting refashioned into something legendary.

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2 Comments on “New Writing on an Old Story”

  1. May 16, 2012 at 8:58 am #

    Great post. I don’t need to get distracted with this just yet, but my opus has been fermenting, stewing and belching from my the kitchen of my subconscious for the last six months. Once this current book is out I will get back to it and then your tips will come in so handy. I am just a tiny bit terrified to find how bad it will be and I am excited because I now bring all this great editing experience to something I haven’t looked at in two years.
    This is a great line and so true: ” Life in the meantime has inevitably changed you (see: Pocahontas’ “You can never step in the same river twice”), so you will no longer be writing the same story as before.”
    This aspect of writing is both a bane and a curse right? I was in a very specific mindspace when I wrote the opus, I was obsessed with a few concepts and the people who represented them and I have since moved on. The mood and tone will not be the same, though if I play enough music from 1983 I might get some of it back. :) The time away is absolutely necessary for clarity though.
    I will also review the notes from the books I read and have some of the big discussions with my people about the relevant topics to bring it back as well.

    Junot Diaz talks about being the writer you need to be for each book in his talks. I don’t want to butcher what he said so I recommend that people look up his talks on google or itunes. Gold Mine.

    • evmaroon
      May 16, 2012 at 9:10 am #

      I think that’s a great idea to listen to music from another era to get more into the mood of that time. And it’s okay if we can never really go back. We just need to tell ourselves that our talent only gets better with time. Like a rich patina…

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