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Resurrecting a Shelved Manuscript

Please welcome new contributor Sonja Yoerg [1] to Writer Unboxed today! We’re thrilled to have her join the team, and sure you’ll love her post on circling back to a shelved manuscript. Welcome, Sonja!


A couple months ago, I opened a file I hadn’t touched in almost five years—the first novel I wrote. It was like opening a crypt. I had written and sold four novels in the interim, learning a thing or two along the way, and was finally ready to return to the story that made me a writer.

Or was I? Sure, I was excited to jump in but also uncertain whether I would be able to achieve now what I had failed to before. As every writer knows, there is nothing like a new project to remind you how little you know about writing. Except this wasn’t a new project at all. It had not changed. I had.

From what I’ve heard, most writers have shelved one or more manuscripts; it’s smart to know the right time to tackle a particular story. And when you do decide to open that moldy file, I have a few strategies for you to consider.

Don’t read it. Not yet. It’s tempting, I know. But you want a fresh take, so don’t jump in the deep end just yet. You’ll either love it and lose your objectivity or hate it and lose your motivation for the revision. Think of it as meeting an old friend—don’t arrange to spend the summer with her. Start with coffee.

Write a synopsis—a long one. I despise synopses as much as the next sane person but there is no better way of getting to the heart of the story. Walking yourself through it in a structured, concise way will expose strengths and weaknesses. I spent two months writing a sixteen-page synopsis of my new/old WIP, moaning the entire time, then asked for feedback from two trusted writers. I’m leaning hard on this synopsis as I revise.

Consider a different structure. I’m a different writer than five years ago with more tricks up my sleeve, ways to solve problems and enrich the narrative. And I had a big problem with my main character: Rudi was a German soldier in Hitler’s army and therefore had a massive image problem. I’d written the story chronologically (1930s to 1970s) but decided instead to start in the middle, after Rudi had immigrated to America, and to use the earlier material as a second storyline. I’m confident I can braid timelines now, and you might find that new skills in your writing repertoire allow you to apply structures, techniques, and POVs you hadn’t previously considered. To me, this is best part of resurrecting an old project: the chance to make it better than you ever knew you could.

Get to know your characters again. Sigh. If you write a book revolving around someone you ought to know them, right? Well, yes, except this is a shelved book and character blurriness is likely to be one reason you put it away. It’s okay. A character is a person a writer creates, and witchcraft takes time, plus, in my case, a lot of wine. To get deep with Rudi, I did a little Story Genius, a little journaling, and a great deal of thinking. I include character sketches in my synopses so getting reacquainted with Rudi and the rest of the cast was an early step.

Sharpen your knives and kill the darlings. Reason would suggest that distance from a manuscript would make editing easier but when it comes to writing, reason finds no firm footing. My nostalgia for the clumsy, useless passages littering my first novel is pathetic. To make culling easier, I have a folder in Scrivener called A Treasure Trove of Mirth in which I stash everything from single sentences to entire chapters. They aren’t dead, they’re in prison and I have visiting privileges.

Do you have an old manuscript you’re thinking of dusting off? What concerns do you have? What excites you the most about it?

And if you are a writer who has brought a moribund book back from the dead, please share your secrets. I’m only a quarter of the way through and I’m going to need all the advice I can get.

About Sonja Yoerg [3]

Sonja Yoerg [4] grew up in Stowe, Vermont, where she financed her college education by waitressing at the Trapp Family Lodge. She earned a Ph.D. in biological psychology from the University of California, Berkeley and wrote a nonfiction book about animal intelligence, Clever as a Fox (Bloomsbury USA, 2001) and four novels: House Broken, Middle of Somewhere, All the Best People, and the upcoming True Places (1/19). Sonja lives with her husband in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.