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Resurrecting a Shelved Manuscript: Good Idea or Waste of Time?

Flickr Creative Commons: Alan Cleaver

I had grand plans for my next historical manuscript. The idea was solid, the plot outlined, and an experimental first chapter written. I’ve read that chapter twice now. The voice is compelling, the writing a level or two above ‘crappy first draft’ and it is still a story I want to write.

Just not now.

Getting this story down will require me to willingly break my own heart on a daily basis for over a year; it’s already broken each time I pull up the day’s headlines or log into social media. The parallels between the manuscript’s era and today are clear. An argument could be made that now is exactly the time for such a novel, but this writer knows her own mind enough to understand that reality must be a shade or two brighter before she can mentally take that risk.

Had I not vacationed in Maine [1] this past summer, I would never have considered opening a manuscript I wrote and promptly abandoned back in 2004. While driving on the familiar roads of my youth, I made a passing comment that this story, which was in some ways a ‘you have no further power over me’ letter to my old home town, would be much richer if I were writing it today.

I still would never have considered opening the document had Ruth, the cantankerous grandmother from the story, not invaded my dreams and (colorfully) reminded me that my perspective on the minefield of mother/teenage daughter relationships is now immediate, not speculative. Since this is a major theme of the book, I had best get cracking while I have captive beta readers who will roll their eyes if Mama gets something wrong.

I tried arguing with Ruth, a futile concept if there ever was one. I write historicals now, I said. It’s all women’s fiction, she countered. It’s bound to be dated, I said. She laughed. You’ve been in those mountains recently, Dimwit. Add some damn cell phones if it makes you feel better. Nothing else has changed.

She had a point, so I read. I read until 2:00 AM. Several times I had a grand idea about how I’d handle a plot point, only to find out the same thought had occurred to me fourteen years ago. I even cried once.

There were issues, of course.

Six months ago I would have said that seriously re-examining an old manuscript was a waste of time, but my answers to the following questions have made me reconsider. If you are on the fence about one of your own manuscripts, perhaps they will help you, too.

Why did I shelve the manuscript in the first place? Did a hundred agents send form-letter rejections? Was there no plot? Did the characters blend together or seem otherwise one-dimensional? Was the story not plausible or cliche? Did I write for a trend that fizzled out by the time the manuscript was ready to submit?

Has something in my life or circumstances changed in a way that will lend a new perspective to an old story? Will this new perspective be compelling enough to warrant spending the next six months to a year working on this story again? If it had been queried widely, will there be a big enough change to justify approaching some of the same agents again?

Is the story timely in a way it wasn’t when originally written? Did it feature an event that had happened “too soon” before you wrote it, but would be fine in novels now? (Such as 9/11.)

If you have sold books in one genre and this is in another, will that hurt your chance of selling it? If you have an agent, will the agent consider a story that is vastly different?

What are your reasons for looking back rather than forward? Is the old story tugging at you, or are you out of ideas and simply need something to work on? Are you anxious to get lost in research (or avoid it) and this book will allow you to fulfill that wish?

Will you regret having spent the time with this story again if it should fail to sell or sell badly?

Over to you. Have you ever resurrected a manuscript you had long considered to be dead? Did that go well? Do you have any sitting on your hard drive you might look at again someday? What would prompt you to do it? Or, conversely, why would you never consider doing so?

About Kim Bullock [2]

Kim has an M.A. in English from Iowa State University. She writes mainly historical fiction, though has also contributed non-fiction articles to historical and Arts and Crafts publications in both the United States and Canada. She has just finished The Unfinished Work of M.A. [3], a novel based on the rather colorful life of her great-grandfather, landscape painter Carl Ahrens.

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