Some writers strike lightning on their first books—landing an agent, a book deal, even the Times list on the very first manuscript they’ve ever written. This article is not for those writers (though I tip my hat to them). This is for the rest of us—the writers with a novel, or two, or ten, in the rear-view.
Putting a book aside after working on it forever can be painful, but it can also be fruitful. We learn from writing, but sometimes it takes starting a new project to really internalize those lessons. Some manuscripts might need to be written for only that purpose. However, with time and distance, you might also consider revising a trunk novel. Here are five tips to help with that process.
1) Give Yourself Plenty of Time and Space (And Perhaps a Few Other Writing Projects First)
One of the best things a writer can do for his or her writing is to step away from it, and work on something new—at least for a while. There is such a thing as revising a novel to death. It’s easy to lose the initial spark through over-working a story. But time and emotional distance allow us to look at it with clearer eyes, and less attachment. To see the darlings that need to be killed, the places where the pacing slows, or why no one could understand certain elements of the world-building. At the same time, by working on an entirely new project, you can put into practice the lessons you learned from your trunk novel, and fall in love with a new story, cast and world.
Of course, it is also a possibility that with time and distance you might end up deciding that a certain story isn’t the one you want to tell anymore. Some trunk novels do stay in the trunk forever. And that’s okay, too. There are always more stories to tell!
2) Ask Why This Project? And Why Now?
Let’s face it: something about this project didn’t work before. Whether it was that you were too close to it, or it got bogged down in a subplot that never gelled, or there was a character readers couldn’t connect with. Perhaps the market wasn’t right at the time. This problem isn’t always insurmountable, but it is something to take into account. If you’re thinking about revising a trunk novel, it’s worth asking “Why?” first.
My suggestion? Make a few lists. First, write down everything you adored about this book last time you ventured into it. Second, write down everything other readers adored about it. Are the two similar? Where do they diverge? That’s worth taking into account. Third, write down everything you thought didn’t work about this book. Name the characters, the scenes, the points of confusion that you yourself or your readers saw. Now, lastly, write down how you plan to fix them. Every single one.
Doing this beforehand is an extra step, and of course, this needs to be tailored to your own particular method. But it can help clarify the decision to dive back into a project that didn’t work previously. It’s good to go in with open eyes and a clear plan.
3) Consider a New Structure or Perspective
Recently, I’ve started revising a novel I put aside for five years. One of the issues I had was that as much as I loved my main character, he was a pretty angsty dude. It was hard to be in his head constantly. While some writers can absolutely nail that, something about my rendition wasn’t working. When I recently started revising it, I decided to give the reader a break by adding some other perspectives. It’s amazing how much of a difference it made. Readers who said they got annoyed with him now said he was their favorite character. This made me happy because he’d always been mine. But by looking not just at the story itself, but the way I was telling it, I was able to rectify a reader experience. The story was richer for it.
This is a great time to get creative and experiment, especially since the bones of the story–the characters, world, and plot–already exist. Consider writing from a different point of view, or shaking up the plot. You never know what you’ll come up with!
4) Begin in a New Document
This bounces off of tip #3. In order to look at a manuscript as entirely new, rather than just a revision, consider starting in an entirely new document. This will put you in the headspace of creation, rather than revision, even if in some cases you’ll end up typing or copy+pasting.
If this is a novel you’ve put aside for years, it’s almost better to think of it as an entirely new book, rather than simply a revision. And that gives you the space to get creative!
5) Take Stock
One of the best parts about revising a trunk novel is that you can see how much you’ve grown as a writer. The process is solitary, and it can sometimes feel like we’re not getting anywhere. Each story we write is a growing and learning experience, but there aren’t that many ways to measure this. A trunk novel is a perfect opportunity to take stock.
Take the time, as you’re working on this new version of an old story, to think about how you’ve changed as a writer. Are there certain aspects of the process that are easier? Are there things you know now to avoid? Celebrate the success that you’ve already achieved as you keep working toward more!