Thursday, March 22, 2012

Revising the Manuscript under the Bed: Part One

Many a writer has a manuscript that is metaphorically placed “under the bed.”  That first book (or more) often comes to be thought of as a necessary learning process or the “practice” novel.  So, it doesn't surprise me when I read time and again in writer interviews about how their first novel published was actually the third (or later) story written.  It almost seems a rite of passage to have those early manuscripts under the bed.

Ouch.  As realistic as this is, I could happily skip this rite of passage and I don’t think any writer easily comes to the acceptance of forever placing their manuscript "under the bed."  How can we accept letting go when we also think of our first complete novel as our “baby?”  We had such high hopes and certainly didn’t write the book for a future home under the bed.  Most likely, we also had some very ambitious ideas in our first effort.  We dreamed larger-than-life and just wrote the book of our heart. 

But an early manuscript can get abandoned for many reasons (rejection, not fitting the current market, or just flawed in ways we aren’t sure how to fix at the time), and it can be hard -- very hard -- to pick it back up again for yet another revision.  It’s also a time when, with our confidence dinged, we consider moving on to be good for our mental health and look toward things to do differently the next time. 

Following the reluctant acceptance that my finished first story needed a makeover, I recall I did have a short list of things I told myself I’d do differently for the next story.  Of course, there was also simply the need for something different after all that time on one project, but I thought if I eliminated certain challenges, it would be smooth sailing.  It sounds a little crazy, but here it is:

1.      Not a historical,
2.      not as many secondary characters, and
3.      less “world building.”

That’s a lot of “not” and “less.”  But wouldn’t you know it, in hindsight of the last couple of years, the next story and the next after that had its own unique set of complications that I again felt certain were beyond my skills.  And by the time I’m done with the current challenges (never mind the life interrupting kind), the next story will have fewer ghosts, not as many technical gadgets, and less legal and political intrigue.  It will have other things yet imagined.

 Of course, the shift to being in the mood for a different story environment can occur before we realize it.  Recently I started updating my historical reference posts and, before I knew it, the characters of my "under the bed" Regency started to resurface with new scenes playing out in my mind on my commute.  They didn't care at all that I hadn't declared myself "ready."

But assuming the choice is yours (hush characters!), when does it make sense to revise -- or should I say, revive -- a manuscript under the bed?  It’s not going to be pretty to undertake a mega revision, but if a couple things fall into place, then maybe it’s time to stop resisting that makeover. 

First, it has to be a world you want to revisit.  The toughest part might be acknowledging if a love affair with the characters still lingers. 

Second, it shouldn’t be the ambivalence to the task of fixing an old problem holding you back.  We tend to remember what the problems are and it’s hard to see what has changed.  But in the meantime, while you’ve been working on other things, a lot has changed.  You have acquired new skills and, better yet, you’ve done what most people say to do before tackling any revision:  take a break.  Now you’re in a position to be objective and regain an appreciation for the short list characteristics you actually liked when you wrote the story. 

For a couple of other great reasons to revise that “manuscript under the bed,” read this blog post at The Ruby Slippered Sisterhood, which reminds us of creating a personal back list and how the market is in a state of flux for new challenges/opportunities.  Also the comments are an interesting mix of how many writers use what they’ve learned from those books under the bed even if they have no intention of letting the manuscript ever see the light of day.

If we do aspire to revive the manuscript under the bed, as I plan to do with my “Guardian” story, it seems like it must a combination of revisiting our mindset at the time of writing the story and forming a new, objective plan.  Next time, in a part two of this topic, I’m going to talk some more about this type of “revision prep,” which to me seems a bit like calling in a new movie production crew to remake a movie.  Of course, the original cast, which hasn’t aged a bit, has a few ideas!

So what are your thoughts on choosing to revise the manuscript under the bed?

2 comments:

  1. Melissa, I really like this post. I've recently re-read some older manuscripts to see if they were potential candidates for self-publishing. I've found myself still enchanted with the characters -- which is the good part! And the other good part is I've realized how much I've learned about storytelling since I attempted their stories. LOL

    I'm looking forward to your "revision prep" post, so I can hopefully whip these books into shape. I want the characters to have their chance to shine. It sounds like this will be just what I need. :)

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  2. Thanks, Donna! I'm sure your older manuscripts are wonderful candidates! I envy your backlist and I also can't wait to see what you decide to self-pub. :)

    Hopefully my part two revision prep post will have some ideas that aren't just customized to my particular story! LOL!

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