We’ve all got them. Those old writing projects that never quite come together, or that fall by the wayside and are replaced by newer, shinier ideas.
It’s very easy to start a project and then lose focus or motivation when life gets in the way. You may love them but not know how to bring them back out into the light.
One major fear is the prospect of having to rewrite the whole thing, which feels like going backwards rather than moving forwards. But they may well contain the kernel of something that could be great. And, regardless, they are still words you have written, and it’s a shame not to let them reach their true potential. You must have thought the idea was worthwhile when you started writing it, so why not take a look and see if there’s anything left you can salvage?
You never know what gold you might find in a forgotten folder of unfinished projects.
But how do you go about resurrecting something you may not have looked at in months, or even years? How can you determine what might be worth saving, and how should you approach trying to continue with the project?
The first thing is to come at an old project like a reader, rather than its creator. Just read through it from start to finish and make a note of your reactions as you go along. Write down anything you like about it, anything that strikes you as good writing, or an idea that sparks your interest, anything that makes you want to read on. Also write down anything that makes you cringe, anything that makes your attention drift, anything that raises questions about the sense or clarity of the story.
That will give you an idea of what works and what may need alteration. Make a list of things you love about the project to remind yourself why you want to work on it again. Then make a list of the specific problem areas, so you can isolate them and work on them individually. That will make it feel more like positive action and stop you getting intimidated by the thing as a whole.
You’ll also need a list of steps that will help you create a finished draft. Brainstorm ideas for any plot points that need to be developed, any characters that need to be filled out, and any world-building or research you might need to do. These can also be tackled one by one to make them seem less scary.
Unfortunately, it’s unavoidable that some rewriting will need to be done, but don’t start from this point of view.
I have a friend who runs a Six Month Novel Programme for writers to get a first draft of a novel done in - yes, you’ve guessed it - six months. She says the key is just to forge on regardless, getting the whole thing out on the page in as ‘gloriously craptastic’ a fashion as you can, and don’t get hung up on making it better until much later.
Once you have a complete draft, you can then work on improving and refining it. But, if you get stuck editing the first chapter over and over again, you’ll never reach the end and you’ll never have a story you can finish.
So, to transfer this method onto an old project that is partially complete, the key is to take what’s there and add to it, regardless of how much may need changing. Do whatever you need to do to get it to a ‘finished’ state and then you can come back to it again with a sense of accomplishment, and move onto the inevitable revision stage from a place of power rather than despair.
This is where the list of things you love about the project will come into play. Refer to it often to remind yourself why you want to finish your novel and to also keep you motivated when the going gets tough again.
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If you think there’s just no way you can work on the project without a complete rewrite, another approach might be to take the elements you like about your story and combine them with a newer idea. Then you can take the dead weight from the old project and dump it without regret. That feels like a positive recycling of ideas to me, rather than flogging a dead horse.
The main thing to focus on is retrieving whatever is worthwhile from the old project, so it can be useful for future writing rather than just stagnating in a folder and being lost altogether.
Other ways to transform an old project without rewriting everything might be to change the style or format of the story. You could switch the narrative to a different point of view (or include an additional one), change the genre without fundamentally changing the plot, alter the setting but keep the characters, or switch your protagonist’s gender. Anything you can think of to make the story feel fresh without changing everything about it will likely help you to approach it with renewed enthusiasm and bring new ideas into the mix.
Stories have frameworks; scaffolding, which supports the bright and interesting decorations you design to hang on it. If you can identify an old story’s basic structure, you should be able to keep the main pieces of its foundations in place while giving yourself the freedom to inject new life into it by changing the surface detail.
So, have a look at some of your old writing and see if there’s anything that takes you by surprise, or gets you excited about writing something new.
You never know what you might find unless you look.
What have you got to lose?
About Annie Percik
Annie Percik lives in London, writing novels and short stories, whilst working as a freelance editor. She writes a blog about writing on her website, which is where all her current publications are listed, including her novels, The Defiant Spark and A Spectrum of Heroes. She hosts a media review podcast, and publishes a photo-story blog, recording the adventures of her teddy bear. He is much more popular online than she is.