Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Three Steps to Resurrecting Manuscripts

I call them the zombies--those failed, broken, or unfinished manuscripts cluttering my hard drives and closets. Some are gone and forgotten, but others come back to me like memories of old friends. Inevitably, I feel I've betrayed them. The undead never got to tell their stories.

I used to pull them out and attack them with a red pen. The horrible images. The characters too stupid to live. The gratuitous plot twists. Every manuscript I ever abandoned made itself unwelcome and earned its spot on a dusty shelf. And yet...

They call to me. The themes are genuine or the concept is high or one character speaks. If the manuscript as a whole cannot be resurrected, maybe has enough juice left to become an organ donor. Words, thoughts, and dreams might fit into a work in progress or become the kernel of a short story. I might even get lucky and find I only have to have a missing piece, one my brain has picked up in the intervening years.

Over the past couple of years, I've taken a more positive approach and had some success resurrecting old works. Here's my approach:
  1. No red pen. I read from beginning to the end. I choose my time (usually when I am relaxed at the end of the day, and I take my time. I only make notes if something thrills me or sets off my imagination. The notes are on a separate page and written in full sentences. I never mark an error or write anything negative.
  2. Within a week, I read through all the positive notes. If nothing grabs me, the zombie walks no more. If I feel an emotional connection,  I record my list of ten reasons why I must write this story.
  3. I set a date to begin, and I draft the revived story. Usually this is done without referring to the original, and I mine the old manuscript only during the first rewrite. The exception is when, as happened recently, I find a manuscript that is nearly complete and only needs a scene or two added. I draft those scenes, insert them, and move onto my usual rewrite procedure.
Although I think the resurrection business can be overdone (there are new manuscripts waiting to be born), it's fulfilling to bring these still loved stories back to life. It's also wonderfully productive since much of the work has already been done by a younger version of myself.

Mostly, it clears my head, once and for all, of intriguing characters and concepts that distract me from new projects.

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