Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Workshop:

Resurrecting Old Stories

By Lazette Gifford
© 2004, Lazette Gifford


Once upon a time you wrote a story you truly loved.  It was the first plot that kept you awake at night or stole away your thoughts when you should have been working on other things.  The story haunted you and it might even have been the reason you took up writing for the very first time.

And so you wrote it...

But for whatever reasons, it did not reach the potential that it could have reached.  You were just not yet ready to tell this story.  Well, now may be the time to try again.

First there is a major fallacy that many writers -- even writers who have been working at it for a while -- need to get out of their system.  A story is not wasted or destroyed just because the author wasn't at a writing level to do it justice the first time she tried.  If nothing else, this first attempt can be considered a first draft, or an outline.  And by having written the material at the time when the story called to her, she has probably saved it from being completely lost.

But should she try to rework it now?

What To Save

There are several levels at which you can save an older story.  This works even if you have not actually finished the work.  Chances are that you stopped because something was not quite right.  You can apply this set of ideas to a work that is finished or unfinished, as well as pieces of any length.

These are just quick guidelines, and how you actually apply them will depend on your methods and the work itself.

1.    Taking only the idea

This is really just writing a new story.  However, it may be that the basic idea of the story is the heart of what you wanted to tell (a woman learns her beloved grandfather is a wanted war criminal), while the story that you came out with fell flat and devoid of the power you had felt in the concept.

If you wrote the story at the age of fourteen, chances are that you will have learned far more about the art of writing by twenty-five, and can tell a fuller, more imaginative and emotional tale.  This, of course, is not always true -- but if you have grown as a writer, rewriting the idea might give you something worthwhile.

2.    Save the characters

Did those characters live in your head until you could hear them speak, see them smirk, and understand their fears?  And even so, the story just didn't work out right?

Perhaps it's the characters you want to drag out of the dead plot and into a new, exciting life.  If that is the case, look at the characters not only as individuals, but in pairings and groups.  Sometimes a character is defined not only by his own attributes, but also by his actions and reactions with others.  The character you truly love may need that obnoxious sidekick who often annoys him and you.  Moving him alone into a new story could make the character very dull.

Oh, and when thinking of new surroundings -- that is, a new plot -- don't just limit yourself to sequel-like ideas.  Move him around in time and situation.  How would that daring highwayman do on the streets of LA?  Or maybe you could drop him in the far future on another world?  It might be that a character you love seems a cliché in one setting, but becomes something exciting and different in another one.  Try adapting him outside the box you originally built.

3.    Saving the story line

Idea and characters are great, but the plot dragged and fizzled?  Line editing it is not going to make it come alive, either?  Then try sitting down with the story and writing an outline from it.  Take the old story and list out the number of chapters or (roughly at least) the number of scenes.  Now write one paragraph of description for each of those chapters/scenes.  Just one paragraph that briefly tells you what happened.

Or do a far more detailed outline.  I've used my Phase Outline (http://fmwriters.com/Visionback/Issue%2015/phase.htm) for this type of work, and it is very helpful.  The level of outline you use depends entirely on how much detail you want to save from the original plot and prose.

In both cases, once you have what you want, ruthlessly go in and cut, add and rework the outline before you start writing again.  After all, you don't want to tell the story exactly the same, right?

4.    Cast of Thousands

When I was younger I had the 'cast of thousands' problem.  I wanted dozens of great characters in every book, and I would populate the pages with people who might only have a line or two in the entire book -- but they were my perfect characters and the book obviously wouldn't be the same without them.

Well, that was true, at least.

If you realize you have far too many characters and no one is going to keep them straight, including you, then it is time to eliminate and combine.  Make a list of all of them.  Then go through the list and cut out as many as you can.  When you rewrite, take anything essential that they did and give it over to another character.  Do the same with their good lines.  How much work this is -- edit or rewrite -- depends on how many characters you eliminate and how easy it is to incorporate their essence into some other character.

5.    POV Change

Do you need a POV change?  This is one you need to test out. Take a couple key scenes and rework them into the proposed new POV.  Do they work better?

Going from first to third is going to open up the novel to more potential storyline and descriptive possibilities, but it will lose the immediacy of the first person narrative.  Going the opposite way -- third person to first person -- will obviously have the opposite effect.

Don't use second person (you) except for experimental work -- and don't expect it to sell.  There are very few of examples of this POV type, and there's a reason for it.  Most people can't write it well, and fewer people like to read it.

I have a personal dislike for most omniscient POV work.  It is, quite often, the default for our early works because we have no idea what POV is when we start out.  While omniscient can be handled well, that isn't often the case in a writer's earliest works.

Fixing this one is a bit more difficult.  First is the decision of what POV you want.  Even if you stick with omniscient you are likely still going to have to tighten up the head-hopping.  If you decide to go with first or third, you are going to have to decide which character(s) to tie the story to.  You will need to go through every line and make certain that what is presented is something the character can actually know or experience.  Be especially watchful for those moments when your MC unexpectedly turns psychic and knows what others are thinking and feeling.

6.    Love everything but the prose?

This version is very easy to do, but in some ways the hardest to make better.  If you feel that a simple edit of the prose is going to wipe out or change more than it will keep, then try this method of resurrection.

First print it out.  Read it and make whatever notes you want about plot changes, etc. in the margins.  Don't worry about editing the prose itself.  Get it done, set it aside for a day or two.

Then sit down, read one page of the print out.  Put it down.  Start typing.

The story will be very fresh and preserved as you go straight from read to write.  You will also be instantly aware of the bad prose mistakes in the original and mostly avoid them.  You'll catch the others in a line edit later.  The really great part of this method is that you can grab any good lines that you still love and copy them straight over.

However, the problem is that you might get so caught up in the story that you miss the problems that need to be fixed.   Set yourself an easy pace for doing the work and don't try to rush through it.  That leads to carelessness.  Always remember that writing isn't a race.

 

Don't give up on the stories that called to you and that you still harbor a secret love for and would like to see in print.  The story is there.  Chances are you are a better writer now, as well.  And even if you still don't get it quite right this time around, you have come closer to creating the story you wanted.  No work is a waste.  We learn from every story we write -- and rewrite.

Don't give up on them.  Don't throw them away.  The stories are still there -- it's just going to take a lot more work to bring it out.  You have not wasted those dreams, and you might find that the joy you had in that story is still alive.