There comes a moment when most writers want to ‘see rubbish as far as it will go’ as my dear old granny used to say. Or in writerly terms, rip up something that doesn’t seem to be working and hurl it at the nearest waste bin.
And very therapeutic it can be, too, after slaving on a piece which simply won’t roll over and do what you want it to. (It’s probably a boy thing, but I find it's a good day when I can slam-dunk a manuscript from across the room without having to get up and retrieve the scattered pages from all over the furniture. We writers have to take our pleasures where we can find them).
However, dumping a paper print-out from a PC is one thing; you can always go back after you’ve thought it over and retrieve the file. Killing off the source file altogether - what would at one time have been called burning the manuscript - is something else. It’s final. Irreversible. Gone for good. (Unless you’re a techno-nut and can rummage about in the guts of your PC without causing meltdown - which most of us are not).
I made the mistake of throwing away any number of ideas when I started out as a writer, simply because I thought that being unable to finish them was the end of the road. When something wasn’t going right, I’d simply dump the whole idea and start again. Fresh paper, fresh plots … my brain was full to bursting with them, so why not?
Yet, as I found out one day when I happened on an old floppy disk (remember-? no, probably not) containing some stuff I'd never submitted for publication, there’s potential gold in those electronic hills, given a tweak here and there. Perhaps distance had lent my earlier scribblings an imagined freshness - to me, at least - but in going over one or two of them, I found they weren’t all that bad.
True, the terminology needed some revamping; in one I mentioned the 'forthcoming' channel tunnel. And there was no mention of mobile phones, which can now change the whole course and make-up of a story. But while some of the settings could do with being more appealing, rather than the gritty places I used to write about, some of the basic ideas have travelled surprisingly well over the years.
And here is an important point: quite simply, tastes change over time, and good editors tune into this. Witness the renewed interest in historical novels and the explosion of readers looking for the next fantasy novel. Not that many years back, bookshop shelves devoted to these genres were fairly small, which must have led many writers to concentrate on something judged more ‘commercial’. Yet how many of them could benefit now by hauling out their old manuscripts and giving them a literary facelift?
If we look at what we wrote even just a couple of years ago, which was either confined to a remote computer file or the bottom drawer of a desk because it didn't seem suitable, we may find elements in there which can be rescued and even resuscitated - re-marketed - as something different.
Depending on how long ago they first saw the light of day, bringing the story up to date would be the first job to tackle. There’s nothing like outmoded language - especially slang - to date a story; and there’s much in the detail which can change the whole feel of a piece quite easily. Merely mentioning mobile phones or text messaging is one way, or dropping in the title of a current film, a song or a make of car, any of which can give a story a more up-to-date feel. Maybe revamping the slant of the story, while retaining the original idea which got you started in the first place, is a way of bringing it out and making it more saleable.
The point of view is another approach. What may have sounded stilted and unconvincing in the third person (he said/ she said) might take on a whole new freshness when told from a first person viewpoint. Telling the story through the eyes of the central character makes you consider the detail of the story completely differently; you have only the single view to worry about, and there's an intimacy when bringing in the thought processes of that character which the third person viewpoint will have prevented you exploring.
Another reason to review your ‘backlist’ of unsold or previously never-submitted work is simply to give yourself a break. Any one of us can get tired and stale without really noticing. This usually hits home when you find you’ve been staring at the PC for more minutes than is good for you, yet you have nothing concrete on the screen to show for it. Effectively, you can end up going round in circles.
Instead, why not take a gentle stroll back through those old files, or dig out that bunch of manuscripts you could never quite bring yourself to bin or burn? And if you’re one of those writers who habitually throws work away when it doesn’t seem to work, try hanging on to it. You never know - one day it might surprise you.
TOP TIPS· Never throw anything out – you might be able to re-write or cannibalise it later.
· Regularly review your old scripts for useable scenes.
· Update old or unused stories by introducing current language and descriptions.
· Try re-writing a story from another point-of-view. It could work wonders.
Originally published in Writing Magazine, this article also appears in 'Write On! - The Writer's Help Book' -
available in paperback and ebook: