Dusting Off Old Stories

Unless everything you write is divinely inspired, breathed onto the page straight from your thoughts, you’ve probably got something sitting in a drawer.

These days that drawer is an old folder on a hard drive, a buried but not forgotten document of a project that once captured your imagination, and which perhaps someday you will bring into the light of day. What day we are waiting for can vary greatly. Sometimes we are waiting for the skill to tell a better story, other times we are waiting for a story’s moment to arrive, and sometimes we’re just exhausted, burned out from years of work with little payoff.

For me stories get put in a drawer not because I don’t love them, but because I only have a fixed amount of time to work, and I need to spend my efforts pretty ruthlessly on the projects I am passionate about, and that I can finish. I have rough drafts from two years ago or more that I realistically won’t be able to work on for at least another eight months. It bothers me, and those stories fill my thoughts often, but as I’ve been turning my attention to one of those works I’ve really come to appreciate the freedom that comes from a little distance.

My current project Surreality was first conceived shortly before my wife and I met, about seven years ago. Its first draft was finished shortly after we were married, and its revisions have been carried on in the midst of a cat running up on my porch on beggars night (and not leaving since), the marriages of several of my friends, and across at least four computers. But since about July 2011, during a summer of furious writing for the first draft of DM, Surreality quietly faded into the background, subsumed entirely by the fractal book, gone but not forgotten.

You can’t just dive back in to an old project. You need to warm up to it, get to know the world again, which in my case meant re-reading the current draft. Reading with an editor’s eye, or as close to an objective one as I can get, I could see the sections that were working, and more importantly those that weren’t.

We fight passionately sometimes about scenes, about characters, about clever lines we’ve written. We don’t like to think that our first idea is not our best idea, because so much of writing relies on instinct. We know where to carry the story forward, we know the next thing we need to say.

At least we do the best we can with the skill we have at the time.

But there’s a danger that we can get locked into the story as it is, without seeing how we can make it better, make it clearer, and still get across the point we were trying to make. Time spent in a drawer makes both writer and story more humble. What’s the worst that can happen if you change a chapter here or there? It can just go back to the drawer, but if the change makes the story better, it might just see the light of day. And you might be pleased to discover how much of the story still holds up.

After finishing reading my draft last week I’m writing an outline to plan my rewrites. I’ve been a guy pretty resistant to outlines, more of a fly by the seat of my pants writer. I know the destination, and a few of the stops along the way, but the rest is a mystery to me until I write it. I’m still trying to figure out if this is a good habit for rough drafts, but for this project anyway an outline seems warranted. It will help me to formalize what I’m keeping, and what I’m replacing, and hopefully serve as a bit of a spur to action.

I’ve taken pages of notes on what to cut, what to keep, and what to tweak. And best of all, I’ve been having new thoughts. I’m seeing the old characters in new lights, learning things I was unwilling or unable to learn years ago.

How have you revived old projects? What’s kept you from looking at a story for years?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Dusting Off Old Stories

  1. I love dusting off the oldies-but-goodies! My stories never really leave me, more that I leave them when I get too busy or a new tale has become my obsession. It’s quite nostalgic and actually humorous to see how my writing has improved. It usually turns into a massive rewrite at times, but it’s nice to revisit the characters I’ve been missing and the worlds they’ve been so patiently waiting in, wondering when I was coming back.

    Can’t wait to see what you’ve dusted off, Ben! 😀

  2. “We don’t like to think that our first idea is not our best idea, because so much of writing relies on instinct.”

    I struggle a lot with that too. Simple probability tells us that if you have five ideas, the first is unlikely to be the best. Unfortunately, my pride gets mixed up into the equation and messes with everything. I’ve had to gradually force myself to look for the second idea…and the third…and…

    Good luck with Surreality! The changes you’ve told me about so far all sound good.

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