Every writer–well, most writers in my estimation–remembers their first projects, probably with the same fondness an aging parent has for their child’s first steps. It symbolizes growth and maturity, and simply reading through your past works is like a subtle but constant roadmap of rising quality, culminating in what you’re writing today. And the good news is, you’re only getting better.
Your first works were probably badly-written, rambling things. (My first were, among other things, a werewolf novel inspired by Dracula, a weird pseudo-philosophical Christian novel that I wrote because I read tales of George Mueller, and a Minecraft graphic novel written and illustrated by yours truly) Truth be told, they weren’t your best works, but they are so by definition.
But sometimes you feel the urge to go back and explore a little bit, y’know? Sometimes you feel like you saw something worth salvaging in the depths of inexperience and innocence. Maybe that book was one you always wanted to write, an idea you had always wanted to make into a book. And now…now you have the skills to make that dream a reality.
So you hop back into your psyche from twenty years ago. You start rooting around in your childhood, dusting off old pictures from your past and smiling in fondness at your recollections. But you remind yourself that you’re not here for fun and laughs: you’re here for results, something to write your next book on. So you begin your excavation project…and are horrified by what you find.
I’ve talked extensively on “catch-and-release” when it comes to salvageable or unsalvageable work, and today I’ll address a different aspect of the topic. Where before I discussed where a work has passed beyond the brink of revitalization, here I’ll talk about what it takes to get any forgotten idea resurrected, if that’s what you really want.
So where were we? Yes, the horror of finding a manuscript with no hint of plot, character development, or lack of crude humor. A sight terrifying enough to strike fear into the heart of the most experienced author (but not nearly enough to stop them–bless your heart, Sanderson, for the Stormlight Archive), and sure to paralyze less experienced ones. Where to begin?
Well, if this helps any, many great books have come from ideas taken from early development. For C.S. Lewis, it was the world of Boxen (a Redwall-esque talking animal high fantasy he wrote when he was a kid) that gave rise to Narnia. For Brandon Sanderson, it was Stormlight Prime, Mistborn Prime, and…okay, I’ll stop there. (actually, a lot of his best books were first written in measly, unreadable conditions)
So there’s hope, right? But how would you pull this off? The first thing you want to do is cut to the heart of the matter, literally: what was your intent in telling this story? Stories can be bad, characters can be bad, writing can be bad, but an idea can never be faulted. It simply is.
So once you’ve determined the primary motivation for why you wrote what you’ve written, all you need to do is replicate that. But you need to make sure the motivation is there: if you wrote the book because you were at the horny age of fourteen years old, and you no longer feel that way, it’s probably not going to be a book you can replicate.
But what if you decide to edit? After all, you may determine that a complete rewrite might not be necessary. It wasn’t written that long ago–maybe only six or seven years ago. You can handle that, right? The framework may be solid, but it just needs a little touching up. A remaster, not a full remake amiright?
Well, this is more up to your own judgement, but in my opinion most of it comes down to quality of prose. It’s different for most people, but plot holes can be written out and character arcs can be written in post-development for an almost unlimited time after you write it. Bad prose makes a rewrite necessary, because no matter how good your story is, no one’s gonna care if you write sentences like “The man was of ordinary stature, ideal of mustache, arrogant in nature, and silver-tongued to the point of loquaciousness”.
In the end, it’s up to your better judgement as a writer. Trying to revitalize a project simply based on nostalgia probably isn’t going to go anywhere, not if you see real potential in your older projects. But if you see the proverbial jewel in the swine’s snout, then…go for it.
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Plus, I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to check out the Resources tab. It’s full of super helpful material and I promise it will help you out. Until then, writers!