This essay was first posted on Author Expressions, the blog for Five Star authors, on May 4. Some of the comments I've received from fellow writers have prompted me to reprint it here.
Every once in a while I find myself with enough time to work on something, before I start the next novel in one of my series. This is when I usually pull out an unfinished manuscript from the lower desk drawer and try to revise. Sometimes this is successful, but I’ve learned a few lessons about how to do this. Right now I’m working on a Joe Silva mystery that I set aside some years ago, and I’m keeping those lessons in mind.
First, the person you are now is not the person you were then. You were a different person when you wrote the story the first time. If you don’t like the story, put it back in the drawer, or close out the file, and just leave it. This is not the kind of project you can bring “up to date.” If you feel so different from the work, don’t revise it; start over on something entirely new.
Second, if you read carefully you will find what made you put the work aside in the first place, and if that’s something you can fix, work on that. Did one of the characters fall flat on the page? Did the plot feel like a piece of swiss cheese? Some problems might be too big to fix but discovering them will help you in your current work. This is an opportunity to see how you’ve grown or changed as a writer.
Third, notice the language. If you’re like me, you’ll be surprised at the little verbal tics that managed to survive through all that earlier editing—a love of certain phrases such as examples always coming in units of three, longer sentences when the story is getting excited in stead of shorter ones to indicate rising tension, characters’ names all beginning with the same letter, weather patterns that don’t fit the story. Sometimes the problem is what one writer calls echoes—words repeated two or three times in a paragraph while the unconscious tries to figure out where it best suits the writing. These are the things will simply don’t see while writing and even while editing. But reading after time has passed shows us all the warts.
Fourth, if you find yourself disliking almost everything, then pull out that pen (I still edit on paper, though I compose on the computer) and draw a line through everything you dislike. You may have boxes taking out whole paragraphs, and lines crossing out entire pages. But look at what you have left. Do you have a perfect opening line buried deep within the third page? Do you have three paragraphs that on their own suggest an entirely new story, or a glimmer of what your old story might have been? Don’t be in a rush. Let the surviving sentences or paragraph cohere for a while, and then sit down with them and let your imagination give you a new story.
Right now I’m taking my own advice. I knew something wasn’t quite right about the Joe Silva book, and after thinking about a lot of other things for a few years it occurred to me what I could do about it. I’m rereading the novel to think about it with the slight changes in mind, to see if it will work, and then I’ll write. I’m not finding a lot of echoes (but a few) or any pages I’d like to excise, but I do find the occasional typo (to/two/too). And, to my relief, I find that I really like some of the characters, just as I did when I was writing the story the first time.
Susan Oleksiw is the author of the Mellingham series featuring Chief of Police Joe Silva. Her Mellingham work in progress is about murder in Joe’s family. The second mystery in the Anita Ray series will be published in June. The Wrath of Shiva: An Anita Ray Mystery (Five Star/Gale/Cengage, June 2012).