Resurrect an Abandoned Story or Start Something New?

What’s the newly enlightened writer to do?

Old, abandoned stories are very much like ex-lovers.   There was a time when they made your heart sing and your hormones percolate.

But it didn’t quite work out.  You either dumped them or they ditched you.  Either way, there’s an explanation that’s often left hanging, perhaps unaddressed and never fully understood.

Only when you’ve moved on to the next level – in love and in literature – will that explanation make any sense to you.

Remember that as we plow into the scary proposition of returning to our lost stories now that we have a clue what we’re doing.

If you haven’t published a novel yet, then you’re a first novelist

Even if you’ve written an attic full of completed manuscripts.  The term “first novelist,” as used by reviewers, agents and publishers, is a misnomer.

In my case, I had six novels yellowing away on a shelf beneath a stack of rejection slips before I got that life-changing call from my agent… and became a first novelist in this context.

Nobody sells their first manuscript.  Nobody.

Which means, everybody has a backlog of stories they once loved enough to actually write (sometimes that process lasts longer than some of those discarded relationships), and often those stories haunt us.

Sometimes we admit that they sucked.  Sometimes we cling to the belief that the world isn’t fair.

And then comes a moment when you know what you didn’t know then.

What published novelists usually have in common is this: something – practice, old age, or a bombshell of a realization about what makes stories work – has enlightened them.  Raised their awareness and jacked their storytelling abilities (combined with a healthly dose of timing, perseverance and luck) to the point that they’ve actually sold something.

Such enlightenment takes many forms.  For me, and for many Storyfix readers, it was something called The Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling, which pretty much covers the gamut of what there is to know about telling stories at a publishable level 

That story that didn’t sell?  I promise you, one or more of those Six Core Competencies was lacking.  Even if one or more of them was stellar.

Knowing and doing are quite different, of course. 

But knowing always comes first.

Once you know, you might venture back into that dark abyss of embalmed manuscripts and consider a do-over.  You might ask yourself: what’s here worth saving?  What might I have done differently… better… that would have put the story over the top?

The question is a little like considering if you want to go back to a spouse or partner that dumped you and try again, or set out to find a new lover.

Things look different on the other side of enlightenment.  That lover you thought was so hot?  Maybe not so much, now that you know.   

That’s the first question you must ask yourself in that situation, or relative to your old story: is he/she/it (your story) really worth it?  Or can I do better elsewhere?

The key lies in understanding why those stories tanked. 

Maybe you were trying to make a Jimmy Choo purse out of a possum’s ass.  Having a great story to tell is every bit as important as having the chops to tell it greatly.

You need both.  And that is, perhaps, what you didn’t know then that you fully understand now.

So how do you know, now that you know?

So… was it the story, or was it you?  And, on either count, could things be different this time?

Here’s the Great Truth of the Six Core Competencies as they pertain to the unpublished or B-list author:

One or more of the four elemental core competencies – concept, character, theme or story structure – must be exceptionally compelling, original and mind-blowing.  If all four are simply good, that probably isn’t enough to get you published, it merely blends you in the crowd.  Agents and publishers aren’t looking to add to the crowd, they’re looking for a home run to emerge from it.

And… both of the two execution-driven core competencies – scene execution and writing voice – need to be rendered at a professional level of excellence.  Doesn’t need to be John Updike, but it can’t have a amateur moment anywhere on the pages.

That’s the ante-in.  The bar you must reach.  Now that the clouds have parted, you can see how high it is and what it will take to get there.

Did your abandoned story meet those standards? 

You thought so back then… but how about now?  Now that you know?

Too often our old stories are based on something we thought was a killer idea, but lacked the depth and sub-text and theme of a publishable novel.  You know now that an idea alone does not a great story make, and that even stellar characterization without a compelling dramatic landscape is nothing more than a series of vignettes with no outcome.

One of my losers was about the Kennedy assassination.  Yeah, like there weren’t enough of those out there.  I figured the guys who knew the truth were getting long in the tooth, and perhaps one of them might find religion at the eleventh hour and confess the whole thing in a diary in an effort to save his mortal soul.  When he dies his son finds the diary, tries to take it to the press to expose the truth, and runs head-on with the continuing conspiracy. 

Instant Robert Ludlum meets Nelson Demille.  Or so I thought.

But it tanked.  Not only was my Big Idea not big enough, the other five core competencies were as vanilla as a Dick Cheney version of the National Anthem.

In fact, in looking at all six of my retired stories, I realized that they weren’t worth the time and effort.  That bigger and better stories lay ahead, and that I was a far more enlightened writer in going there instead.

And then I got published.

Our old stories are a gift, actually.  They paved the path of our learning, they sharpened skills that we would later need.  They were the currency of the dues we are required to pay before they let us into the game for real.

A wise old editor once told me (in the rejection letter for that Kennedy manuscript) that nothing in the work of a real writer is ever wasted.  Maybe he was right.

So thank those old manuscripts, say a prayer over their grave and move on. 

Unless… the chemistry is still there and you realize you blew a shot at something special.  Something you now possess the skills to write well enough.  Second chances depend on that very same learning curve.

And the next time you see your ex, just smile and say thanks.  Because, regardless of whose fault it was, you get it now.  The future and a bigger, better story awaits.

Want more Six Core Competencies?  Click here to read blurbs, reviews and pre-order my new book, “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing,” coming from Writers Digest Books in February.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

20 Responses to Resurrect an Abandoned Story or Start Something New?

  1. Monica

    Thanks for this, Larry. I have yet to submit any manuscripts, so have yet to receive a/my first rejection. 😉 But as I added scenes, sub-plots, and characters to the story I had written last year, I had begun to think I had created a monster – or else something bigger than I was capable of handling at the moment. Maybe that story is still viable, but I need more practice, to pay some dues, before I’m capable of doing that story justice.

    I’ll hold onto that story. Maybe in the future, the chemistry will still be there, and I’ll get that second shot.

  2. Sarah

    Thanks, Larry. I’m grappling with whether or not to continue a novel that might be a lost cause. Your website has helped tremendously in fixing up the story, but I’m a first novelist in the truest sense of the phrase – this is my FIRST novel. I know it’s going to take more tries before I come up with something publishable. So is following through with a not-gonna-make-it novel a good learning experience, or a waste of time? I can see the argument both ways, and I’d be curious what you think.

    Thanks for a fantastic website.

  3. @Sarah — funny thing about absolutes (like, “nobody publishes their first manuscript”)… there are exceptions to everything, and if there aren’t, then there’s a first time for everything. The reason people don’t publish their first manuscript is because they haven’t learned – yet – what you’ve learned and are learning. If the story is solid enough, if one of the core competencies pops out from the crowd, if the two executional core competencies are indeed at a professional level, then why not? Why not YOU?

    Like that editor told me, NOTHING you write is ever a waste of time. Not for a real writer.

    Always, first manuscript to the last we ever write, we should try to make it as good as we can make it. Go for it, learn from it, enjoy he process, and maybe work miracles with it. Let me know how you do, okay? L.

  4. Larry, to push your analogy beyond the bounds of decency, I dismembered my ex-lover and used the best parts in my current, almost ready to pitch to an agent, WIP.

    The main characters in that old piece, a detective, coroner and head CSI each have been reincarnated (with excellent back stories) as secondary characters in the latest work.

    I actually like the old story, but renovating it was too difficult at the time. I think, after I get a couple of more stories out of my system, I will start from scratch with the same story idea, built from the ground up with the six essentials in mind. It will appear to then be a spin off of this current work, which I’m sure will end up on the New York Times Best Sellers list and will have a screenplay adapted by Mr. Goldman that will be nominated for a – okay, I’ll stop now.

    ;^) Tony

  5. Hi Larry, good timing as usual. I’m just reviewing my 5 earlier manuscripts and wondering if they are worth rewriting or should I start something new.

    These old manuscripts have been good friends helping me along the way. And like any good friendship, acceptance of the flaws of the characters involved is necessary! So to is an understanding of the limitations of the friendship itself – in this case it might be time to move on!


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  7. L-
    I like your analogy. I always considered my reservoir of manuscripts a swampy graveyard. Breathing life into them created zombies. But, like Tony, I find a morbid sense of humor and I spy something….to run with!
    It’s like that with anything, really. Beneath all the cliche, vapid expression and rubber-stamp-run-on-sentences, lies an axiomatic truth- one that started as “just a good one” that was subject to high-pressure high-temperature conditions deep in the bellows. That diamond of a thing isn’t a new novel, or even a first sentence, but it can be dug up, it’s good, it’s rare and it’s there…. beneath all your mental terra firma.
    Nice to think about these things again Larry, Thanks.

  8. Larry – Having both a stack of completed manuscripts and broken relationships, this post really hit a nerve. Sometimes I miss the days when I “knew” everything about being a writer – and needed only to be discovered for the talent I was. Likewise, I miss the days when I knew everything about being a boyfriend and husband – and needed only the right “one” to fall for me. Life is work and the writer’s life is even more so; and I remain thankful for the journey and its insight. Of course, I’ve still got my eye on the bestseller list… Peace, LB. Thank you. LL

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  10. Thank you, Larry. I have a hard time letting anything go–I cling to my stories and have difficulty allowing anything to go as a “lost cause” but I need to keep hearing reminders that these stories all teach us something and nothing is lost.

    The more I write the more I will be able to look at something from a distance and judge whether it can be revived or should be left alone and viewed as a good lesson, a due that was paid along the writing journey.

    Thank you for the encouragement. I’m on novel number four at this point, and slowly but surely, I am understanding more and more of how to write these with each one. This will be the first one in a long while where I’ve given so much more attention to structure and planning beforehand. So far, it feels so much better and has incredibly clearer direction.

  11. Thanks Larry, your blog is so helpful. I’m encouraged to keep on keeping on with my first attempt at a novel. In fact, I’m going to join in with the MAD Massive Action Day organised by Jurgen Wolff. Everyone is going to choose a goal, which in my case will be polishing up my first chapter, and then check in every 90 minutes to get and give support. Here’s a link, in case anyone wants to put your advice into action this very Saturday!

  12. Patrick Sullivan

    I struggle with this regularly, especially with stories that I started out on but realized had some huge flaw and I ended up putting on the back burner (my biggest problem was usually a hero spending too much time alone which is boring to read and not much better to write).

    In the end I made myself a promise. When I run out of ideas I can go back and work on something I already attempted and failed (assuming it will require more work than a polish).

    Nice to get a reminder of it though, because it’s still tempting to go back to the comfortable idea instead of daring something new and different.

  13. Julianne

    Larry, when are you going to be speaker at a conference?! I bet lots of people would go…

  14. Wasn’t “Twilight” Stephanie Meyer’s first novel? And she sold it (and the series of books that come after it). But I guess there are exceptions to every rule. 🙂

  15. Larry,
    Great post as usual. Thank you for what you do.
    I’ve struggled with this question forever because I have a terrible habit of steamrolling into a great idea only to run out of said steam halfway through. I constantly struggle with the question of whether I stopped because the idea sucks, or just because I didn’t plan it well enough to begin with.
    As you said, our old stories are gifts, regardless. Sometimes, they’re like the nasty ties and socks our kids get us when they have no other ideas. But sometimes, they’re the 3G iPad we’ve been salivating over and just can’t figure out how to get my hot little hands on! 🙂
    Thanks again!

  16. Mighty Boom

    “They were the currency of the dues we are required to pay before they let us into the game for real.”


  17. Ruth

    To me, my stories aren’t like lovers, they’re like children. And you ALWAYS want your children to be the best they can be – even if they have serious issues! 😀

  18. James Wilson

    Well, I’m a little late to this party, but . . .

    What goes into deciding whether or not an idea is worth going after? Why was the Kennedy idea not up to scratch?

    A lot of mega-selling fiction, viewed from afar, it pretty thin gruel. Harry Potter: Tom Brown with magic wands. The Sound and the Fury: three (or was it four?) takes on the slide into ruin of a once-prosperous Southern family. And heaven only knows how many Tammy meets the Vampire novels/HOBs/movies are out there.

    So, before I find myself 50K words into a dud AGAIN, I’d kind of like to have some clue about what may have enough horsepower to finish the journey and what doesn’t–before I set out.

  19. @Jim Wilson — ah, there’s the rub. You’ve completely nailed the $64 million question here. All the tips and guidelines and core competencies in the world, and we’re still left with no concrete sure-thing metric for this one. Which is why it’s the central variable in getting published, or not.

    I think we have to develop, hone and then trust our instinct. After a few swings-and-misses (I share the feeling, buddy, including my latest novel, which readers are loving but publishers, not so much), that remains our eternal torment. No wonder so many writers drink or shoot themselves. Because it’s always guesswork.

    My only solution is to write from a place of passion, and then do the best you can to make it commercially viable. It’s that passion that will win the day. And at the end of that day, we are always alone with our decision, and our story, and if it doesn’t please us (as its author), then what the hell is this for?

    Hope this helps, or at least soothes. L.

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