Out With the Old… Or Not

First off, I’ll be signing books from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm on November 1st at the book fair in Albany, NY. The event is at the Silipigno Athletic Facility, 140 Academy Road. If you are going to be in the area, I’d love to meet you.

On to the post. On July 23, 2014 Bibliophile wrote, Does anyone else ever cringe when looking at stuff they wrote ages ago? 

I was rereading the one ‘book’ I ever finished writing and just started to die inside. The heroine gives in to the hero too easily, there is no real main conflict and the magic I use is not only cliche, but has no rules. The romance in the book is stilted, as is the dialogue. The main characters literally have zero relationships with any of the other characters and since this isn’t a post-apocalyptic novel, that is unacceptable and just plain weird. 

The worst part is, I can’t bear to take the time and actually rewrite/reread it all the way through. I seem to have lost my love for this book, which is a shame because, like I said, it is the only one I have ever ‘finished’. I have tried rewriting dozens of times; I have had conversations with the main character, reimagined the beginning, how they meet, totally reworked the plot. But every time I restart I get lost and annoyed. Is there any way to learn to re-love this story?

Michelle Dyck responded: Yes, I have certainly cringed – numerous times – when rereading old stuff! (I mentioned earlier the book I’m returning to. It’s a mess.) The good thing about cringing is that it just goes to show how much you’ve grown as a writer since then.

Dig deep into the heart of that story. Look past the weaknesses, stiltedness, and clichés, and search for the core. That’s probably what inspired you to write it in the first place, and it’s what can inspire you again. Remember what you loved about it. There’s got to be something that kept you going back when you first drafted it, and even if it’s not as sparkly now as it was then, it’s something! Try to draw it out. Reimagine what you can do with the story’s potential. Maybe that will help you see the problems with the eye of an artist, seeing more than what’s there, but what could be.

I’m with Michelle Dyck. I certainly have old writing that now makes me uncomfortable. And even in stories that I do like, that I’m working on now, I make mistakes. Recently, in a poem, I imagined a genie granting me wishes. He was an inquisitive being and unwilling to grant anything unless he was sure it would make me happy. I wished for the ordinary things: health and long life for me and the people (and dog) I love. I admitted these might just keep us alive and well. What would preserve my happiness, I wrote, was for writing to continue to be hard. Poem or no poem, I really believe this. No matter how badly a story or a poem was going, I’d never ask a genie for perfect writing or for writing to be easy. That would be dreadful, to sit down every day and pop out glorious plots and poems, effortlessly. How boring! How could I grow as a writer? I would weep and tear my hair.

I also agree with Michelle Dyck that being able to see the flaws in an old work is a mark of progress.

Here’s what you might try, what any of us can try with a story that no longer pleases us:

Without looking at it, just from memory, list (on paper or in your computer) the elements of the old story that you do like, scenes, bits of dialogue, descriptions. Now, without judgment, think about the main plot line. Write it out in a sentence or a paragraph. Again without judgment, list the main characters and the important secondaries.

Consider what you might do with what you’ve got–what you might do now, using the skills you’ve developed. We can regard this as a new story, but a lot of the work has been done, and how great is that?

Bibliophile says that in the old, despised version the characters didn’t connect with one another. Now is the time to think how they might interact, where they might come into conflict, where they might support each other, how they can contribute to our MC’s struggle and ultimate success or failure.

And the magic. Just because it didn’t have rules before doesn’t mean it can’t have them now. Where should the magic come in, and what might be behind it?

I have a novel, like Bibliophile’s, that I put aside, and, when I tried to read it, about a year ago, I found it so intolerable I had to put it down. It’s called My Future Biography. Just from the title you may be able to guess the problem: my MC, Marita, is obnoxious. She’s full of herself and always sure she’s right. The plot turns on something she does that’s so damaging, it’s impossible to like her. She learns her lesson, but too late for this reader.

At the same time, I like the secondary characters and adore two of them. The almost-boyfriend is utterly delicious. And the beginning of the book is hysterical. And I share some faults with Marita, like that tendency to think I’m always right, so I’m fond of her. But even in my most misguided moments, I would never have done what she does.

Maybe someday I’ll go back to the book. If I do–and thinking about it is getting me interested–I would follow the approach I just outlined. I might tone Marita down a little, and I’d give her other, likable qualities to keep the reader in her corner. And I’d find another way to deliver the lesson so that she doesn’t have to sabotage people who’ve been good to her.


But it’s possible that I couldn’t save the story if I tried, or I couldn’t save it yet, until I grew more as a writer, or until the right idea arrived. There are lots more stories to write, and I should get cracking on them rather than mooning over an old one. If Bibliophile or anyone else is drawn to an old story only because it’s the only one she’s finished, that’s not enough of a reason. If finishing is a goal, which it can be but doesn’t have to be, you might look at my posts on the subject, which you can find by clicking on the label finishing stories, and you may also want to check out my posts on revision.

Here are four prompts:

• I love genies! In a takeoff on “The Shoemaker and the Elves,” your MC is a writer who has a genie looking out for her. She finishes the day’s writing with her hero in trouble, but when she wakes up in the morning, her genie has solved everything. The story is finished, typed, and printed out. Write what happens next.

• Take it a step further. This over-zealous genie has emailed the manuscript in the middle of the night to five agents, one of whom, over-zealous as well, has already sent it on to three editors, and one of them has made an offer. The problem–-one of the problems–is that your MC wrote only twenty pages of this three-hundred page opus. Your MC is ambitious and eager to get published. Write what happens.

• Try the method in this post. Go back to an old story that no longer pleases you. If you can’t bear to read it, just think about it. Remember what you loved about it and use that as the springboard for a new story.

• Your MC is a new enrollee at the Hope for the Hapless Improvement School, which promises to turn every student into a heroine. Her failings: messiness, weepiness, awful chapped lips, an uneven growth curve, and an unusual sense of humor. The school has never taken in such a desperate case before, and the head mistress sees the new student as an opportunity to bring fame and fortune to the establishment. Write the chronicle of her school days.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. This was so super helpful! I have so many stories I've left that I want to go back to but don't know how–this just clicked that lightbulb on in my brain!!! I am so excited to start writing–Thanks Gail!!!

  2. I love the genie story, and this whole topic is more relevant than you know.
    Here's my situation, in a nutshell. I'm planning on doing an original (not fan fiction) story for NaNoWriMo this year. I have a new story idea that I'm… honestly having trouble getting excited about. Then I have this old story outline I came up with years ago that's been sitting in my head and my files but never written. I feel it's lost something for me as I've matured. I was waiting for the inspiration to finally write it, but that never came and I feel like some spark of it died while I was waiting.
    This post came just as I had decided to force myself to use the new "meh" idea. Now I'm rethinking that choice. Perhaps this post is a good omen. I think I'll follow your advice and take a good, long look at my old outline and characters. Maybe that will rekindle the spark.

  3. Gail-In a previous post, you mentioned that Marita writes a cruel review of her costars' performance and sends it to a local newspaper. Have you considered having her write it to let out steam and accidentally hit send instead of delete? I know a girl who did that with a teacher email. Just a thought, maybe it won't work with the story, but I hope you can find something to do with the book-or at least its pieces.

    • Thanks! I'll remember that as a possibility if I go back to it. I'll probably have to bring it into the modern world. It was written in a day when she would have mailed in the review, or I think she slips it under the newspaper office door.

  4. For NaNoWriMo I've been thinking of doing a first-person story from the perspective of a guy. I'm a little worried about it because my past attempts at first person haven't been very successful. I'm also a little concerned because I don't know if I'll be able to pull off the gender difference. Despite all that, I still think that this story will work better from the main character's perspective. Does anyone have any tips or pointers for this?

    • To start things off, sorry this post is so long. I couldn't shave it down to 200 words. I have failed in todays goal, and will quietly hum to song of "now-you-wasted-more-space-apologizing" to myself.

      What did you have trouble with the last few times you wrote in first person? Any specific problems you need help with?

      I do have some notes on writing male characters. I was just talking to my dad about writing different genders the other day. (Most of his main characters are women.) So a lot of this stuff is fresh in my mind.

      There was this one story that switched between male and female pov. One part that jarred me was when the male MC started describing the materials of the lady's dress. A man would probably notice the girl more than the fact her outfit is made out of Elvlandian Silk.

      According to my Dad, men tend to want to figure things out for themselves more than a woman. A woman is comfortable asking for opinions or collaborating, but a man can't stand asking for directions. You know the old joke.

      Our culture also has taught manly type men that it's wrong to openly cry or display physical (unless it involves bear hugs, wrasslin', or friendly socks to the shoulder.) or verbal affection in a platonic relationship. Your male MC shouldn't come across as overly emotional if he lives in this day and age. I find it silly and have nothing but respect for a man who is mature enough to cry when he has cause, but no one is immune to peer pressure.

      Finally, girls might soften their demands more than guys. A guy says, "Hey, hand me that spray paint." The girl may say something like, "Would you pass the spray paint?"

      The real fun begins when you mix and match the girly and guy..ey, stuff. I have a female character who despises asking others to do something for her and simply demands it. Dad says Mom would probably be a better engineer than him.

      I would advise you just to relax and write your story. Isn't that what NaNoWriMo is about? You can go over it and check for overly feminine parts when your polishing. Get some others input. Maybe ask a guy what he'd think/do in the situation.

    • Don't stress about the maleness in the rough draft. Just get to know your character and see what his own version of maleness looks like. I wrote a male character (3rd person) last November and it was a rewarding experience. I can only-ever-always be a girl, but writing a guy let me step out of my skin.

    • Thank you both for your advice! I think you're right, I just need to relax and enjoy the story for NaNoWriMo.
      Klondyke: I think most of the problem with my past attempts at first person is that they're all from when I was first experimenting with writing. They're terribly awful, the kind of stories that can't be saved. I had a really hard time with details in first person — I put in boring, unnecessary details and left out a lot of important ones — though that might just be because I was inexperienced. I also didn't know which thoughts to include (even now, writing in the omnipotent POV, I tend to stay out of people's heads because this is still a problem). I'd like to try it again, but I guess I'm just nervous that it will turn out to be the same boring, choppy result as before.
      Also, you're totally right about the men-don't-notice-clothing-material thing. One of my favorite books is a male POV written by a female author. She did a relatively good job with the gender difference — except when the MC starts to describe a friend's dress. It bugs me every time I read it!

  5. I have a question about teenage writer impatience. I'm in high school and have written two novels. Almost every writer I've heard says that you should wait to try to get your writing published (and I agree, as some of the "books" I wrote when I was younger are beyond saving) but sometimes it makes me wonder what the point is. I mean, I know publishing isn't everything and I grow a ton as a writer with each novel I write, but I am getting a little impatient. I love these stories I'm writing, and it makes me sad that they'll probably never be sent into the world even after all the work I've put into them. I know that I can always go back and rework them when I'm more experienced, like you said in the blog post, but I'm still sort of wondering how I'll know if I'm ready. I don't know if I'm making any sense, but does anyone have any tips?

    • Here's my situation. I'm 17 and I graduate this year. When I was 15, I set a goal to write 6 "practice novels" before I finished up school. Writing? Fun. Publishing? Hard. I think Number 5 has the most potential, so after I finish Number 6, I'm going to query it. Maybe it will get published. If not, I'll write something else. Once I'm published, I'll have to juggle things like deadlines and promotion and book signings. Of course I'll still love my stories the way I love them now. But it will be work. I figure I can write books for the rest of my life but there are some things I can only do now. Like filling out those college applications. Look at Gail. She didn't get published until she was nearly fifty and she's doing just fine. And now she's going back to school, too. There's no need to get all your life's dreams done right now. Just take things one step at a time.

    • That's such a great idea! I mean, I'm totally fine with waiting to try and publish, but it felt kind of aimless writing without any sort of goal. Thank you!

    • I don't think there's any reason to hold off on trying to get published just because of your age, but there are some important things to keep in mind:

      Make sure the publisher's willing to work with younger authors (Especially if you're not old enough to sign your own contracts yet.)

      Keep in mind that most stories get rejected. (Even pros still get plenty of rejections.) Are you ready to face the possibility that you may hear "No" many times before you get to "Yes?"

      There are scam publishers out there. Make sure that you're submitting to a reputable outfit. (Check them out in a place like Preditors and Editors first.) Especially be careful of anyone who asks you for "reading fees." THEY'RE supposed to pay YOU.

      And have fun! 🙂

  6. Does anyone have any advice when it comes to naming countries? I decided it would be so fun to come up with my own "fake Europe" only to remember after I made my big map that I stink at this.

    • Every time I make a country, I think of words that would describe it. Things like "Trees" if it's wooded, "Strong", or really anything that has to do with it, no matter how remote that is. Then I translate the words on my list into a different language (Google Translate is fantastic for this!), pick a word I like, and change it around until it's something that works. Hope this helps!

    • I have this problem, too. Maybe try letting gibberish sounds fall off your tongue, mixing and matching vowels and noises until you find something that sounds good. That's what I did the other day, and I finally named the island in my aforementioned story.

  7. Ok, I have a question. A simple grammar question that I should know the answer to without asking internet people, but do you put a comma or a period at the end it a quotation before putting 'he/she said' or can you put a period?
    Let me simplify that a bit:
    "Great," he said.
    "Great." He said.

  8. Okay, so I've taken it upon myself to write an entire page of story every. Single. Day. I've chosen one of my minor-er stories because I wanted to plan it out as I went along so as not to get too bored, to plan nothing but some fairly major things. But, now that I have been doing this for a little more than a month and a half (I haven't written every SINGLE day, as I planned, as a few things got in my way and made it impossible, and some days I just COULDN'T write [you know how it is] but I've got about 35 pages right now). My problem is, I'm not even half way through my story and already I LOATH it! Ooh, I hate it so bad that sometimes I want to hurl my notebook across the room and then stomp on it. I haven't done this yet, but I foresee it happening sometime in the (possibly very) near future. What am I supposed to do? Keep at it, or start on a new story, or abandon it completely, or save it to come back to it in six decades? Does anyone have any advice? Thanks a lot.

    • Save for another day. It sounds like you are sick of this story just because you have forced yourself to write it every day. I personally find that my writing enthusiasm comes sporadically. So unless I have a dead line, I write what I feel like when I feel like it. But bravo to you for making it this long! I wouldn't lave lasted a week!

    • Thanks Bibliophile and Carpelibris. Yup, I am officially retiring this story, for at least a month or so, and I'm gonna wait for a bit before starting up a new one. I'll just plot out a few of my other more back-burner tales so as to be doing SOMETHING authorish to brag about in my journal, but that's about it. (It's always great to brag about yourself in your journals and know that someday you might forget what really happened and read it over and think "I was such a productive/clever/creative/cool/exceedingly talented [etc.] person!" I am so evil, I think about tricking my future self into believing nice things about me. Or maybe I'm doing it for my grandchildren to read and admire. XD)

  9. This post is nicely timed! I'm currently in the middle of a creative writing course which provides me feedback on a novel I've written. Problem is, based on the feedback on the first chapter, I scrapped all of what I had and changed the premise…which might make my novel ultimately more tolerable, but right now is a real pain in the neck! I've absolutely no motivation, and I can't decide if it's because I dislike the story, or just because I haven't plotted enough. Perhaps the no-judgement writing exercise might help.

  10. Morwen Cider says:

    I always see writing advise that says to cut when you revise but my writing is usually to thin and flat and needs to be padded out. Any suggestions for filling out a story, making it more emotional, adding details etc.?

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