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When should writers return to old, abandoned work?

We asked seasoned fiction authors to find out.

“Art is never finished, only abandoned.” —Leonardo da Vinci

We might say the same thing as da Vinci about a work of fiction. You revise a story or a novel a dozen times or more, and still you find something to fix. In fact, the more you look, the more you find. Will it ever be over? No, it seems.

Still, you must stop at some point, and so you do. You submit it, or you shelve it.

If you shelve it, that’s real abandonment.

But perhaps at some point – perhaps years later – you decide to revisit it. What are some things you should consider? Will certain factors come into play?

We considered three major factors and asked several seasoned fiction writers for their thoughts and experiences with revamping old work.

Let’s hear what they have to say.

Mood as a factor

Mood can take two forms – the mood of the story or novel you abandoned and the mood you’re in when you try to get back into it – that is, your emotional state of mind. As any writer can tell you, the mood you’re in makes a great difference when you tackle any work of fiction. But let’s say this project’s been gathering dust for several years. Are you charged up enough to take it on? Do you have the right inspiration?

Lois McMaster Bujold, speculative fiction writer and four-time winner of the Hugo Award, can speak to these very questions. She returned to an abortive novella after a seven-year hiatus. In 2011, she had completed 15,000 words on a “high-concept tale” about bioengineering, which she nicknamed Radbugs! Then she ran into a brick wall: “Radbugs, and then what?”

Plot-wise she had drawn up short: “The internal problem was that of making the Radbug bioengineering project central, as semi-realistic science (fiction) – it didn’t have a novella-like time frame or structure.” She considered two options, the first being a story that concentrated more on the research. “But scientific research like that is just a whole lot of tedious back-and-forthing on experiments and data collection for several years until the concept either becomes viable or is proved not to work.” Her second option didn’t seem viable, either. “Letting the story focus instead on some of the human problems encountered in those first 15,000 words seemed too much like another story I’d written. I eventually stopped and went on to other things, thinking I’d finally own a trunk story. But it itched. It was half done.”

In 2018, she was in the right frame of mind to return to it. “In the course of events (including major surgery, a house move, and reaching supposed retirement age), I finally ran out of other things and circled back to it somewhat in the spirit of spring cleaning.” By now, she was ready to make that novella work. If she’d been frustrated before, she now went back to this project with a laid-back, just-let-it-happen attitude: “I decided to stop fighting with the material and just let it run out on the most immediate social story-problem – people illegally residing in a radioactive zone.” To Bujold’s relief, this meant a shorter route to completion – 20,000 words instead of 40,000.

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All in all, her once-abandoned project was now a success story. Her newly titled novella, The Flowers of Vashnoi, was published as an indie-published e-novella, a form she’d been experimenting with for three years. The hiatus of seven years would most likely have been “time enough to declare it legally dead, but that’s not what happened,” says Bujold.

For Bernice L. McFadden, author of 10 novels, mood is a major factor in the drafting process. “I have to be in a very specific emotional space when I write – and, more often than not, that space is an emotional one that is rife with anxiety and/or melancholy.” Mood-wise, returning to an abandoned project has typically worked in her favor. “In many cases, the lapse of time has been on my side when revisiting stories that I’d abandoned for one reason or another.”

A “deep emotional connection to the subject” is key for Caroline Leavitt, author of 12 novels. Recapturing that emotional connection can present a problem for her, but she was able to do so with a novel that didn’t, at first, look like it would pan out.

“Recently, I decided I was going to write a novel based on an article about a woman who had grown up in a Hasidic community and had left, along with her child, to be secular. A few years later, her child was kidnapped back into the community, and she lost custody.” This story enthralled Leavitt; for one thing, she felt a personal connection since her grandfather was an Orthodox rabbi. Even so, as she was in the midst of doing field research, interviewing people in the community, she began to realize that she wasn’t the right author since she lacked “firsthand knowledge” of her subject. “I felt like a fraud,” says Leavitt. “So, I stopped and abandoned this book to write a new novel.”

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Still, this abandoned project worked at her so much that a few years later, she felt compelled to return to it. But first, she wanted to know what it was about this novel project that was pushing her to complete it. After giving it considerable thought, she realized that it was the larger idea of “being pushed out of a community for something you had done.” This theme of ostracism gripped her.

With that theme in mind, she had the right inspiration to return to her project. “That idea became the novel I am working on now, Days of Wonder, which I immediately sold on the synopsis. Did I abandon everything in my research or writing? Nope. I made it part of a character’s past that informed her decisions in the present.”

With some abandoned projects, success means getting into the mood of the story or novel itself. An old work can feel strange, alien. Is this actually your work? According to Jim Daniels, author of numerous collections of short fiction and poetry, “With some pieces written years ago, even published stories, it feels as if another person wrote those stories, and in many ways, it was another person – a younger version of myself, a person I might resemble in some way but not the same person.” When Daniels attempts to revise old work, while it’s “hard to recreate the mood, the state of mind” of the abandoned work, “sometimes things do click.” He’s not one to throw things away, so he often does return to “old stories that petered out or ended with an unsatisfying thud.”

Some fictional works might remain in that unsatisfying state, regardless of how much effort you exert. For 25 years, Peter Nichols, author of the bestseller The Rocks, has “repeatedly shelved” a particularly problematic novel, which he refers to as Project B. Making a go of the work has seemed impossible. “It’s my go-to project when I’m between books. I’ve tried it again and again.”

The voice of this novel – the voice being related to the mood – is one major problem he’s encountered. “Each story seems to me to come with its own distinctive voice. I hear it again each time I return to an abandoned or shelved project. Part of my problem with Project B is that the voice is always different.” That is, each time Nichols returns to this manuscript, he feels he has to relearn, or reacquaint himself with, the novel’s voice – and yet, for some reason, that’s been a daunting task; not able to do so, he feels blocked from making any major headway. Perhaps, he says, he could pull it off if he “could find a new voice that would take me all the way.” But there’s no guarantee of that. “Writing a novel is a mystical, subliminal process, and usually the only way to know if it’s going to work is to start and try to keep going.” Meanwhile, Project B remains temporarily, if not permanently, shelved.

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