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When should writers return to old, abandoned work?

We asked seasoned fiction authors to find out.

Subject matter as a factor

How much of a role might the subject of your work itself play? After all, writers tend to move on to different subjects, depending on their life experiences, their interests at the time, things they’ve been reading, etc. To what extent might the subject matter of your abandoned story or novel become a stumbling block – or, on the other hand, possibly work in your favor?

To begin with, where do subjects for novels and stories come from?

“Most writers are stamped early in their lives, even before they begin to write, and they find subjects that may seem different but that come from the same emotional wellspring,” Nichols says. In his case, this wellspring amounts to characters who are generally not happy, “driven or pushed beyond normal circumstances into a situation, into emotional turmoil, where they discover other sides, new versions, of themselves.” Although working with the voice and mood of Project B has challenged him, the subject itself hasn’t. “This seems to be my subject,” he says.

Daniels’ fiction consistently deals with working-class life. Even though that world is deep in his past, he feels obsessed with this subject. “Also, the sense of place – Michigan, suburban Detroit – continues to attract me.” For him, abandoned projects typically “come from this world, the world of my youth, that I can see both more clearly and less clearly as I get older.” Returning to a shelved story works best, says Daniels, when he’s forgotten “what may have happened to trigger the story.” When that occurs, he finds it easier “to make up new events and characters and enter the more purely fictional world.”

A particular subject might continue to work on you, whether or not you’re working on it. This happened to Bujold with a novel that eventually became Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen. In 2012, she began her novel merely “as a freeform writing exercise,” but she soon got caught up in it: “The story kept presenting itself in my head, so I went on.” Still, she couldn’t get a dramatic storyline going. “A few chapters in, and it kept refusing to grow any kind of genre action-adventure-intrigue plot, despite my dangling several possibilities in front of it.”

But she couldn’t get it out of her system. “The story sat in the road, maybe a quarter of a novel, blocking any other work but refusing to move out of the way.” By mid-2014, after a two-year hiatus, Bujold finally decided to go for an indie e-publication, “and let it be whatever story it was trying to tell me.” This turned out to be “an extended examination of grief and recovery, mainly, plus more exploration of my fictional technology of the uterine replicator and its social impact across generations as well as genders.” Her endeavors were more successful than she’d expected – her regular publisher, Baen Books, brought out her novel in 2016.

Some projects go belly up because the subject is just not working. Leavitt faced this problem in penning an early draft of her novel With or Without You. She was interested in the subject of healing, specifically regarding “people who thought they could heal and what that might mean to the healer – and the people who were supposedly healed.” She tried out several different novel openings, but the subject itself just wasn’t working for her. She ended up shelving it after 200 pages.

Yet the idea persisted, though it wasn’t until five years later that she returned to her shelved project. “I just couldn’t let that idea go, and I realized I needed to figure out what it was that had interested me in it and what interested me now.” What she had loved, she realized, was “this story of a woman whose whole life had changed, and, because of it, so did the life of her partner.” While Leavitt was no longer interested in the subject of healing, this subject – dealing with substantive change – now became the springboard for a new subject, also one of transformation: “the idea of change from a coma.” In her research on this subject, Leavitt discovered that “some people can come out of a coma with brilliant new talents.” Her novel became about “fame, ambition, and what we owe the ones we love.” She had a subject she could work with, and “the book began to unfold.”


It’s possible, of course, to broaden or deepen your understanding of a given subject over time. Then wasn’t a good time, but now is. McFadden can speak to this issue of timing. For her, timing worked just right for “God’s Work,” a story Lee Child anthologized in The Nicotine Chronicles. She drew this story from a longer, unpublished manuscript, later entitled Annunciation, in which she “was agonizing about the child sex trafficking that was on the rise around the globe.” Childs’ invitation to submit a story to the collection took her right back to that unpublished manuscript.

“God’s Work” also serendipitously “came on the heels” of McFadden’s 2018 novel, Praise Song for the Butterflies, “which deals with the West African tradition of Trokosi – a version of sexual slavery that is cloaked in religious ritual.” This novel was a revisiting of My Name is Butterfly, which she self-published in 2008. This was the same time period that she penned the unpublished Annunciation.

According to McFadden, both “God’s Work” and Praise Song for the Butterflies were successful because, as she states, “I stepped away, giving myself time for the personal stories of the real-life victims of sexual assault, sex trafficking, and religious ritual servitude to marinate and foster within me a deep and profound empathy for the victims.” Over time, she gained a “new level of compassion,” with which she could return to both story and novel “with clearer eyes that abetted in the conception of the authentic prototypes of the real-life victims and their circumstances.” Praise Song for the Butterflies, she notes, was longlisted for the 2019 Women’s Prize in Fiction. “Some things do get better with time,” she notes.

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