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When should writers return to old, abandoned work?

We asked seasoned fiction authors to find out.

Craft and technique

Isn’t it possible that your fictional craft might have become measurably better from the time you penned a manuscript, especially if you return to it several years later? And if that’s the case, shouldn’t you be all set to return to a ditched project – and make it a success?

Not necessarily. When she first began her novel about a thief, Leavitt couldn’t decide on story and structure. “I was working under the assumption that I would just write and write, and the story would reveal itself to me. But it never did. There was not enough character development; there were no moral blind spots or choices.” When she returned to it, about three years later, she had a much better sense for story structure, but by then, it seemed too overwhelming of a task. “I didn’t feel that I wanted to make it work – not anymore. So, I let it go,” she says.

As to honing one’s craft, says Nichols, “This is what one hopes: you’ve evolved and become a better, technically improved writer when you take up that shelved project again, and now you can figure out how to do it.”

And so, of course, it is possible that your improved craft can spell success.

But, suggests Nichols, you shouldn’t give exclusive importance to craft. He believes “deeper, darker things are at work in revisiting older ideas.” He grants that time away from an abandoned project may well give you a leg up in terms of handling the craft. “An idea may have marinated longer – long enough so that you can grasp what you’ve been groping at;” still, says Nichols, “the only major writing technique I know – don’t stop – I’ve discovered by simply keeping at it, by pushing through a perennial lack of confidence.”

According to Nichols, writers should define “craft and technique” more broadly, more holistically, to include “self-discipline in terms of continuing to write in the face of massive, potentially crippling doubt.” The willingness to tough it out for the long haul must belong to the writer’s tool kit as much as the understanding and handling of fictional craft and technique. “Over time, one picks up a few felicities or economies of expression, but keeping going, a familiarity and subsequent ease with sitting down and staying in the chair, is the main overarching technique of writing. Stopping, giving up on an idea, may be the reason any project is shelved.” Nichols does grant that “there are projects that should be abandoned, but it can be hard to know if you give up too soon. But what’s too soon? How long should you persist before calling it quits?”

Abandoned projects

Abandoned projects can turn into success stories – if:

  1. You’re inspired enough to return to them,
  2. You can recapture the mood of the work,
  3. You can find a way to handle the subject,
  4. You can handle the demands of craft and technique, whatever they might be,
  5. And, finally, if you’ve got that writerly persistence all writers need.

Don’t be too quick to bail out on a project, says Sheila Kohler, author of 10 novels and three story collections: The story or book manuscript you put in a drawer might be a real winner. “I think of the famous story about Hilary Mantel, who wrote a book called A Place of Greater Safety about the French Revolution and was told by her agent to put it away. So, she put it in her drawer until she was asked to write an essay about the book you put away in the drawer, and she wrote the essay and was then approached by an agent who said the book sounded very interesting – it was then published.” As Kohler notes, “so much depends on chance, no? Timing?”


—Jack Smith is the author of six novels, three books of nonfiction, and numerous reviews, articles, and interviews. His collection of articles on fiction writing, Inventing the World, was recently published by Serving House Books.


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