Recycle Or Trash It? Reworking An Old Manuscript

Opening an old manuscript feels a bit like glancing at your own diary. There are things in there you'd forgotten about that you're delighted to see again, but that's probably outweighed by the blushing and embarrassment.

We grow as writers over time and our skills develop by small measures, something we don't notice in the day to day, but are readily apparent when we look at a manuscript from years (or even months) ago.

People are often surprised when I tell them that The Female of the Species is the first book I ever wrote. It was, but the version that I banged out in my college dorm room in 1999 has absolutely nothing in common with the manuscript that sold fifteen years later, apart from the title and a few character names.

That manuscript went through multiple revisions in the intervening years, some with me laboring over already existing pages, and two entirely from scratch. Yet it wasn't until 2014 that I considered opening it again and taking another crack. Once more, I glanced through a few pages and knew there was nothing salvageable.

File> New Document, here I come.

It is intimidating, definitely. I had hundreds of pages of existing words that had been revised multiple times. They served their own purpose on the journey towards creating the publishable manuscript, but those words were more like speed bumps on that highway. If I chose that route I'd have to hit every single one of them, consider it, rephrase it, re-work it, or - yes - delete it and rewrite it with my newly acquired skill set before I could move on to the next paragraph and begin the analysis anew.

It's slow work, and hard.

I didn't even consider this approach when re-drafting The Female of the Species because of a single element.


In itself, voice is a tricky element of a manuscript, one that is ephemeral and hard to describe, even for the author. The original version of The Female of the Species was an adult thriller, not a YA. I knew that the whole thing needed to be scrapped in order to change the voice so that it was appropriate for the age category, and that's something that's very difficult - I would almost argue impossible - to insert through a line-by-line breakdown.

Here are some things to consider when you're trying to decide whether to revise that old manuscript, or start fresh with the concept.

  1. Voice - as I said before, voice is embedded in the manuscript, and trying to force it into each line through a broken and slow process can be extremely difficult. If you're going for a new voice on this revision, I'd recommend a fresh start.

  2. Characters - who are these people? Did you think your female was hilarious a few years ago, but now you find her annoying and sarcastic? You've probably changed as a person, and the lens you're looking at through her now is adjusted. Is she way off from what you were trying to portray, or can you take that edge off her by adjusting some dialogue?

  3. Setting - This is one of the hardest things (in my opinion) that a new writer struggles with. Is place important to what you were writing, or is it a story that could happen just about anywhere? If you took a whack at writing something deeply connected to a physical location as a young writer, take a look and see if you played that hand a little too heavily - or too light - and consider whether or not the struggle of drawing those connections can be inserted between the lines, or if you need to start fresh.

  4. Dialogue & Tech - Does it talk like a human? Great! Or maybe it talks like a human stuck in the 90s? If your book is heavy with pop culture references or depends on technology for plot twists, definitely do a serious consideration of whether or not it's something that you can scrub, or if the simple presence of a cell phone makes your entire plot pointless.

Don't be afraid to mix and match. You may have huge swaths of pages that only need a little tweaking, and then a really bad run of a hundred or so that have got to go. That's fine. Always save multiple copies of your work, with titles that tell you exactly what it is so that you don't have to go digging through files to find that one working version of your novel where the paranormal angle stayed in.

Also, don't assume that seasoned writers have it all figured out. I started a new manuscript this week and currently have six different operating versions while I try to figure out POV, tense, and where the story is going to begin.

Lastly, as always, once you've got something you think might be workable, find a reader. Critique partners are how you improve. Find one that won't be afraid to tell you that using AIM to have your teens talk to each other isn't viable anymore.



Why I Push My Backlist

As an author you quickly learn that a big part of your job is marketing. Once you are published you are no longer just a writer - you're a promoter, marketer, social media director, and even a traveling salesman. Many of us aren't well-suited for standing behind a table and hand-selling our books at events, but it's a skill you must learn if you plan on doing many events.

Hand-selling becomes easier as your backlist deepens. When I was a debut author with one title on my table - and, only in hardback for the first year - I might sell 7 or 8 copies at an event... and that was a good event. If post-apocalyptic survival wasn't your bag, I didn't have anything else to offer you.

This remained true for my second release, IN A HANDFUL OF DUST, as it was a companion novel to NOT A DROP TO DRINK. However, now that DRINK was out in paperback, readers were more likely to take a chance on a $10 paperback and a writer they weren't familiar with, rather than shelling over $18 for a hardcover just out of curiosity.

It gets easier.

Now I've got a table of titles. I can push DRINK & DUST to readers as young as 13, because they don't have the content that my newer titles do.

I snag older readers - and many, many adults, with A MADNESS SO DISCREET. Do you like mysteries? Historicals? Serial killers? Asylums? I've got all four right here, with a gorgeous cover that makes for an easy sell. And if I'm in Ohio I always add that it's set in Athens, home of Ohio University.

No matter where I am, THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES continues to be my best seller, even though it's only available in hardback at the moment. Teachers, librarians, booksellers, reviewers and bloggers have already done the work for me. I have readers arrive at my table knowing what they want already. And if you're not familiar with it I'll tell you it's a rape revenge vigilante justice story... so it's either right up your alley or it's not.

If you're a fantasy reader I've got GIVEN TO THE SEA fresh off the press, its eye-catching cover stopping many people who would normally pass on by. In my experience as a librarian, you either are or are not a fantasy reader, so I don't have to push that one too hard. I simply say if you like fantasy, check this out, place it in their hands with the back cover facing up so they can read the summary - they're either going to jump or not.

With this array - and more to come - I'm easily moving 50 to 60 copies at events now. Yes, it helps that I have established readers and a fan base now, but at many of my recent events I was out of state, and my returning fans tend to be Midwesterners. When I've got a reader new to my work in front of me, they often ask what's the best one to start with, and I invariably hand them NOT A DROP TO DRINK.

It's a good introduction to me - sparse, brutal, and honest. But it's also got the least amount of objectionable content, so I can hand it to a reader unfamiliar with my stuff as a way to dip their toe in the water. DRINK released in 2013, and continues to sell for me. When I'm asked which titles I want stocked at events (most cap your table at 5 books, some at 3), I always make sure DRINK is listed. It's a reliable stand by, a safe book to hand to a younger reader or a parent or grandparent looking for a gift.

And of course, it's my debut. The fact that it continues to find new readers makes me happy, and it's out there doing its job - introducing people to me.

Keeping It Real

Often people ask what release day is like for an author. You have two choices. You can reload your Twitter feed and check your Amazon ranking constantly, or you can pretend like it's any other day and go about your business.

THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES released last Tuesday and I opted for the latter. First things first I went out and walked the yard because we had a decent storm a few days earlier and there were sticks that needed to be picked up. So I went about doing that and discovered a dead crow in the yard. Being a writer, I had a reaction.

Me: There's a dead crow in the yard.
Boyfriend: Do you want me to get it?
Me: I'm more concerned about what this could mean on my release day.
Boyfriend: *stares* Okay, I'll get it.

Then I checked my Twitter feed and Amazon ranking.

Then I did laundry, which has a particular zen to it because I hang my laundry outside to dry. I managed to forget it was a release day for about ten minutes, because nothing smells quite as good as wet laundry and sunshine. And then one of the cats came over to see me and and flopped over for a belly rub, so life was good.

Then I checked my Twitter feed and Amazon ranking.

Next it was time to do dishes, because there's a particular zen to that when you own a dishwasher. I had some mason jars that had herbs stuck to the bottom from the homemade pizza sauce that had been in them so I told the boyfriend we needed to go to town because I needed a scrubby thing on a stick.

Boyfriend: Right now?
Me: Or I could get on my laptop and check my -
Boyfriend: Okay, right now.

So I went "into town" (and yes, that's a phrase we still use out here in the country, all Laura Ingalls Wilder-like) and I got my scrubby on a stick, and Mr. Boyfriend decided he needed to buy some other things at the hardware store, so we went there. I remembered I wanted copper pipe for distilling essential oil out of my juniper bushes, so I distracted myself with a whole wall of copper pipe for about 10 minutes.

Then I pulled out my phone and checked my Twitter feed and Amazon ranking.

And then - amazingly - Paula Abdul was playing on the store music feed and I found out I still know all the words to "Straight Up," which led me down this path of thought about oral history and cadence, and how music and rhythm assist memory. It really is a particular kind of magic that you can hear a song you haven't heard in 25 years and still know every word. Boyfriend was attempting to figure out what size vent pipe he needed for a project while not listening to me sing and so...

I pulled out my phone and checked my Twitter feed and Amazon ranking.

Then we got coffee and I'm one of those people who rejoices at pumpkin spice time and doesn't mind that absolutely everything is pumpkin spiced right now. My road is being resurfaced as a I type this and I think they're using pumpkin spice. I'm thrilled.

I got home and pulled out the laptop. I had some emails from friends who also had books releasing that day, who were taking a break from checking their Twitter feeds and Amazon rankings to email me and ask me about my Twitter feed and Amazon ranking.

This is what release day is like.

It makes you neurotic and I enjoy every second.