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A 5-Step Guide to Reviving Dead Projects

February 8, 2019

“I started a project a few years ago and wrote a chunk…but I never finished it. What should I do now?” I’ve heard this tale from every writer ever. We’ve all had a project sputter and die at some point in our journey. When we take a break for too long, restarting the engine can be difficult. The abandoned story probably bores us, and we may have trouble remembering the timeline and the different character motivations that propelled it.

 

Many writers (like me) scrap the rusty project for a new one. Sometimes that’s a smart decision, but giving up can also become a bad habit. If you want to dive back into writing, don’t start by deserting a book. But how do you reignite your enthusiasm and meld the new parts of the story with the old?

 

If the prospect of dragging out your clunker of a story and cranking it seems overwhelming, these five steps should break down the process so you can handle it easily. If you’re already revving to go, pause for a deep breath. First you need to rebuild your novel’s foundation, and then you can finish it for real.

 

Step #1: Remember Why You Loved the Story

To make progress with your story, you need to become infatuated with it again. What aspect originally captured you? The characters? The plot? The first scene that popped into your head? Rifle through your notebook, outline, or character sketches. You’ll likely stumble upon a cool idea you discarded (or plain forgot).

 

If you can’t find any notes or documents from the brainstorming stage, try talking to a friend you told about the story. If you didn’t share it with anyone, think back to when inspiration struck. Were you in the shower? In bed? At the bookstore? Return to that spot and clear your mind of distractions. Catch up with your characters. Recall the perfect plot twists you had in mind.

 

If you still aren’t pumped up, ask your best, most encouraging friend to read your draft. Discussing your story with a supportive, close friend is exhilarating. Plus, if your friend joins in the excitement, he’ll be around to prod you to accomplish the next four steps!

 

Step #2: Reacquaint Yourself with Your Manuscript

Once you’ve sparked your love for the story again, compile the text into a single document and print it out. You haven’t worked on it for months, so you need to refresh your memory of the plot points and themes, as well as who the characters are and how your prose sounds. A quick read will reload that information into your brain, but don’t do it on your computer. A paper copy provides three advantages:

 

  1. Holding pages that are filled with your words is thrilling, and reenergizing yourself is the goal.
  2. You won’t be able to change anything. If you start rewriting prematurely, you’ll never get your story off the ground. Put it in ink that can’t be edited, and you’ll complete the task much faster.
  3. Paper unplugs you from the internet. You can’t immerse yourself in the story if you’re flipping to Facebook, the SE forum, and that intriguing article about a kugelblitz drive.

Now, sit down and pore over your book. Don’t edit, but if you have an idea for a future plot point, character quirk, or anything else, jot it in a notebook. Write down any events you foreshadow too. These details will help you expand the story and maintain continuity so you avoid writing two disjointed halves.

 

Step #3: Revise Your Outline

For one reason or another, the original version of the story didn’t hold your interest, which means it won’t grab readers either. But don’t lose hope. Instead, reassess your outline. If segments you’ve already written need changed, that’s okay. Make a note but don’t backtrack. You must move forward. Try to connect the ideas and foreshadowed events you recorded during the last step in fascinating ways. Your revamped outline doesn’t need to match the previous one. That outline died. Give this one new fuel.

 

If you’re a pantser, still do some planning. Pull ideas from your list to invent potential plot points that stimulate you. Maybe you’ll use them, maybe you won’t. The goal is to have fun playing with the possibilities. Prove to yourself that the story can be salvaged.

 

Step #4: Write the Next Scene

You’ve fired up your story. It’s humming, and the sound is music to your ears. You remember where you started and what you’ve written since then. You’ve drawn up a blueprint.

 

So, whatever scene is next, write it. And keep going until you arrive at the end.

 

I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating: Don’t return to the beginning and rewrite. Countless writers assume that this will only take a few days, or a month at the outside. But it becomes a cycle of rewriting chapter one, then two, and being hit with an idea that prompts them to rewrite chapter one again. Eventually they end up with an amazing opening but no book. Don’t be like them.

 

Your story is on the edge, precariously balanced between reaching an epic conclusion and falling into the abyss of unfinished manuscripts. Push forward. Don’t look back. Enjoy writing fresh material. Relish the rising tension as you get closer and closer to the climax. And celebrate your achievement as you cross the finish line.

 

You’re a writer again!

 

Step #5: Circle Around

Normally, when writers finish a first draft, I recommend they set it aside for at least a month before touching it with a red pen. Distance is invaluable when you need to pragmatically evaluate your own words. However, you don’t want to detach yourself from your story when you’ve just finished writing the latter half and your mind is still in the zone. This is your opportunity to go back to the beginning and rewrite the first half so it complements the second. Tweak wording, the scenes you flagged earlier, and the characters so they feel consistent.

 

After that, you’ll have wrapped up the novel you thought would bury you. Congratulations!

 

Why Perseverance Matters

Getting stuck on a project is natural. I’ve never met anyone who’s been writing for longer than a week and hasn’t, at some point, jammed up their wheels. Unfortunately, if you can’t yank loose, you won’t succeed in the writing world (or anywhere else). But you can dislodge yourself. All you need is guts and a solid plan.

 

You’re a writer. Get stuck. It comes with the business. But you’re not a quitter, so don’t tell yourself that a story is old or boring or hopeless. Make it fun again, and then transfer that to paper.

27 Comments

  1. Maddie Morrow

    This is excellent. Makes me want to go dig through my basement for some long forgotten projects and try this.

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      YES. Brave the basement. Find the fabulous (or awful) old projects. Make them fabulouser (and finished.) DO IT.

  2. Heather Shore

    This really speaks to me, thanks for sharing. I’ve been struggling with continuing to write a novel and now I want to dust off the cobwebs.

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      Yes! Do it! Dust them off and melt them in climactic torchlight!

  3. Ariel Ashira

    This is great, but what if I like part of my story but I still think the other part I had is dumb? I have a WIP like that and I dont know what to do with it. It would be too embarassing to show it to anyone.

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      Hey I have a project like that. Here’s my answer: idk if you figure it out tell me plz.
      😛
      Okay but yeah I’m not sure, that’s probably a case-by-case basis type solution. I would recommend isolating why you don’t like the half that is “dumb” and either replacing it with something else (that could take some serious brainstorming) or trying to build the storyworld up in such a way that it makes sense.

    • Ariel Ashira

      Haha, I think the reason I think its dumb is because it is neither real world or fantasy, it could probably happen somewhere on earth I just dont know where, which makes me confused. Also, the subject itself is kinda strange and the characters are different acting than any of those in my other WIPs.
      I probably need to get over it and write it and stop being SUCH a perfectionist. 😛

    • Brandon Miller

      I mean… I agree with how you wrapped that up, but idk if I can say it and sound you know… professional. (But seriously you’ve got this go get that bread 😛 )

  4. PursueWisdom

    *two thumbs up*
    Thank you, Brandon!!
    Just what I needed… I’ve recently “ran out of steam” on my WIP 🙂 Going to the basement now…

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      Yay the basement! (I think…) Good luck down there!

  5. Irene Dreamer

    AMAZING post, Brandon! This is exactly what my friend and I needed!
    Our brick wall is doing the opposite of #4. We’ve rewritten the first chapter at least four times (and never progressed)! What would you suggest we do at this point? Go back to where we left off in the good ol’ original draft and go from there? (Because, to be perfectly honest, I still like that original better than all the revised versions.) Or just try striking out from the latest revision and not look back?

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      I would choose either 1) whichever version has the most written in it (if one has significantly more that is usable) or 2) whichever version is closest to what you want the final product to be (even if it’s not completely correct).
      Glad this was helpful for you guys. Good luck moving forward!

  6. Evelyn

    I’m bookmarking this haha! I just have so many old projects that I’ve wondered what to do with. xD

    Thanks for this great article Brandon! 😀

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      Wow thanks that’s so cool! I got on a bookmark bar! 😀

    • Evelyn

      Yep. You’re life is now accomplished. 😉

    • Evelyn

      *Your.*
      Typos… thanks.
      Way to spoil the drama. 😛 xD

    • Brandon Miller

      lol I feel that really hard

  7. EricaWordsmith

    I must admit… The picture at the top of this article… I just… WHAT ON EARTH???!!!! I’m sorry, but the way that picture really captures the feelings of a crash and burn story idea had me laughing. That was great… XD
    So an actual formal comment…
    Great post! I will have to dig this back up when revising and working on a particular project I keep saying is for later, but WILL get back to…
    I had so many story starts that went nowhere until I actually got to my real story that I fell head-over-heels for and have been working on ever since, but that’s just the problem: I didn’t love them. Maybe someday they could be seeds to something, but no great love, simply scoffing is bestowed upon them (and the occasional tender pat on the head), so adios for now to those projects!!

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      Hey I’ll pass your kudos on to the graphics people! (They did do a stand up job, didn’t they?)

  8. storyjoy

    Yeeeeeeeeesssssssssss thank you!! I needed this 😛 You just inspired me to dig out that novel I ditched a while back… (we’ll see if I actually get around to it or not, but at least the motivation to do so is here now. XD)
    Thanks for writing this!!

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      Yay motivation! Thanks for reading!

  9. Libby

    I smiled as soon as I saw the title. Just how many times have I dumped the first ten chapters of a book I’ve lost my passion for??
    This was motivating and a bit convicting, too. To be honest, I’ve always felt bad that I put all those ideas to bed and never woke them up again. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. I am looking forward to dusting off some old stories and making them new! –and now I have some concrete ways on how to do it! 🙂

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      I hope you find and finish one of those old projects. Good luck!

  10. HopeInTheResurrection

    THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR A FABULOUS ARTICLE!!! Oops, I had caps lock on. :”> But maybe that will help get my point across better…? Idk thanks anyways for a great article! I’ve been inspired to go root out an old story now…

    Reply
  11. MyClipboardIsMyViolin

    An highly applicable article to my situation. *looks at five unfinished novels* Bookmarked.

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      Same, if we’re being honest. *checksmyownnotes* yeah, I should do this sometime lol

  12. Catherine Roche

    Just… Thank you. I found this article again, and I think I’m being promoted to really write again. My writing for the past couple of years has been very little. I’ve been doing a fanfiction challenge (Inktober spinoff) this month, and it’s reminded me… I love writing. I truly do. And I’m not bad at it, either. I had a work I started in sixth grade with a single word prompt that started a project. Since, though, I’ve stopped considering myself as having a WIP. I gave up. But… The way God has directed me to certain articles that have inspired me and certain people that have encouraged me… I think it’s time to have a WIP again.

    Thank you.

    Reply

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