Blog image for Should you dust off that old novel?
Should you dust off that old novel?

I’m currently analyzing a novel that received very fast agent attention some years ago.

Later it piqued the interest of literary scouts. There was international interest. But in spite of the initial promise, the novel failed to get an English-language deal. And because of this, the international publishers didn’t take it either.

The main issue was that it needed a developmental editor.

A common piece of advice is to ditch a rejected novel and get on with the next one. This is not bad advice in the short term. But it could be a mistake to ditch it forever.

How to decide if your book is worth saving

Here are some things to consider:

  • Did the novel show a lot of promise?
  • Have you had positive feedback since on its potential?
  • Do you now have the skillset to address any problems and fix them?
  • Do you want to rewrite the book? (If you don’t, then that’s the end of the matter.)
  • Market trends might also factor into whether it’s time to rework that book
  • Taking a few years out before re-examining the book is also instructive – it’s hard to read your own novel with fresh eyes at the best of times
  • Is this book similar to other books you have written or intend to write? (If it is, that would be a plus.)

It’s understandable that some books are not worth revisiting.

But when a huge amount of effort has been invested, as well as research, and the problems can be identified, it seems a shame to close the door on a rewrite.

After all, revisiting the book is like meeting up with old friends… visiting old haunts. But you also get to meet new people and new places as the new draft takes hold.

Identify the problems and the solutions

In the case of this novel, the central issues lie in a problematic triad of structure/location/viewpoint. It’s a classic example of how changing one thing – viewpoint – could actually change the structure of the entire book.

If the main character is telling the story, the reader can only know what they know and hear things when they hear them.

This can have a very negative impact on story structure, pushing a lot of twists and revelations towards the latter part of the book.

And this in turn creates structure and pacing problems.

This is what happened with the book I’m currently looking at.

Multiple third-person POVs would make a huge difference, freeing up the narrative. The plot structure would be more balanced. And information, revelations, and so on, more evenly spread through the book.

If a book has a strong central voice, it might be difficult to let go of it and try something new. But if you really want to give your book a second chance, it will be necessary to change some things.

This writer intends to rework their book.

But for other writers in the same boat, the question is, do you want to rescue your novel or not? If you’d rather keep it as it is, and you’re okay with it not being published, then you can leave it. But if you want to publish it, it’s best to look at what can be improved.

The advantage of returning to an old manuscript

Here’s the beauty of working on an old manuscript:

  • You know the characters already
  • You know their backstories already
  • You know the locations already
  • You know the plot and subplots already

So, you don’t have to start from scratch. You already have this information in your head.

You just need to have the objectivity to know what’s best to keep and what to throw out. Hopefully, your writing skills will have improved enough that you can pull off a good rewrite.

Never use the old manuscript as a roadmap

But here’s something to avoid – dusting off your manuscript and using it as the basis of the rewrite.

What you should really do is read it over and make notes on what works and what doesn’t work. There are things you previously thought were important – maybe you’d happily ditch those things now.

What is worth keeping? What do you wish you’d done differently?

Write up a rough plan. Then put the old draft aside and start again.

Give yourself the freedom to start from scratch. Where you find your enthusiasm flagging, you might have stumbled on something that doesn’t work so well anymore.

Where your enthusiasm picks up – that’s something worth keeping, or maybe just something new and exciting!

The thing about tackling an old manuscript is you’ve already done the research and planning. You don’t need to plot the whole thing out again unless you have serious plot holes.

Maybe the plot is great but it’s let down by the choice of viewpoint or the order of the scenes. Or there’s something off with the structure.

Or maybe you started your novel in the wrong place and this set off a chain reaction right through the novel. And now you can see how to fix it.

Not everyone wants to write a lot of novels. Some people would rather write fewer books and spend more time on them.

One approach is not better than the other. Writers are all just different. This is not a competition.

Should you dust off that old novel?

It really comes down to whether you’d want to spend more time with the characters and that world.

It also depends on the value of the manuscript. If it received positive attention from industry professionals, that might suggest it’s worth revisiting.

Of course, you could just go down the indie route and publish it yourself.

But if you want to have another go submitting it to agents, you could put it aside for a while. Even better if it’s been lying around for a few years. The more objectivity you have, the easier you will find it to spot the strengths and weaknesses.

If you try to rewrite the manuscript by closely following the previous draft, you’re in danger of making the same mistakes again. Because the old draft exerts a certain gravitational pull – where you end up repeating too many things from before.

In fact, tinkering could actually be harder than throwing out the previous draft (metaphorically) and starting again. Constantly referring to the old draft takes up too much time.

Open a new file. Here’s your fresh start.

You know your main plot and characters already. You are free to make any changes you wish. You are free to change the name of your characters, their appearance, and so many other things.

You can make things better. Use the skills you’ve learned since the last draft.

This is your second chance.

Useful links

If you want to check out my editing services, I offer developmental editing, manuscript critiques, beta reads, and custom reports. If you don’t see the particular custom critique service you’re after, you can email me at: