What to Do with Your Neglected Book Manuscript
Remember when you were fired up by your new book idea? You were excited by the possibilities, and filled with ideas. You made tons of notes, perhaps sketched out an outline or started the first chapter… Remember those days?
Now, you have a manuscript you’ve avoided or forgotten about for weeks or months…maybe years.
Life happened, and you got distracted by urgent matters. Or you started to feel tired when you thought about sitting down to write the next chapter or section, and you began to avoid the page. Eventually, you became embarrassed by how long you hadn’t touched your book.
The slope from procrastinating for a day or a week, to an utterly neglected or forgotten manuscript is a slippery one, and you’ve gone for a skid.
Where do you start (again)?
Is going back to my book worth it?
Most of us feel ashamed for having abandoned our manuscript. Especially if we told all our family and friends we were writing a book. Now, the kind and thoughtful ones are asking you how the book is going, and you’d rather clean toilets than answer their question. You feel like you’ve let them down, you’ve let your book down, you’ve let yourself down. You feel like a Failure with a capital F. Who wants to talk about that?
Here’s the truth—lots of us abandon or neglect book manuscripts. This happens all the time. So you’re not a leper for having done the same. Welcome to the writing community.
To answer whether the work is worth it, you want to do two things:
Ask yourself: Do I still want to publish this book?
If yes, the next step is: Read what you’ve got.
I know, I know. More on that below. Once you’ve read it, ask yourself the question again.
Step One: Read Your Manuscript
Depending on how long you’ve neglected your manuscript, you won’t remember what you wrote—not in any useful detail. You must start by reading your manuscript. You must approach this like a reader, or like a detective. Look for information.
YOU SHOULD NOT EDIT YOUR BOOK WHILE YOU ARE READING IT.
Read it through twice. The first time, read what you have all the way through from beginning to end, without reaching for your pen or pencil (or your digital tool of choice). Then, go back to the beginning with pen or note-taking tool in hand, and take notes. Notice how you feel about what you’ve written, see what loose ends or holes you might have left, and pay attention to how it sounds. Make a note of all of this.
Pay special attention to any titles you’ve used: the working book title, chapter titles, any sections or subheadings, any special terms or names used in the book. Do they still work? Do you want to tweak them? Make a note of any images you have. The titles and images can spark your text, and vice versa.
Write questions and observations, but DO NOT EDIT. Your best option is to print out a hard copy and write on it. Failing that, use the Comments feature in Word, or convert your document to PDF and use a digital pen.
Step Two: Verify Your Enthusiasm and Energy
Most of us start books in a frenzy of excitement. We love our ideas, our characters, and the possibilities for sharing them. We burst into our chapters like athletes bolting out of the starting blocks at the Olympics.
In the middle of writing a book, many of us get bogged down in the mud. Our initial adrenaline wears off, and now we’re stuck with the hard part of the race, where we’ve left our initial boost behind and can’t see the finish line yet (chances are, this is where you started to neglect your book).
As you re-read your book for Step One, ask yourself whether the idea or the story still excites you.
Most of us have this middle muddy section. Despite this, you should still feel affection and enthusiasm for your idea. This enthusiasm might be mixed with expletives, but it’s there. If you are still interested in your story and you still want to publish, move on to Step Three.
Step Three: Treat Your Book Like a Fresh Start
The advantage you now have is that you’re not staring at a blank page. The disadvantage you have is that because the page is not blank, you may have some hangups about the material that already exists.
Start as fresh as possible. Go back to your outline if you have one, or create an outline. Set up your writing schedule. Choose the part of the manuscript that most interests you (the low-hanging fruit) and begin writing there.
As much as possible, avoid revision. The exception is if you have most or all of the manuscript already written. Write new material before you revise. You’ll keep your topic fresh and will be less likely to abandon it again.
The bottom line
Picking up a neglected manuscript is like starting your book all over again. Read what you have, make notes, and pay attention to how much energy you have for starting this project again. There is no shame in deciding you’d rather not finish your book, after all. If you begin again, set yourself up for success by writing new material first.
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