Sometimes we writers love chasing down new ideas, but other times, we stumble back across an old piece of writing and think, “Well, this isn’t totally trash. I should rewrite it.” Rewriting old writing is very rewarding and often more fun that we might first imagine. However, there are many difficulties, so I want to share three guiding questions and seven tips to help you rewrite an old story.
My current project is actually a rewrite of an 11 chapter, 4000 word fairy tale that I wrote when I was nine years old. I am now 19 (as of today, actually), and last month, I sent an 80,000 word document off to beta readers. I have completely started over and rewritten the story twice and done a dozen other rounds of editing. My main character is no longer my point of view character. My least favorite character is now one of my main and favorite characters. The plot has completely changed. All my names have changed twice. My talking buck, naiad, and talking lark characters turned first into air, fire, and water elves and then into a mortal, a makhaedrac (a creature I created out of several myths), and a selkie. My world’s map is more realistic but of similar shape. My characters are more developed but true to their original manifestations, and hopefully, the sense of childish wonder still lies in my story. So trust me when I say that writing this old story was more than worth it. In fact, I think I learned a lot more by rewriting an old story, but that is a topic for another day.
As I have rewritten this story over and over, I have found that there are three key questions to rewriting an old story well.
- What do I love about this story?
- Do you love the characters? Then you should stay true to their particular personalities, quirks, and interactions that you loved. Do you love the premise? Then you should make sure to focus on developing that better and more in your rewrite. Take what you love and improve it. Use that to motivate you to finish the rewrite.
- How can I stay motivated during the rewrite?
- Staying motivated can be a huge problem when you are rewriting an old story. It is all too easy to focus on the wince-worthy dialogue, boring plot, and horrendous description and narrative. So focus on what you do love, but also find other ways to motivate yourself to keep going. Maybe find some old drawings you drew of the characters and put them on your desk to make you smile. Maybe plot out your rewrite and get excited about a scene you will get to rewrite if you finish.
- What should I change and what should I leave?
- This question is the one we are most inclined to focus on, but it really is not the most important as the first two questions often answer the third. Leave and emphasis the parts of the story that you love or motivate you to finish. If a character, scene, chapter, or anything else is discouraging you from finishing, then leave it out! Of course, the rational side of your writer’s brain will tell you all sorts of other things to change, but leave in the parts that you love, even if you think them a bit silly. Let your beta readers tell you if you are just indulging yourself, but if you take out everything that you love in a story, then why rewrite it?
So ask yourself those questions and take time to really answer them. These questions will help you focus, stay motivated, and know how to rewrite, but here are a few other, more practical tips.
- List what you love in the old piece and post it near you when you write. Yes, I mean an actual physical list. If you don’t, not only do you risk losing motivation, but you also may accidentally change something that you love and only realize it years later (I am speaking from personal experience.)
- Don’t be afraid to completely start over. Get a new document. Grab a new piece of paper. Don’t edit in the old document, line by line. If you do, then you will not be able to take the story in new directions, add new scenes, or make your dialogue more realistic. You might try, but it will just be frustrating and come out disjointed.
- Remember why you wrote the old piece. This is something that has become key in my current round of edits on my novel. I was originally inspired by the wondrous sense that fairy tales have and the beauty in nature, but I lost this in one of my rewrites. Then I looked back and realize just how much I lost by making my story so dark and serious without the wonder and beauty. You once valued something and were inspired to write about it; just because you are more mature and a better writer does not mean that you should no longer value that thing and should abandon that inspiration. Write about that thing better and create a close story to your inspiration, but don’t get rid of your original motivation in writing the story.
- Remember not to scorn innocence, joy, and wonder for “realistic” themes, settings, and characters. Innocence, joy, and wonder are real– just as real as tragedy, pain, and sadness. You are more mature, but you do not have to be jaded. Sure, add some darker themes and harder questions into your story (I sure did), but do not throw out all of the childish happiness.
- Chase some bunny trails. Do not be afraid to take the plot in new directions. Focus in and expand one part of your plot. Take half the story to chase down a character’s backstory that you never developed. You may just find what you thought was a “plot bunny” becoming your new plot. I know this happened to me.
- Make sure that your characters have both weaknesses/unlikable traits and strength/likable traits. One of the biggest mistakes that we make in our early stories is to have poorly developed characters. One of my characters had no likable traits and most of the others had no unlikable traits. So take some time to fill out some character profiles and round out your characters.
- Reread your old story often and keep a clean, unmarked copy beside you as you write. This will help you stay true to what you love about the story and keep you motivated. It is also helpful for when you forget where you were going or need to check on a couple details. And don’t mark up this copy, that will just get discourage for you to see when you keep glancing over at it.
So what do you think about rewriting old stories? Have you ever rewritten one of your old stories?
Good luck with your writing this week, and God bless,