Oh, the things you discover during spring cleaning.
I’ve always felt that old stories never really die—they just disappear, waiting for the right time for their creator to pick them up again. Sometimes you just have to give up on a project for whatever reason—time constraints, loss of passion, family emergencies—and then they end up gathering dust in a binder or an abandoned hard drive somewhere. Rediscovering them can be like lunch with an old friend; inwardly, you know everything about them, but rediscovering little details gets you giddy all over again. You may even start imagining the possibilities again. Maybe you can spruce it up and get it published!
But you’ve got to tread carefully when it comes to older stories. Yes, you may have a brilliant idea in all those pages of paper, but there’s some things you should keep in mind. Like visiting old friends, revisiting old projects takes a steady hand and not too much excitement—after all, you don’t want to scare them.
Be thorough. Don’t just read through the first five chapters, get excited by your own brilliance, and declare the story Your Next Big Thing. Go through the entire thing (all of your manuscripts, if it’s a shelved series) before making any judgments. A lot can go wrong after an exciting beginning.
Take notes. Not that I encourage abandoning work, but if you’re coming back to a story months or years after the fact, then you have the rare chance to look it over with fresh eyes. Take advantage of this. Mark it up, scratch things down, realize that yes, that is a plot hole, and no, random apostrophes alone do not make an exotic name.
(You may consider making notes to yourself for all projects—why you want this character that way, or what this particular scene means in the context of a larger story. It can spare you some long moments where you re-read your work and wonder, What was I thinking?)
Look at style and structure. Your writing evolves with you. You may look at something you penned three years ago and not entirely recognize it—you may be thrilled by how good it is, or cringe at how awful it is. Your new distance from the project can also help you identify whether it should be written in its present format, or if tenses, narrative voices, and characters should be switched around. You may even be inspired to take up the idea and run with it like it’s fresh.
Maintain an open mind. If this is a project you dropped years ago—or something that was written in the middle of an emotional snafu—you may be surprised at the story, the quality of writing, and other aspects of the work. Don’t slam your younger self. Odds are the story has some problems—otherwise, why would you have dropped it?—but you’re the one with the computer or pen. You can fix this if you put your mind to it. Nothing is hopeless.