How to Breathe New Life into Old Fiction

Alex J Coyne
Written by Alex J Coyne

Every writer has them: stories you wrote and then forgot about, stories you could never quite get a handle on and have put away, or ones that got rejected into shameful exile at the bottom of the desk drawer. These are almost always worth another look, and with some tweaking they might turn into gems. Here’s how to breathe life back into an old story.

Delete Nothing

Keep and file everything you write. This includes half-finished stories, outlines, rejects, and the bastard children of your writing repertoire. They’re always worth taking a look at again, and I’m a fan of letting fiction brew for a while after I write it: There, in the dark, it turns into something of its own, and you’re more likely to look at it with new eyes when reading it again.

Going through previously written work is great when a call for stories comes up, and keeping drafts allows you to see where a story went.

Reading Through Again

Make yourself comfortable and read through the story again. Three times is the magical number. On the first pass, don’t think, just read. On the second pass, take a slower and more critical look—emphasise everything you might’ve spotted the first time. On the third pass, take your editing hat and a pen—red, preferably—and start making notes in the margins.

(If the old pen-and-paper method isn’t your thing, turn on your word processor’s “Track Changes” before putting on your editing hat.)

  • How do you feel about the story as a reader?
  • Can you see why you got stuck?
  • What would you write differently?
  • What’s missing?
  • Did you spot any spelling and grammar errors?

When Editing Light

Some stories are fine with just a little tweaking—a sentence here and there, killing off an annoying character a couple of paragraphs sooner, some spelling issues, and then it’s go time. These fixes become easier once you’ve read through the story a couple of times and made your notes. Generally, you’ll find your way around the story during the three read-through’s and know where you want it to go. Light editing works for when you just need to change it a little – a bit more back story here, or expanding a character there.

Rewriting and Heavy Editing

Others are a little harder, and might require serious changes. You spotted a plot hole, there’s a huge chunk of text you no longer need, a character that serves no purpose. (Friends, family and beta-readers are great at spotting these holes.) Sometimes you need to come up with a whole different ending or beginning.

Break the story down and make detailed notes. They’re essential. Take note of…

  • Scenes and places, almost like you would for a screenplay: Chapter 1, Scene 1: The Coffee Shop, Fresno, CA, USA. This ensures you keep track of what happens in every scene.
  • Characters and more about them, like their appearance, name, relationships and role in the plot. Even passing characters should be noted. (Ever downloaded one of Stephen King’s character lists off his website? Take a look, they’re extensive – and rightfully so!)
  • The plot and progression: What are the story’s major happenings, critical events and eventual ending?
  • Timelines, dates and chronology
  • Details like colours, place-names and real-world references
  • Your notes from the three read-through’s.
  • Make a separate list of any changes you’d like to make to the story, whether they relate to the scenes, characters or a major – or minor – part of the plot.

Now take a look. It’s almost like reconstructing a crime scene: Take what you have in front of you and break up every little detail until you’ve got the bigger picture. Now, take your “evidence” and build it from there. Make changes to your notes before tackling the main story – short or long fiction, but especially when you’re taking on an unfinished novel.

Knowing What to Slice

“Kill your darlings” applies whether editing heavy or light – if it’s word-filler, cut it. Another gem of advice, from The Elements of Style, and something you should print next to your screen: “Omit unnecessary words.”  Start with…

  • Words you don’t need. Maybe it’s too flowery, maybe you overdid it a little on the adverbs. Overused words will count, too. If you have to ask yourself, cut it.
  • Long-winded descriptions. Do you really need five pages to describe the color of your hero’s eyes or the smell of the office when a paragraph or two will do?
  • Superfluous dialogue: People in fiction very rarely talk the way people do in real life. If they did, most of the book would be about the mundane things like grocery lists and taking out the trash.
  • Filler chapters. Cutting an entire chapter – or section – is painful, but sometimes you just can’t help it. If your book starts going in another direction entirely or the chapter contributes absolutely nothing to the plot, you don’t need it: Keep it for something else.
  • Rephrasing. Could I have said that better? Kicking life back into old fiction is a lot about putting things differently while still building on what you had to start off with.
  • Clichés. ‘Nuff said.
  • Once you’re done, read through it all again, and compare it side-by-side to the draft you wrote before that.

Typewriter Magic

I’ve heard many writers show their preference for pen-and-paper or typewriter because of the lack of a backspace button. Why, exactly? It cuts out the critical part of your brain. Just a little. The little voice in your head that stops your writing mid-sentence and gets you to hit the backspace button, sometimes taking an entire ten pages with it. Avoid this reflex in your writing and re-writing: It slows you down. Finer changes are what the editing process is for.

How to Know When You’re Done

Just when a story can be considered done… Well, that’s the hard one. Stories are technically never done, and you’ll always spot something – maybe now and maybe later – that you would’ve changed.

Changes have occurred between book editions and different publications; changes occur on the editing room floor; it’s bound to get changed a little again before you click send. It’s very, very easy to get stuck in a cycle of the never-ending story: At some point, you have to consider this draft done and ship it out to a potential home.

If it’s not ready for that, it goes back to the dark place and gets to stew a little more until it’s ready. If it is, good luck, and remember: Just in case, keep your drafts!

About the author

Alex J Coyne

Alex J Coyne

Alex J Coyne is an author, freelance journalist and language practitioner. He has written for international publications and blogs, been featured on radio and appeared in NB Publishers’ Skrik op die Lyf, an Afrikaans horror collection. Visit his website and get in touch at

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