Remember that memoir you loved and spent ages on, years back? Or the novel you loved which has just spent ages on a slushpile, but come back? Or the story you coolly put in a drawer for six months, and now the light of day is actually cold you can see that it really doesn't work? And yet ... I've blogged about how to tell if your revisions are making it better or worse, and when you should stop revising. But how do you know whether you should be working on it at all?
As ever, it vastly improves the chances of reaching the right answer if you set up the right process. If you're standing there with the MS in your hand or on screen, you have a chance to read it cold and fresh: as if you're a reader. So make the most of your chance: don't dip in and fiddle but instead, as Jerusha Cowless said here, use this read-through as a process of problem-finding, not problem-solving. For myself, that requires hard copy, a biro, a notepad, and a very comfortable sofa: you may differ.
Don't start working on corrections or changes, because readers don't do that: instead, use the hard copy and the notepad to record your readerly reactions. This is a diagnostic read: be open to what the book gives you, and try, as a good doctor does, to set aside your first assumptions about what's probably wrong, so as to listen/feel for what's really on the page. Note the clunks and creaks and saggy bits, but don't try to cure them. Record what works too: what's healthily convincing and exciting is just as important an aspect of the patient. And when you know what this book gives a reader and what it fails to give, there are quite a few options.
1) Give up on it because, actually, you're not excited by it any more. Your interests in writing or in life have moved on. Be honest, now: can you and do you want to do more work? If you're a stubborn type, you may be reluctant to give up but, after all, you've done perfectly well up to now not working on this. A creative worker always has the right to say, "I have better things than this to spend my creative energies on." BUT are you someone who flits from project to project, and finds finishing things difficult? Would it be worth pushing a bit harder, doing some relaxed, speculative thinking about how the story might be re-worked, and seeing whether you do get excited again?
2) Give up on it because a trusted reader or industry person has said it's beyond redemption or no reader would be interested, and you agree. Your plan to tell the story of Savanarola through the consciousness of the stake he's chained to as he burns didn't turn out so well. It's too late (or too early) for a romance set in the First World War to sell. A SciFi thriller which imagines the CIA reading the German Chancellor's emails has been overtaken by that inconvenient phantasm known as Real Life. That's life. BUT if you think through the particulars of that project, to the quality of that story which excited you - the thematic and emotional heart of it - could you transplant that quality to another setting or story which would work or sell?
3) Give up on it temporarily, because you've some idea of the problem, and it's not one that you know how to solve. But another project may teach you more, and meanwhile this novel isn't going anywhere. What's for you, as they say, won't go by you. You could even set up some projects to help you learn what you think it needs, rather than hacking about in the text itself. This is the only option that I can't think of a BUT for, unless there's some way in which the project is time-sensitive and it's now or never; in that case it's perhaps the moment for some help from your writers' circle or a trusted teacher-type editor, to work out how to solve it.
3) Revise it, because you want to and can see what the problems are. This, in a sense, is the obvious thing to do. Now for the problem-solving: click here if you're daunted by the relative sizes of your elephant and your spoon. You could even try importing it into Scrivener and chopping it up, so as to be able to handle individual bits without getting in a muddle. BUT it's worth thinking about the scale of what needs to be different, and I can best illustrate that with an anecdote.
Years ago I did up my kitchen, and I wanted a bare-sanded floor-board floor, but it was a mid-Victorian house and almost every board had been cut and lifted once or more at some point in the last 130 years. "I could get rid of the worst and shuffle up the rest. But would take me all day to do the jigsaw puzzle, which I'd have to charge you for," said the builder. "We'd need two or three new ones which would be a completely different colour and texture, and it would still look terrible at the end. I wouldn't take any pride in it."
The thing is, words on the concrete page always look more convincing than the cloudy words that have arisen in your head to suit your new conception. That's what "darlings" really are, and murdering them is difficult: when you're totally re-working a project it's like pushing a real, teenaged child out of the house to make space for a baby that's not even conceived. So the risk is always that holding onto the old stuff - which may be gorgeous writing or fascinating ideas - distorts your overall sense of what the story needs. It becomes, unconsciously, an exercise in saving old writing, not doing whatever it takes and cutting whatever should go, to create a story which works.
The builder continued: "Whereas if you give me £200, I can pop down to Wickes, get a room's worth of new boards, and have them down by lunchtime. It'll cost you much less and look a hundred times better." I did, he did, and it did. Which suggests another option:
4) Think of this as a new story - a totally new take on an existing project - and treat the old one as raw material. In other words, you use the idea, setting, characters etc. as no less, but also no more important than any other material that's in your imagination and life and notebooks. And then you think up a new story which won't have the failings of the old one (though of course it may prove to have others: such is life!), plan it and write it, drawing on as much of that material as the new story wants and nothing else. It'll be quicker than your first go at this project, because of course so much is already decided and the raw data has composted down. But the big difference is that you're letting the new, whole concept of this project drive your decisions about which words and characters and scenes get onto the page. I'd even suggest that when the new story does need some of the old story's words, you don't copy-and-paste, but copy-type them, for reasons I explored here.
AND if you're horrified by the inefficiency of copy-typing in a world which has invented drag-and-drop, and, more generally, you're rebelling against abandoning a whole lot of work and starting again, then I'd suggest - respectfully - that you haven't quite grasped the role that efficiency plays in creative work. Creative work is inherently wasteful, but that doesn't mean throwing aside time or money will make your work better (I'm a great believer in not messing around when you're working: in having a to-do list and sticking to it.) It's just that sometimes what seems efficient in the crudest sense is actually very inefficient. Reducing the number of new words you must write to the minimum isn't nearly as efficient, because it's not as effective, as making the most of your capacity to conceive and grow a story which actually works.