Authors frequently refer to things in “the bottom drawer.” It may actually be a box in the closet or a CDR in the back of the box, but it is where we keep our projects that are dead in the water. Maybe we got partway through and something horrifically just like it showed up on the book racks: these evil accidents of fashion happen. Maybe the idea didn’t work out, and we decided not to throw good time after bad, so we walked away from it. Maybe it went around to every possible publisher and just didn’t sell. The problem may not have been in the book, but in publishing fashion. Sometimes we are writing the books of ten years ago, and sometimes the market isn’t ready for what we’re writing and sometimes it’s just the wrong spot in a cycle.
The bottom drawer is a place of cobwebs and dust. The “back burner,” on the other hand, is a place to keep things warm and bubbling. It’s often where we keep ideas that haven’t quite jelled yet, possibly for decades. We may have gotten interested again in the idea from reading our own idea books, and this may be the project to work on after the current one. In the meantime, we collect some research now and then or draw some maps or do some conlang work for an invented world. We may have written nothing on it, or it may be a partial needing more thinking-out.
As a writer, your ideas and words are what you have to sell. It makes good sense both economically and emotionally to leave only incurable juvenalia in your bottom drawer.
Look at it with an eye to revision or recycling. Writing out your thoughts makes it clear to you, not only for today, but for months from now when it’s not so fresh in your mind. Start a page with the present title or some other description at the top. Free-write about what you like, what works (they may not be the same), and what’s wrong.
One of the things wrong may be that you outgrew the story, or you or the world just aren’t in the place anymore where this story was coming from. Those can be kind of incurable.
Otherwise, see if you can figure where high-level revision may bring this story alive again.
If not, consider parting it out rather than wasting it entirely. At the top of the free-writing, make a list of good bits, whether descriptive narrative or world-buiilding, or characterization. If the plot were good, you pretty much would have a live story just needing some fixing up. The usual deal-breaker is that you really can’t make this story work, so you might as well scavenge the good writing out of it. Then copy the lists from all bottom-drawer projects to a single Recycle file. When you’re stuck for how to describe something, check to see if you haven’t already done it a while back.
As well, keep a database or table or list of your back-burner projects, at least the ones you’re conscious of. You want to be able to access them more clearly, when you’re looking for something to do.
The database is the high-tech version of the old “commonplace book” where writers would note interesting ideas, paste in articles and pictures, and so on. Then you had to do an index for each volume. Too much work!
The database only has to be a date field (for when you got it), a Kind text field (place, event, person, plot, setting, motif, althist, mystery solution — as many as you like and whatever you like), and several Note text fields to hold a lot of information. If it’s really big, copy the article into a folder called Commonplace Book and note its file name with a brief summary in the database. You can also do this for pictures you collect as JPGs or keep in a notebook. Commonplace Book is a good folder to keep the database itself in.
Other good things to keep in Commonplace Book folder: your in-house library database (ask if you want a good layout for the fields for books for a writer’s reference); the Table of Contents lists of CDRs and databases for your hugeous ebook collection (1500 items and plenty to go); a database of interesting websites, because the lists on your browser can’t be sorted, like a database, by several criteria. In the latter database, include the date you found them. When you go back, they might be gone, but you can use the Wayback Machine at archive.org to try to reach a copy.
When you’re at loose ends, sort the database to put plot or character ideas at the top, and start reading through them. Things may start to stick together. Look through your reference databases to see if you have anything relevant there, already.
When something does gel, make it its own folder with a working title. Put the pictures (sub-folder, Art), maps and charts (sub-folder, Maps), a bibliography of books, articles, and websites, and copies of the PDFs or HTMLs in sub-folder Reference, and so on, to pull it together. If you tend to historical fiction, you could have a lot of ebooks here.
Put the ideas from the database into a word-processor file with the book’s title. Start adding the connecting ideas.
You can take it from there, off the back burner and onto the front.