Most writers have, somewhere, a drawer full of stories or half-finished novels, not to mention numerous scraps of paper with snippets of story or plot ideas scrawled across them. Some writers still have their very first novel, written earlier in life, tucked away somewhere and collecting dust.
Early stuff, to give it a non-technical term, is the unpublished work you have produced since you began writing. Looking back on these stories and novels, you can probably see why the work you produced then was never published – poor writing, terrible characterisation, lots of telling and no showing – and yet for some reason you couldn’t bear to bin them. That’s probably because they formed the basis of your fiction-writing learning curve; they made you the writer you are now.
There is an important reason for not throwing any manuscript or half-finished story in the bin. In fact, the reasons are twofold: Firstly, by revisiting those old manuscripts and stories you will be able to see how flawed and raw your writing was at that earlier stage compared to the writing you can now produce. It provides a benchmark on how you have improved. Whether your work is 5, 10 or 15 years old or more, you will see just how much your writing has changed. What you wrote then will be quite different to what you write now and so it becomes a marker to chart personal progress. That’s because as writers, we are constantly evolving and improving.
(If you are completely new to writing, this will also be true in years to come, as you write more and improve your work. So don’t throw any of your work away.)
The second reason for not throwing early stuff away is that there are many elements of these previous unpublished works that provide a large creative pool of words, sentences, phrases, ideas, plots, situations...in fact, just about anything from which to ignite your imagination and write something fresh.
That’s what the three R’s philosophy is all about.
This is very similar to recycling, but not to be confused with the same concept. Re-using work means you take sections or elements of previous unpublished writing and use them in your current writing projects, pretty much word for word. This could be a few great words from a short story, the kind of words that stick in your mind, or it might be a fantastic sentence. It could be an entire scene that you could use without much tweaking, or you can re-use your work as another writing concept completely. The latter is common with flash fiction, by turning it into short stories, or turning short stories turning into novels etc. Essentially, you are re-using the original material for another purpose.
Of course, it’s not just writing that we should reuse. Writers should do their bit for the environment by printing only when necessary. Some writers prefer to edit using a fully printed version of their book rather than doing so on screen, so when you’ve finished with the editing, use the reverse of the paper for something else rather than use up a fresh batch of paper.
Unlike reusing some of your work, recycling means that you take some elements of what you have written from previous works and regurgitate the material to produce something completely new. This works with raw material like stories, novels, flash fiction, poems, notes etc, as well as concepts and ideas. How many of us have half-scribbled ideas, sketches and notes locked away, collecting dust along with unfinished novels?
Revisit your old stories to see what you can salvage and make anew. We all have stories that didn’t make the cut, or they didn’t work somehow – maybe at the time the concept just wasn’t right, or the story didn’t quite make much sense, or they were stories that were rejected so many times you just gave up on them. There could be ideas for poems, flash fiction, articles or new stories waiting to happen or there could be a new novel leaping at you from the dust.
You can pretty much recycle anything: characters, plot ideas, themes, dialogue; chapters, whole stories or novels – you name it - and turn them into something new. Maybe even a portion of your old unpublished novels or stories might even become secondary plots within your next writing project.
This works twofold, too. Firstly, we all have to print from time to time, it simply can’t be helped, and this involves paper and ink and peripherals in varying quantities. An average 80,000 – 100,000 word novel could number 320 – 400 A4 pages. That’s a lot of paper when you’re editing. It’s very much as case of common sense, but only print when it’s necessary.
Secondly, you will also notice that, during the editing stage of your masterpiece, you will need to get rid of unwanted scenes, overly long chapters, boring dialogue and narration etc. You should aim to shave around 20 – 25% from your work in progress. The resulting novel will be leaner and tighter and a much better read. (This also reduces your printed page output).
The moral of the story is this: never throw any of your old writing out. You can find use for it. Reuse, recycle and where you can, reduce - get every last use out of your paper, books, notepads, stories, ideas and novels etc.
Next week: why research is vital.