20 August, 2013

Reduce, Re-use, Recycle

Do you ever recycle the best parts of your past writing into new works?

I have a short story hanging around my computer at the moment which, after months of tinkering, I'm finally happy with. I don't think it's my strongest concept or plot - it's not the next Bridport winner - but I have a huge affection for it and I think it has a chance of getting somewhere in a smaller competition maybe. I have a bit of a dilemma though. Some of the writing within the story - the individual sentences and paragraphs - are some of my best bits of work. The writing and the story are sort of on different levels.

So, dear readers, do I enter it into something small and if (very much an if!) it wins a prize accept that it's going to be read by a handful of people then get filed away forever? OR, do I scrap the story and keep the writing for use in something with a better concept and plot? Or, is it possible to do both?

I know some writers write short stories that later turn into full novels, or that are character studies for their novel-in-progress. That sort of re-using old work seems fair enough. Reducing the elements of a short bit of fiction down to a central idea, then using that again, also seems fine to me. After all, my first novel is essentially a developed version of four failed short stories I never managed to get how I wanted! But what about recycling whole sentences, or even passages from semi-successful work?

Imagine you've written the best description of a thunderstorm you possibly could, in the middle of a short story. It's creative and interesting and avoids cliches, and yet isn't pretentious or out of place. Your story wins a competition, gets published online and read by a couple of hundred people. Some months later you're writing a novel and a storm comes up (hey, you have a thing about storms, don't blame me). Do you use your amazing description, perhaps edited very slightly, or do you settle for something you don't love as much but is original?

Is it a case of "my work my rules"? Or are there situations where this would never be acceptable? I'd be interested to know your thoughts.


6 comments:

  1. Fascinating blog, Chloe and especially relevant to those writing comedy. Do you potentially throw away a great gag in a story that might only be seen by a few hundred people?

    Speaking for myself - and I'm not suggesting that others will agree - I think it's only fair to your readers to create something as fresh and new as possible each time. I wouldn't want to go to see a film and suddenly think: hey I've seen this car chase before in another movie. I'd feel cheated.

    I'd also suggest, to quote your example, that if a writer can't think of two or more great ways to describe a storm then he or she shouldn't really be in the business.

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    1. I think I agree with you, though I was thinking about a situation where it's almost impossible that the same person would've read both bits of work. Say... a short story read only by a handful of judges when you first started writing and then your second novel or something.

      It's unlikely in that case that the writing would be good enough to re-use in bulk, but I was thinking more about individual similes or metaphors that work really well.

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  2. Interesting question.

    I'm sorta mixed. I guess if I were taking a short story and expanding that exact story into a novel, I think it'd be okay. But if it's a totally different story, I think I'd feel kinda weird reusing something. And I'd work as hard as I could to rewrite what I had and make it better.

    At one time, it may seem like that storm description is perfect, but you might come up with something even better.

    But maybe repeating some words you used from the first, I don't think that's a problem so much. Somewhere there's a line that you cross over to where it's almost the same thing.

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    1. Yeah, I think you've kind of got what I mean even though I didn't explain it very well in my post! Re-using whole passages might never be appropriate but how about a few words - like a really cool simile you've thought up. But it's probably just lazy writing!

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  3. I recently had a sample chapter of a humorous story for children turned down. One of the stated reasons was a scene they thought was funny but would be over the heads of the target audience. In fact I'd pinched the scene (but reworked it so I didn't plagiarise myself) from one of my most popular novels for children of exactly the same age group!

    Maybe not quite the sort of thing you're talking about, but an example of how much this business is based on opinion and subjectivity, and how ultimately, as William Goldman said, "Nobody knows anything".

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    1. It's similar to the sort of thing I was talking about. And your story reminds me of those, possibly mythical, stories about people like Charlie Chaplain coming second in a Charlie Chaplain lookalike competition.

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