I recently got involved in a couple of discussions on recycling older work to move it to print. As a writer, it’s something I’ve been doing off and on for the last couple of years, now that I finally have a place to publish my tales. I pull older stories out of files, reread them, decide whether there’s enough plot interest to be saved, pulp them up, and off they go. Pretty simple huh? Not really, because there’s a lot of rewriting involved, and some of these were just sketchy ideas that never got close to being finished. It’s worth the time and effort though, because it saves me valuable hours staring at the blinking cursor, wondering what I’m going to tackle next. I always have something new going too, so this is a good second piece to work on when I hit a rough spot on numero uno. It’s a whole lot faster to fix up a piece that has some underlying structure than to write from scratch, and it gives my brain a needed vacation from pulling magic rabbits out of a hat. Being able to fill out novels and anthologies quickly gives me the extra hours I need to work on those special projects that pop up unexpectedly.
Now, there is a school of thought that says you shouldn’t go back and look at your old stuff, and instead just move on, blazing new trails. I can kind of understand that way of thinking, even if I don’t totally agree with it. You certainly don’t want to get bogged down in continually rewriting something to the point where it’s never finished. But I have to disagree when it comes to never looking back on what you have done in the past. Sorting through old writing files can be very enlightening, as well as lucrative. Certainly it adds to the body of work you have available for publication, it provides something you have on hand to donate to a charitable cause, or to post on a webpage as a teaser. Besides the obvious reason that you have put time and effort into this backlog that is just sitting there doing nothing anyway, there are lessons to be learned here.
First off all, rereading older stories highlights just how far you have come. You might cringe a bit at the awkwardness of some of that early writing, but it does help to realize that skills do tend to develop over time and with regular usage. The more you can be encouraged to write, then more you put out, and the better you get. Win/win if you ask me. Secondly, you might just find a diamond down there amongst the rocks. As writing newbies with tender egos, we’ll tend to abandon ideas and projects that have some true promise simply because they proved too hard to write, or they met with sharp criticism or even complete lack of interest. Often that’s because we didn’t understand the mechanics, the market, or just weren’t ready to handle something of that caliber. Once you have more experience under your belt and some publishing credits, that’s an apt time to dust them off and see if they can be made to fly again. And honestly speaking, even if you’re an old hand, it’s a pretty good way to judge if you’re going stale or stuck in a rut, redoing the same themes repeatedly. If you read back over what you’ve done some years ago, and start seeing a longstanding pattern, it’s time to think about breaking out of the mold. Nothing is more tiresome than reading Volume Ten of Rehashed Tales and finding it has such a similarity to the last nine that it puts your brain in a coma. If you’re in a deep writing groove, you need to get out of it because you’re going to lose all but the most faithful audience. Look back at what you were previously doing and see if you can figure out where the repetitiousness started. Or conversely, if your writing has taken a sharp right angle you don’t like, and you want to get back to your roots, a walk down memory lane might be in order.
Now there are some dangers to excessively reliving the past via old writing. First of all, as it was pointed out in one discussion, you certainly don’t want to go into endless rewriting mode. In all honesty though, that’s a danger even with brand new work. I am a person who likes to edit as I move through a story in progress, and I will make a couple passes over something before it goes out to whoever is the next-step person. To me, that’s handling my work in a professional manner, by making sure it’s as readable and polished as I can get it. If it stalls right there though, and I’m doing copious rewriting, that’s a red flag to me that either something is drastically wrong with this story, or I’m out of my element and I know it. Whatever you’re working on, bring it to a conclusion at some point, tell yourself it’s good enough, and send it off.
Pet projects, they haunt us all! Every writer has something in the files that remains there because while it is unsalable and likely unfinished, it’s so near and dear to our hearts, we just can’t let go. There are a couple of issues here. First of all, we tend to see those little darlings through rose colored glasses, because like one of the kids, they simply have no flaws. Every writer has some favorite story or series they hold in high esteem and don’t have a clue why no one else feels the same way. Often it’s just not a very interesting piece, but it’s ours, and we love it, so we keep touting it. That can take up a serious amount of time that should be given to more salable and laudable projects. Sometimes… you just have to let it die. Keep it buried, walk away, and don’t look back. Not everything can be rescued and revived. Learn how to tell the difference.
Most of my older writing was done with a mainstream audience in mind, and so it’s written a lot differently from how I handle pulp. In writing pulp, I don’t have the word count space for endless narrative description and psychological introspection you get in a mainstream book or short story. Pulp has to be dynamic, it’s all about action; characters need to get moving and do things on a regular basis. So if I’m going to sell these stories as pulp, they need serious revamping, and I’ve been doing a lot of that. Interestingly enough, along the way that has suggested brand new tales based on the same characters and settings, but with a definite pulpy slant. It’s infectious, and once you get into the groove of writing things in the pulp vein, you don’t want to go back.
And I wouldn’t. Oh don’t get me wrong, if some mainstream publisher came along and made me an offer, I’d certainly write something longer, but it would have to include that high action, fast moving plot I’ve come to love. Looking back on my older writing, I can see now exactly where it drags along, and what needs cutting out or pulping up. Looking back has helped me to be a lot more realistic about why I was getting rejection slips and only mediocre interest from beta readers. It’s a hard lesson but a valuable one.
I’m currently working over an old novel start that I pulled out of mothballs because I need the seminal tale for a series, which has several short stories done already. I began working it over with the idea of turning this tale into the headliner for the anthology the rest of these stories are supposed to be in. As I went along, I realized that this is a bigger idea than even a novella-size book could hold, so I’m back to thinking of it as a novel. There’s some good stuff in there I am keeping, but because the short stories I wrote for these characters wound up being pulpy, I’m redoing a lot of this early novel to match that pace. It’s still far faster than writing a book from scratch, because I know where I wanted to go with this one, and where the short stories took it from there. The pathway is paved, and now it’s just a matter of making sure everything goes down it to a logical conclusion.
Reworking older tales gave me an opportunity to get three books out last year, all novel sized, though two of them were short story collections. And that’s along with over a half dozen other stories I wrote too. There are writers out there that can run rings around me in output, and kudos to them for that. I am at the keyboard almost every day banging on something. If not for having some earlier work to scavenge through, I might not have as much in print. My Amazon author page looks pretty impressive regardless.
Eventually I’m going to run out of this older backlog, but I have no regrets about mining and using it up. In the days when I was writing this stuff, it was done in odd hours with an earnest yearning to get it into the hands of readers. It’s rather cathartic to get this stuff out of my files and my mind. The whispers of stories-to-be have been filling my head as I’m exorcizing the old ghosts of what-might-have-been, and that keeps me happily tapping away at the keyboard. My idea files are still filling with story starts and synopses for tales I’ve yet to write.
So yeah, don’t be too apprehensive about looking back over what you’ve previously written and stashed away. At the worst, you can have a rueful chuckle and just shove it back where it was in the dead file, delete it, shred it, toast some marshmallows over it and make s’mores… You get the idea. If it stinks too badly to reuse or recycle, just let it go and move on. But if you find some gold specks amongst the silt, by all means, pan them out and use them somewhere. Bottom line is, it doesn’t hurt to take a look at making what’s old, and pick something to make all shiny and new again, as long as it’s worth the effort and you feel hopeful there’s some life left in the tale. It sure beats sitting around wondering what to create next, and if nothing else, it might spark an idea that sends you off on another hot writing session.
That’s always a good thing!