Hey there everyone! Rebecca and I were chatting about editing and I brought up that I’ve been using one of my longer short stories for a ‘test revision’. She was intrigued and so today I figured I would talk about it.
Keeping up with old work is a valuable tool for writers. Our writing shows how we’ve improved through the years, how much practice we’ve put in, and even provides new material for us to work with in the future.
But, did you know that there’s another way to use your old work to make your new work even better?
Back when I was making a living as an artist, I realized that I had a very strong perfectionist streak. I wanted everything to be just right the first time around. Unfortunately, all of the art books I owned told me that artists made countless rough sketches to make everything look the way they wanted to in the final painting.
Picasso did rough sketches. Michelangelo did rough sketches. Even art as abstract as Van Gogh’s started with a rough sketch.
It was a bit of a disappointment for my perfectionist side to realize that all of the hours of practice I was putting in and all of my current work were being ‘wasted’ and wouldn’t be useful after I was done with them.
I wanted all of my work to mean something for my career–something other than ‘meaningless’ practice. And then I thought, but what if I did use it for practice, over and over again? What if I recycled it?
Here’s some steps to do just that.
- Find What’s Missing
My work is always lacking in some way.
For example, the story I was chatting about with Rachel had nearly no character development. I was wanting a negative character arc without realizing what I wanted or even what a character arc was. The result? My reader told me that they knew my main character wasn’t going to make it because she ‘just didn’t seem capable of surviving’. Yikes.
My first draft of Takeover had maybe five full scenes in the entire novella, and none of them were important or had proper structure. That realization hurt a lot.
Another story only had the plot, without any subtlety, subplots, or theme. It ended up being five pages long and a different reader told me that they felt like they were being pushed the whole time they were reading it.
Use your current knowledge of storytelling to find what’s wrong and then…
- Create a Single Goal
One of the most important things I’ve found when recycling my old work is that goal setting is a must. Allow me to repeat that you need to have a single goal in mind when recycling. Artists and writers are both very precious about their work. We believe in the greatness of our vision. And that’s great, because we need to have that confidence to do what we do.
But, your recycled drafts are usually not going to be that great.
All you’re doing when recycling your old writing is deciding what the biggest, most obvious problem is. For artists, this means looking at a sketch and saying, ‘Hey, I didn’t do too badly on the nose, but why does that hand have six fingers?’ Some examples for writers can be seen in the examples from point one. Because those were the obvious and glaring things wrong with those stories, not the only things.
Recycling a story isn’t about the polish, it’s about the fundamentals of the thing. It’s not about recreating the story into a masterpiece, it’s just about honing your skills.
- Take Some Time Away
Now, when I say recycling, you probably think of using a plastic bottle for a plant starter or some other amazingly clever reuse of an already useful thing. You probably can’t wait to dig into the story you wrote two days ago and recycle it into something clever.
But, it’s not really like that. It’s more like a compost pile.
Before recycling my old work, I give it a lot of time. Like, 3 months or preferably more. This gives me the opportunity to grow as a writer and to gain the distance to take my work apart and look at it critically.
Once you give your work time to settle and recycle it, leave it alone again. Either let it be complete the way it is, or continue to recycle your story until you feel you can’t do anything more with it.
And that’s how I recycle my old works for practice. Just remember to keep producing new work even as your recycle your old ones so that you have a constant backlog of writing to tinker with!
Do you do something similar to this? If so, let me know in the comments~!