Surely we all want to avoid appearing like a jaded TV network, constantly recycling old sitcoms from the 70s. I used to keep a list of all the names I'd given the characters in my short stories, so afraid I was of using the same ones over and over again. But some repeats must be inevitable, our minds revisiting similar territory until we get it right. Even such a luminary as Ian McEwan has been caught out recycling a metaphor* in his latest novel, Sweet Tooth. The image of someone of clutching at a blade of grass as she falls off a cliff certainly speaks to me** – it so readily evokes that sense of desperation – but I don't think it's strong enough to merit a repeat performance.
*Thanks to Sheelagh Gallagher for flagging this up in a talk on Secrets and Lies.
**In fact, I'm pretty sure I've used it.
Old wine in new bottles
There's one form of recycling that's taken for granted in the world of publishing, and that's the reprint. It seems perfectly normal for the paperback version of a novel to be launched with a different cover to the hardback, the US version different again to the British, presumably as a way of pumping up sales. In the case of short stories, few editors accept reprints, sometimes citing the weakening of the search engine codes entailed by the duplication as the reason. But really, with more submissions than they can handle, who can blame them for wanting to make space for only the freshest brightest stuff?
For me, I'm old-fashioned enough to prefer the kudos of print, but I like the online publications for their accessibility (a bit like the hardback versus paperback argument), so I'm especially grateful when I can have the best of both worlds, as has happened recently with the reprint of my short story The Neck.
But I doubt I'd ever go so far in my recycling as what I've also seen, in some deep dark corner of the internet, someone admitting they'd rejigged a winning story from one competition and re-entering it in another -- a step too far in my opinion.
Novel extracts as short stories
I remember being bowled over by an extract, prepublication, of Monica Ali's Brick Lane in the Granta 2003 Best of Young British Novelists. I couldn't wait to read the novel.
In contrast, my recent publication (a cameo on dementia) of a worked-up scene from my novel-in progress Underneath was born of something near desperation: fearing the entire opus would never get to see the light of day, I thought I might at least give some fragments a chance. Having done so, I've got mixed feelings about whether it's the best place to direct my energies. In some ways, it served as an opportunity to look intensively at a small part of the novel (yes, of course, I'm doing that anyway, as I revise), although some of the changes I needed for it to work as a short story, don't transfer across to the work as a whole.
Recycling your edits
These are all examples of reuse, but can we do anything to salvage the bits that we cut out?
Sitting at my keyboard, I like watching the word count: the way the numbers ascend as the piece develops, and slip down again as I chop out the surplus words and scenes. I recently decided to resurrect an old story and was thrilled to cut it back by 40%. It didn't bother me that I was throwing so much away; I was just so pleased to have a more streamlined story.
But when it came to re-writing my novel, Sugar and Snails, to excise two well-developed points of view was, although necessary, very painful, like good friends moving abroad. I can't remember who suggested using those scenes again in another piece, but I haven’t done so yet. It's hard to imagine my characters living different lives, separate from the novel that spawned them, and I can hardly write the same story again.
Yet I love those goofy outtakes they show at the end of comedy films, and don't see why it shouldn't also work in fiction, although I've never yet seen it done. Have you?
Use your cuttings as compost for the next piece of work
Or perhaps it's foolish to try to recycle. After all, nothing you write is ever wasted. Even if no-one else sees it, you're exercising your writing muscles. And as any gardener knows, weeds and cuttings will eventually break down on the compost heap, producing a wonderful feed for next year's crop. I'm sure there's a similar process with our discarded words: they never quite die, but linger in our subconscious, waiting to spring to life again in a more usable form.
What about you? If you're a writer, do you revise or recycle any of your writing? As a reader, what do you think of writers doing so?