The Art of Recycling

1 Apr

Shining Typewriter

There’s a kind of hubris that can kick in when you’ve had something published, and when a publisher asks you for a second or even third book, whereby you assume you’ll never produce an unpublished manuscript ever again. Gone, you think, are the days when you’ll toil away at something for weeks or even months, and nothing will come of it. Those days are consigned to the dustbin of The Difficult Years.

"Weirdly, though I'd grown up my life was still narrated by the guy who narrated my 1960s childhood..."

“Weirdly, though I’d grown up my life was still narrated by the guy who narrated my 1960s childhood…”

Well, to put it bluntly, bollocks.

I’m sure there are probably full time writers out there who don’t throw away or abandon as much work as I have in the last couple of years, the ones lucky enough to have too many commitments and deadlines to waste time on anything that isn’t going anywhere, and when I’ve been at my busiest I’ve thrown very little away, but the more time and freedom you have, I can almost guarantee the more scrapped and abandoned work you’ll accumulate.

"Hmph. This pirate porn is going *nowhere*."

“Hmph. This pirate porn is going nowhere.”

It isn’t fashionable, among writers – or among anyone who works freelance – to admit you’re in a fallow patch, or that you’re not all that busy. Like Peter Gallagher’s character in American Beauty, we believe that in order to be successful we must project an image of success, so for pity’s sake DON’T ADMIT YOU SPENT THE WHOLE OF YESTERDAY IN A ONESIE, WANKING AND EATING CHEERIOS FROM THE BOX.

It's tough producing that tricky second album.

It’s tough producing that tricky second album.

But I’m pretty sure most people get them. The quiet spells. In fact, those quiet spells are probably the luxury (and they are a kind of luxury) of two types of writer: The ones who are doing okay (I fall into that bracket), and the ones who are ridiculously successful and only have to write a book every three or four years to keep afloat. If you fall into either group, you have time, and having time means you have the time to make mistakes.

"Wait, I've got it. Pride & Prejudice 2: More Proud, More Prejudiced."

“Wait, I’ve got it. Pride & Prejudice 2: More Proud, More Prejudiced.”

I first realised this when I went from working full time for an Evil Bank (coughcoughcoughLloydscough) to part time, back in 2009. Before then I’d written everything I’ve had published (which at the time consisted of four novels) in the evenings and on weekends. If I had a particularly challenging deadline I might book a week off work and write the bulk of it then. In 2009, much to my enormous relief, I was awarded a bursary that enabled me to work on a single project for half the week, while still keeping one foot in the Evil Corporate Puddle.

The resulting novel was a 150,000 word behemoth; bloated and patchy and not particularly well written. I took the writing of it very seriously, but put all my effort into the wrong things, like research (I even travelled to New York to research some of it), rather than character and story. I sent it off to a few agents far too early when it was still very much a work in progress, and got nothing but (perfectly justified) rejections in return.

I say "rejections". Some weren't so kind.

I say “rejections”. Some weren’t so kind.

Feeling a little wounded, I filed that manuscript away, and in the summer of 2010 began work on something else, and that “something else” ended up being Ibrahim & Reenie, which is published by Seren Press this autumn. (Yes… The shameless self-promotion starts here.) Though the first draft was written in a couple of months, I spent maybe 18 months reworking it until I was happy, my confidence a little shaken by having previously produced 150,000 words of almost pure rubbish.

Since then, and having found a publisher for Ibrahim & Reenie, I’ve written two more novels, one fairly long and the other very short, and it’s doubtful either of them will ever see the light of day, because they – like that 150,000 behemoth – just aren’t very good. They’re better than the behemoth, but both too flawed. They were more writing exercises than serious projects; me trying out a few new things and challenging myself. In between writing those abortive novels I’ve also written a few short stories, and they too will never be published, because they’re just not good enough.

Oh, Robin Hood 2086AD... One day your time will come.

Oh, Robin Hood 2086AD… One day your time will come.

In total, since 2009 I must have written close to 400,000 words that will never be published, at least not in their current form, and that would be the most depressing thing I have ever heard (other than, you know, stuff about plagues and war) if it weren’t for the fact that I didn’t throw those manuscripts away or burn them, because there never was a manuscript, at least not physically. Those unpublishable novels and short stories are saved on the hard drive of my PC, just sitting there like so many rusting Ford Cortinas in a junkyard. And the thing is, even though the engines may be shot and the wheels are missing, there are still parts that can be reused.

One of the short stories, for instance, has formed the basis of a novel that I’m working on right now, a project I’m quietly confident about and which is going very well so far (he said, touching wood-effect formica). There are whole chunks of it that I can copy and paste into the new work, amending character names where necessary, and polishing it up a little. It feels weirdly fraudulent (almost like plagiarism, even though it’s my own work), but also insanely satisfying, knowing that the time and effort didn’t go to waste, and I suppose if there’s a moral to this story for any struggling writers out there, it’s just that:

The time you spend working on the stuff that goes nowhere is never wasted.

If something didn’t work, ask yourself why it didn’t work, and bear it in mind next time. If something only works in part, remember it exists, file it away, and strip it down for parts at a later date. Maybe there’s a scene you really liked, or a character who was great, or even just a sentence or a description that was a diamond in a hill of dung. Either way, if it wasn’t published you can use it again and no-one will ever know.

Wait just one goddamn minute...

Wait just one goddamn minute…

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One Response to “The Art of Recycling”

  1. Frivolous Monsters April 1, 2013 at 4:57 pm #

    Hey never throw anything away. And your coffee shop looks a lot posher than mine!
    FM

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