Not everything you write deserves to be shared with the world. This rude awakening is guaranteed for every serious writer. It normally occurs somewhere between early delusional naivety that your first novel will be another To Kill a Mockingbird, and a Mount Everest of rejections. Either way, it isn’t fun, and precipitates a bleak crisis of faith: Give up or go on?
Those who try to learn from failure ar those who frequently go on to succeed in later works. But failure must come first. There are exceptions. Every artistic field has the odd Mozart or Shakespeare. But they are exceptionally rare. Most successful writers become great through perseverance and hard work, constantly learning, constantly improving, and gaining valuable experience through falling flat on their faces.
There is no short cut to that process. It has been glibly stated that your first million written words will be rubbish, so best to get them out of your system as soon as possible. I don’t know if the figure of one million words is necessarily accurate, but I think there is truth in the sentiment. My first three novels will rightly never see the light of day, and I’m glad. When I wrote them, I thought they were masterpieces, but time and experience have taught me otherwise. Being a writer is a continual learning process, and the more I write novels, short stories, articles, and reviews, the more I improve over time.
Of course, it is a necessary part of the process to believe in your writing, especially during its creation. I’m not suggesting writers should trudge on in the depressing belief that their work is worthless. Nor am I suggesting the work itself is a dead loss. Experience is gained, but so are ideas.
Salvage the good
There comes a point, after a reasonable interval of time, when an experienced writer can look back at discarded manuscripts and pluck out the good ideas. In my case, there were scattered gems amid the first three novels that were then reworked into other pieces. Some of these were snatches of dialogue or description, but in other cases entire characters, set pieces, or narrative arcs found their way into new books.
The same principle applies for short stories, non-fiction, articles, reviews, poetry, and any form of creative writing. There is gold to be panned from the dross, and a seasoned writer can make an objective assessment of those earlier works. Such asset-stripping can be incorporated into new material, and ultimately shine.
Great minds think alike (which is annoying)
Cannibalizing writing ideas can also prove useful in other circumstances. For example, a couple of years ago I wrote a satirical, darkly comic short story, about a corrupt televangelist who is filmed having sex and taking drugs with a couple of hookers. A mysterious blackmailer attempts extortion, but the televangelist uses mob contacts in an attempt to track them down.
Sound familiar? A similar plot line was used for the opening episode of The Righteous Gemstones. When I saw it, after I wrote the short story, I was understandably annoyed someone else got there first. But there were bits and pieces I kept for inclusion elsewhere, in another work that takes a satirical look at televangelists.
Too much of a good thing
Outside of bad early novels, sometimes a good novel suffers from a surplus of fine ideas, and there simply isn’t space to fit them all. I’ve routinely removed elements from earlier drafts of my published gothic mystery novels, and reused them in later stories. Sometimes deliriously romantic subplots, or fiendishly sinister twists are too good to discard entirely, but they may prove to be the exhilarating spark that fuels a new narrative.
Here’s a particularly well-known example of the latter point. JK Rowling’s original draft of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets contained the Horcrux subplot. However, great though the Horcrux idea was, Rowling found it cluttered the plot. She took it out and instead placed it in a later book, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. Given the already complex nature of the mystery faced by Harry and his friends in Chamber of Secrets, I’d say Rowling made the smart decision.
I would strongly encourage any writer — especially fiction writers — to keep files containing off-cuts, deleted material, discarded ideas, unused character profiles, and so forth. Even more importantly, if you have substandard novels languishing in rejection purgatory that could be mined for other stories, don’t neglect them. It may turn out those first million words weren’t such a waste of time after all.