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Revisiting old work

February 25th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments
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OK, never, EVER do this. Seriously, if you haven’t looked at a piece of work in over a year, then you’d be better off just deleting it.

OK, well now that that advice has been readily ignored, allow me to explain.

I was idly going through my files recently, and made the horrific mistake of looking at some old projects. And when I say this, I don’t mean some half written notes or random ideas, I mean I was looking at two projects which I have dedicated a hell of a lot of time to. Not just in terms of physically writing, but also into ‘thought time’, creating ideas, plotting out storylines, dialogue, character depth and so on. One was an idea about a TV show I had, and the other was another book.

Lets leave the TV show for now, and focus more on the book, because this is something I dedicated more time to. Now the idea I had concerned a lot of smaller stories, taken from a particular person’s point of view, that all interwove and overlapped. Due to the nature of the backstory I’d built up, I could – in theory – write this project for the rest of my life.

Unfortunately, I revisited it, didn’t I?

And I was appalled. This writing was terrible. Simply terrible. The characters were two dimensional (hell, not even that), the storyline had no cohesion, the dialogue was risible and then I got to the bit I’d almost forgotten about. The horrifically written lesbian sex scene. Jeez, am I not over that already? I actually found myself ashamed to have written this.

But before this turns into a major moaning session, lets turn to how this can help you write. OK, so revisiting old work can be demoralizing. But it can also be very helpful.  This is what I found when I read this piece.  I think more than anything it was just how clumsy it was. Obviously, since it had a lesbian sex scene in it. Any writing that falls back on that is doomed.

But after my initial shock, and despair, and strong desire to never write anything ever again, I looked at the situation pragmatically. ‘OK, so this writing sucks. How do we make it better?’

It can be a very useful writing exercise. Keeping a few of those old projects floating around just to remind you of how much your writing has progressed. Because my main project – my book – has undergone the same kind of evolution. I have, in the past, looked at sections of that and thought how bad they were, but I pushed through and improved them. This is what you can do with the older, less developed work.  I should probably also add that this ‘older work’ isn’t from when I was a teenager either, but from only four years ago. That’s right, this is probably my newest idea, and yet it doesn’t stand up.

But there I am back to the moaning again. How to use this? It’s all in the editing. A piece of writing may be clumsy, it may have few merits, but its all part of the process, isn’t it? As painful as it might be, all of us – as writers – face that point where we may need to scrap large sections of work – maybe even whole projects. I know I’ve had to do it in my book. I had to scrap a three chapter section, which I quite liked, due mainly to the fact that it no longer fit and made the whole thing too long. So I applied the same logic to this ‘old’ idea. Let’s get serious now. I had to ask myself these very important questions:

  1. What is the overall aim and purpose of this piece?
  2. How does it fit into the larger structure? Is the overall structure working?
  3. Is there a definite aim? Am I  procrastinating too much?

This last one is probably the most important one of all. As I’ve said in previous posts, I don’t mind a story that takes its time, as long as its interesting to read, but there is a massive difference between building up to a solid momentum and simply procrastinating for the hell of it.

So what did I tell myself? I have to get on point and stay there. Cut the superfluous characters, the pointless tensions which add nothing to it, solidify the setting, do some research and for god’s sake, get rid of the lesbian sex scene!

Yes, in order to grow as a writer, you do sometimes need to look back at where you’ve come from, in order to drive you forward to where you’re going to.