Image: Matthew Loffhagen
I think most creative people have trouble throwing things away. Not in a hoarder-esque, ‘I’m currently typing this while walled-in by newspaper towers’ kind of way. No, it’s more ‘waste not, want not’ practicality than kleptomaniac-tinted nostalgia. It’s that lingering feeling: ‘Surely this will be useful, later.’ This same feeling can apply to your writing ideas, whether they’re fleshed-out drafts taking up RAM space, or hastily scribbled thoughts in your notebook. Just as painters will often repurpose (art speak for ‘paint over’) used canvases, there’s nothing stopping you from choosing to recycle writing ideas into newer, fresher material.Old ideas may hold the secret to a new bestseller. Click To Tweet
There’s no reason why an idea that isn’t quite right at one time won’t be perfect at another. In fact, you’ll often find ideas have improved in the interim, as your subconscious mind strengthens what works and strips away what doesn’t. That’s why in this article, I’ll be talking about how and why you should recycle writing ideas. As with any way to improve your writing, you can’t leave everything to your subconscious. Recycling is at its best when it’s a conscious process.
Why recycle writing ideas?
As I mentioned above, it may take some time for an idea to mature, or it may be missing a key ingredient that comes along later. Your idea might be an entire story, a particular character, an amazing setting, or a stunning moment, and here it’s about keeping an orderly Rolodex of useful material, ready for the day when a new project might benefit from cannibalizing your old scraps
If you’re thinking of revisiting an old idea – or choosing between several – and aren’t sure how to get the recycling process started, it might be best to ask yourself a simple question first:
- Why this idea?
Followed by some closer scrutiny if needed:
- Is this idea something you’ve never written about before?
- Is there a common theme in this idea that keeps recurring in your writing?
- Is it a ‘fresh’ or unique (as far as you know) idea?
- Is the timing right for this idea? For example, does it fit into current trends?
How can you recycle writing ideas?
Change the format
Do you have an idea for a poem that could become a short story? Or a play that could become a novel? Maybe a novella that could become a comic book script?
Changing the intended format of your idea could help you to see it in a whole new light as you reshape it to fit a different set of constraints. You might find that your original idea for, say, an epic fantasy trilogy of novels about an orphaned troll who rises through the ranks of the Troll Empire to become the greatest troll who ever did troll might actually be more succinctly captured in rhyming verse across a few pages. Not that I’ve got anything against epic, troll-based fantasy novels – it’s just an example.
Change the genre
Woody Allen’s ninety-three-minute-long Annie Hall is considered to be one of the greatest – and most genre-defining – romantic comedies of all time, but it actually started life as a two-and-a-half-hour murder mystery named Anhedonia. Annie Hall was only ‘found’ in the editing room after the film’s producers decided to make a drastic change in the film’s direction. The original idea wasn’t abandoned completely, however, as Allen ended up retooling it sixteen years later into Manhattan Murder Mystery.
And if that’s not the perfect anecdotal example of how to really get your money’s worth from recycling ideas through genre-switching, I just don’t know what is.Given up on a project? Don’t forget to come back later and strip it for parts. Click To Tweet
Alternatively, adopting a multi- or cross-genre approach could also be an interesting way to recycle writing ideas. Could you add some romance to your horror story? Or some black comedy to your thriller? Like Ben and Jerry flavors, not every new or unusual combination will work, but the ones that do could be bestsellers.
Change the target audience
Similar to changing the format of your idea, changing your original target audience introduces new constraints that could produce some interesting and/or surprising results. For example, turning an idea intended for adults into one for children might produce a more unique, boundary-pushing story than if children had been the original target audience.Sometimes, an idea only realizes its potential when faced with fresh constraints. Click To Tweet
Likewise, turning a children’s story into an adult work can tap into key ideas and emotions that we never really grow out of (there’s a reason fairy tale retellings are the closest thing entertainment has to a sure bet). Who would’ve believed that adult coloring books would be so popular, for example? Well, someone thought it was worth a try, and now they’re raking in the rewards.
Change the protagonist/antagonist’s gender
There’s no iron-clad guarantee that a change of gender will change the decisions, thoughts, feelings and actions of your character(s) as dramatically as you might expect, but as has been covered elsewhere, it could change the context in which they exist and offer new angles on their experiences.
Depending on how the swapping process goes, you could end up with male and female versions of the same character, or two entirely separate male and female characters. Stephanie Meyer intended to produce the former when she ‘reimagined’ Twilight as the gender-swapped Life and Death to mark the 10th anniversary of the original’s release. “I’ve always maintained that it would have made no difference if the human were male and the vampire female – it’s still the same story,” she explained in the book’s foreword. “5% of the changes I made were because Beau is a boy… He’s more OCD, he’s not nearly so flowery with his words and thoughts, and he’s not as angry – he’s totally missing the chip Bella carries around on her shoulder all the time.” Personally, I felt that ‘Beau’ read as a totally different character to ‘Bella’, a significant change that also clearly contributed to Meyer’s decision to change the ending of the story.
However you feel about the Twilight books and Meyer as a writer, it certainly serves as a revealing case study on how much gender-swapping can impact the recycling process.
Change the point of view
Sticking with Twilight as our case study (I know, but just bear with me), ‘Twihards’ might know that Life and Death wasn’t the first reimagining of Twilight Meyer embarked on. Midnight Sun retold the first couple of chapters of the first book from Edward’s POV instead of Bella’s. On her website, Meyer describes this as “an exercise in character development that got wildly out of hand”. Its proposed publication as a ‘complementary’ novel to Twilight was quickly scrapped when the chapters leaked online.
Midnight Sun tells you little that you don’t already know about the quiet and brooding teen vamp, serving only to fill in the blanks of whatever Bella hadn’t been privy to in Edward’s life before they became joined at the hip for all eternity. Nevertheless, it shows that Meyer was experimenting with different viewpoints on the same event.Ask yourself whether you’re following the most interesting character. No? Then switch.Click To Tweet
Similar to gender-swapping, POV changes should be carefully evaluated before you charge into them at full-pelt. Despite this, they’re a great area to explore when trying to recycle writing ideas. You could even ask yourself, as Meyer might have done, whether you were really following the most interesting character. If so, is this definitely the most interesting part of their life? Many good stories have much better tales in their backstory – To Kill a Mockingbird only emerged after Harper Lee was asked to think more about the childhood of a protagonist from (what was eventually released as) Go Set a Watchman.
Why recycle one idea when you can recycle two? Or three? Select, chop, change and sprinkle bits and pieces of your old or unused ideas into one big pot, stir them all together and see what new combinations you can come up with.
I often find myself recycling characters more than any other element of my abandoned manuscripts. I’ve probably dropped the same dark-haired, surly template of a heroine into a handful of different settings for different stories by now. If any one of them ends up becoming a fully realized, publishable work, I won’t reuse her again, but until then – and in the interest of expediency – I’m just grateful to have a ‘here’s-one-I-made-earlier’ protagonist ready to go whenever a new story idea hits me.
A word of warning
There’s a distinct difference between recycling and repetition, and it’s one you should be wary of. A lot of writers reuse the same themes, or stick within genres with which their names are synonymous. That’s absolutely fine, but if these same themes are repeated too often, or are too unaltered, you may be in danger of seeming lazy or predictable. Comic writer Mark Millar has been accused of such a rut, with works such as MPH, Jupiter’s Legacy, Kick-Ass, Huck, and Superior following the same basic plot of ‘protagonist gains power, revels in wielding it, is forced to confront friend who is abusing similar power, goes on to live more responsibly’. It’s a simple, effective plot structure that produces stories which run the gamut from serviceable to excellent, but it means that after a few iterations, fans become fatigued and aren’t interested in the next minor variation.
This kind of problem is down to execution. There may be few original ideas left, but your personal take on them is original. You don’t necessarily have to think of a new idea – just a new way to present an old one. Fail to make significant changes and the issue won’t be that you’re recycling an old idea, but that you’re repeating how you recycled it last time. There’s an argument out there that writers such as Millar and Aaron Sorkin are more like composers, experimenting with variations on a theme. There may be some truth to this, but if it does work, it works on an audience who already love you. It may be a fun way to experiment with longtime readers, but it’s no way to attract them.
Choosing to recycle writing ideas is a great way to turn the various flotsam and jetsam of your stories into something useful. Not only that, but it can help you to evaluate the themes, settings and character types that populate your work. As you recycle, ask yourself what you keep coming back to – what you’re clearly keen to explore, and how you like to do it. Spending a little time in your writing past might help shape your writing future, not least because there are some amazing tools back there, just waiting to be used. Recycle writing ideas often enough and you’ll discover the fundamentals of your voice and style.Looking back at old characters and themes can tell you a lot about who you are as an author.Click To Tweet
Still wondering why you should recycle writing ideas rather than starting from whole cloth? Well, maybe a new trend has emerged, and you need to get started right away in order to tap into it. If so, Understanding Cultural Trends Can Help You Write a Bestseller will be a huge help. You might even have listened to our advice in A Fairy Tale Retelling Could Be The Best Thing For Your Career and be looking for elements to mesh with a fairy tale setting. Of course, you also probably have your own ideas about how best to recycle writing ideas, so please share them in the comments! What types of recycling have worked for you, and how else can you make old ideas into something new and vital? Share your opinions and observations below.