Something Old, Something New

Like most writers, whether new or established, I have folders—physical and electronic—filled with stories that either never quite got to publication but that your instinct tells you are still worth something; or else were published long ago and whose details might be a bit dated, yet whose core is still strong. These aren’t dead stories, not the kind that started off with what seemed like a good idea at the time but expired before they could even be properly born, because they never even got finished. The ones I’m talking about are simply in suspended animation, waiting to be breathed back into life. And though I might have had lots of books published and have more in the pipeline, I don’t like to give up on the potential of any complete story. I hate the waste of it! Reshaped and rethought, polished or even plundered, these transformed stories-in-amber can spread their wings at last and take flight. And by the way, when I say ‘stories’ I mean both short and long form fiction; short stories, novellas and novels. But this can also be applied to short or long form non fiction, plays, poetry, and so on.

I’ve cut and pasted more Sleeping Beauty stories like that than I can remember; changed beginnings, ends; merged stories into each other, rethought points of view, recast the atmosphere.  With stories that have already been published, and thus edited and proofed, often it’s a simple matter of refreshing some minor details(for instance, a character listening to music on his Ipod instead of records or even CDs), and sometimes a little plot nip and tuck here and there. But occasionally it’s been more radical recasting that goes on, a chance to totally make-over your story.

Or I’ve used the existing story as a kind of model for one set in the same world, or taken a minor character from it and expanded their role. With stories that nearly got published but through no fault of their own fell between the cracks through circumstances beyond your control—like a publisher going under, or being taken over by another, who doesn’t like the book, and also with stories that have never been published, but that have gone out to publishers and been knocked back for such reasons as ‘not commercial enough’ or ‘too niche’, but otherwise praised, it’s a matter of looking at the manuscript with fresh eyes and deciding whether it still stands on its own. If it does, then we can make the next decision: send out to mainstream print publishers once more, or look at the opportunities now available to us authors with the advent of e-books, both with small-press digital-only publishers, and do-it-yourself-publishing?

I had a lovely experience recently with a book I’d loved dearly for years and totally believed in, but which had been regretfully passed over by publishers.It was finally accepted by AchukaBooks, a new Kindle-only publisher whose owner has a long and respected history in the British book industry. With some nips and tucks, My Brother Will, a ‘crossover’ novel for adults and young adults, set around a year in the life of the Shakespeare brothers, William and Gilbert, and pungently told in Gilbert’s voice, will at last spread its wings and fly out to the world. I never gave up on it, even though it’s more than ten years since I first set it on its journey around the publishers. Its time has come now, at last.

Of course there are also those stories that never got within even a whisker of publication—that you never sent out or that you thought better of, filed and forgot. Or that you wrote at a time when you simply weren’t thinking of such things. Like the massive fantasy novel, in two fat exercise books, that I wrote when I was 16, but never finished(and unhappily for some reason in my various moves, only one of these tomes remain.) I’ve never been tempted to publish it but one day I wrote a story, a very successful story that’s been reprinted several times, about a young girl who’s writing a big fat fantasy novel by hand, just as I did. And I used real paragraphs, the best ones, mind, from the book I’d written when I was 16,  to give a real feel for the character and what she’s doing. It worked really well! I did a similar thing with a poem I wrote when I was about that age too, using two lines from it in another story that  also did very well and been reprinted a few times.

One exciting transformation project I’m working on right now is putting together a collection of my speculative fiction short stories for adults, previously published in anthologies and magazines over many years(thus already edited professionally. What was interesting was when I came to re-read these stories, I discovered that though they were all different, three common elements recurred again and again: water, dreams, metamorphosis. So I’m in the process of tweaking them into a coherently-themed book, illustrated with my own black and white photos, and I’ll be publishing it myself as an e-book. Creating The Great Deep and other tales of the uncanny, as it’s to be titled, is probably the most experimental and ambitious transformation project I’ve taken on, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens when I’ve finally got it together. Watch this space!

Some extra tips:

  • If this is a story that’s been published before, what is its track record? i.e., was it only published once, or several times (in which case, only superficial details ought to be changed, as the story has earned its stripes)? What kind of outlet published it? A specialist genre outlet, e.g. a crime/mystery/fantasy/romance magazine/publisher? Or a more general one? If it’s a story that could fit into more than one genre(and many stories do), then why not play up more one element or the other, depending on where you want to place it?
  • If this is a story that hasn’t been published, but that did get some feedback from publishers, look again at what they said. For instance, if it was  deemed ‘not commercial enough,’ can you, on a new reading, see why? Is that actually a problem you want to fix or not? If yes, then think of how the story might be more commercial: what if you changed the point of view, ie switched from third to first person or vice versa? Even if you don’t care about the ‘not commercial enough’ tag, could the story still be improved by a refreshment of minor details?
  • If this is a story that your nearest and dearest have seen but no one else, go through it very carefully. Be ruthless with it. But cautious too! I do this by creating separate folders for the story so I keep the original safe and separate from different permutations. Often what I’ve ended up doing is cutting and pasting the original with two or three later drafts.
  • Think too of how you could extend the story by giving it an extra dimension—such as images, a blog linked to a character, etc. This is most useful in a novel rather than a short story, though it can work if all your short stories are set within the same world/setting: you can actually consider doing this too, making something coherent out of what was disparate.

 

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About Sophie Masson

Sophie Masson has published more than fifty novels internationally since 1990, mainly for children and young adults. A bilingual French and English speaker, raised mostly in Australia, she has a master’s degree in French and English literature. Sophie's new e-book on authorship, By the Book: Tips of the Trade for Writers, is available at Australian Society of Authors.

Comments

  1. says

    Thanks for sharing your experience with reviving past projects, Sophie. My Brother Will sounds intriguing! Glad it will finally get a chance to take flight.

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  2. says

    I’m glad to hear that other writers have stories that won’t let go. I’ve a novel set in the old West that’s way too short, under 60,000 words, but I still love the characters, story, and setting. It’s a mystery set in the Pecos, Texas, of the 1800s. One day I will open up that file and apply the many things I’ve learned about writing since it was crafted in, arg, 1999. Thanks, Sophie.

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  3. says

    Sophie, thanks for these terrific suggestions. Writers write what they are passionate about and the subject matter may not fit neatly into a genre or even long form fiction. Save these nuggets. Polish them. If an idea or a story stays with the writer it is worth pursuing. Your post provides validation for writers to foster and harvest their ideas

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  4. says

    Great suggestions, Sophie. I’m a believer in keeping dormant stories simmering on the back burner. I once got about midway through a contemporary novel set on the Oregon coast, even interested an editor in it enough for her to call me on the phone to encourage me to press on and finish it. Then I got cancer and went through four years of chemo fog. I tried, but could never finish that story. Fast forward several years. I’d begun writing again, finally having declared my major as a historical fiction writer. I took that unfinished contemporary story and set the characters down in a very different time and place (18th century frontier New York), changed a few names and the details of back stories, but gave them similar goals and challenges as they’d had in 20th century Oregon. This time I finished it, and it recently sold.

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  5. says

    Oh, I love the part about reusing sections from your fantasy novel in another story! I just really love when authors connect pieces of their own universe, such as by having a character in one book quote something from another, and this reminds me of that. I find it quite a lovely way to tie the pieces of one’s imagination together.

    All of these suggestions are great. I’ve got one trunk novel (well, one story that ended up stretching over two novels) I’ve been contemplating redoing for years. Though other ideas have taken precedence for the meantime, these are the types of things I’ve been telling myself to keep in mind if/when I ever get around to it. Thanks!

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  6. says

    Interesting piece.
    I am curious: Why go through a publisher for Kindle-only? Why not do it yourself? I guess I don’t see the upshot, unless they are spending beaucoup bucks to promote your work (which seems unlikely but not impossible)…

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  7. Sophie Masson says

    Thanks for all your nice words. Yes, it’s a most rewarding thing, going through old work and making it sparkle again–and fun too as you say, Kristin, to include bits of your own created universe in different books–I’ve done it a few times! And Mari, the reason I went to a Kindle-only publisher for My Brother Will is that this particular publisher has a big track record in the British book industry, having run a great literary website for years, as well as being a writer himself. He also edits the book(which is very important) and markets it too and he has a big network of contacts. And his contract is very fair and reasonable, for only a one-year term, after that you can go your own way or renegotiate another contract. His cut is only that which an agent would take. (And by the way, it’s Kindle only for first year or so, after that it’ll be other e-formats as well.) I decided to publish the short stories myself though because they’ve already been edited and published and all they needed was to be put together as a collection. And that’s an experiment too.
    It’s going to be interesting by the way to track my different e-pubs: the ones that my main publishers are selling(my print books in e-form), as well as My Brother Will published by Achuka and my collection of short stories published by myself. Interesting to know which does better.

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  8. says

    Great post, Sophie, chock full of helpful ideas.

    I am one of those with years of actual folders of research and ideas. Information I’ve gathered about Colorado high country, the care of horses, mining, birds, wildflowers and trees that grow in certain areas, the origin and history of towns, magazine photos of people I’d like to picture as my characters and notes now fill a file cabinet! And that’s not counting what’s on my computer from the internet, or clipboard notes on Scrivener!

    Thanks for sharing and continued success with all your ideas – old and new.

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  9. says

    Excellent suggestions, Sophie! Now where did I file my story about the two-legged cat with acrobatic aspirations?
    I’m very much looking forward to reading My Brother Will too. :)

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  10. says

    As I read this Sophie, knowing of your passion for gardening, I almost saw this as story composting. Well done. You’re always hard at work on something.

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  11. says

    I’m relatively new to this writing thing, it took retirement and a move to turn an occasional interest into a passion. So far have a couple of NaNoWriMo novels in first draft, and have been doing some Flash Fiction challenges. But I’ve always had the target of a finished work, had just not realized that it’s “OK” to have some that don’t get finished right away, that may never get finished. It adds the flexibility to try out ideas just to see what happens, see where the story goes.
    Thanks for the idea.

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  12. says

    Love this post. Wish you great success with the new collection! I’m always impressed to hear how much extra effort a writer who cares put into the work. Here these have already been published and you’re not just slapping them together. You’re working to truly make them into a new piece of art by highlighting theme and adding photos. I wish more e-publishers would follow your lead.

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  13. Sophie Masson says

    thanks very much, Carleen! Yes, I think it’s very important that e-publishing be done as well as possible, and offer something special. I’m looking forward to releasing the book as soon as I’ve got all the admin details like ITIN numbers locked down!
    by the way, an update: My Brother Will, my adult novel through e-publisher AchukaBooks, has just been released and is now available on Amazon! Very exciting.

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  14. Leslie says

    Some fabulous ideas! I have a novel idea simmering right now that combines several ideas from waaayyyy back in the past. These weren’t finished stories mind you, just snipets and ideas, but I looked at them again after ten years or so, and thought, “you know, these could go together.”

    I definitely have files of stuff that I still think are good ideas and don’t want to let them go to waste.

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