Thursday, May 17, 2012

Upcycling Writing

So, as you might know already, I'm a pretty big fan of voluntary simplicity, environmentalism, urban homesteading, making things out of nothing, etc. etc. etc.  It's kind of a lifestyle for me.  Lately, I've been reading a lot about Upcycling and helping my boyfriend learn a few craft techniques so that he can perfect them and start selling them. 

Anyway, what all of that has to do with writing is that I'm undertaking an "upcycling" revision of an old story right now.  This novel started in 2004, and I worked on it on-and-off all through college.  I finished it in graduate school but was never satisfied with it.  All of the things I wanted to do, I didn't quite accomplish; the story I wanted to tell was not quite the story I was qualified to tell. 

I realized that the story was irredeemably terrible when I sat down and attempted to write a query letter for it.  You learn a lot about stories from query letters and elevator pitches.  One of the hardest and most brutal lessons to learn is that your book actually doesn't have a plot. 

That was a hard pill to swallow.  Realizing that things -- often exciting, even gut-wrenching things -- happen, but there is no central conflict.  There is no way to distill the story.  When someone asked me what I was writing, I would explain the backstory or the setting, but not really the plot...because there was none. 

Part of this happened because I was trying to write a literary novel.  I was in college, desperate to write The Great American Novel, and I'm just not that kind of writer.  I set out wanting to write this haunting geopolitical dystopia (this was before dystopia was The Thing, by the way....it was actually basically a dead genre when I started) but what I ended up with instead was kind of a quiet peek into the life of a few deeply damaged people. 

Well, anyway.  I shelved the novel and wrote two new ones instead.  But while I was working on the new ones, I couldn't stop thinking about the old project.  Not just because I'd spent so much time on it.  But because it was still a story I wanted to tell.  There were still themes I wanted to explore, and I was still really attached to these characters. 

So I thought about it for awhile.  I looked at my other books, and then all the other ideas that I had, and realized that my place on the shelf would be either fantasy or horror -- that I write dark fantasy, sometimes dark urban fantasy.  I wondered how I could change the book to make it fit a genre I was interested in.   And then, like a gift, I realized exactly how to fix it! 

Now that Tagestraum is finished and out in the world searching for its forever-home (yes, I talk about my manuscripts the way I do about my rescued rats.  that's normal, right?) it's time to turn my eyes to the next project, and a really heavy revision sounded like just the place to start. 

I'm reading over it now and taking stock of the scenes I have to work with.  By the time I get done, I will have:
-- Completely changed the setting
-- Changed the genre
-- Added a central conflict
-- Tightened the plot to revolve around that conflict
-- Changed it from 3rd person past to 1st person present tense
-- Strengthened a couple of the subplots

Not just a facelift here.  This is some hardcore stuff.  Yet I'm weirdly -- almost obscenely -- enthusiastic about this one.  I feel like I've finally found a way to tell a story I'm passionate about while using my strengths. 

So, how bout you guys?  What's the most radical revision you've ever undertaken?  Ever considered dredging up a shelf novel?

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