Literary recycling

Without really setting out to, I’ve started recycling in my writing.

I’m not talking about simple copy-and-paste replication of sentences or paragraphs, though; that would be lazy and creatively bankrupt. No; I’m talking about responsible recycling.

At its most basic level it is simply incorporating names, places or entities into multiple pieces of writing. Things like having a character in my current novel work at Midlen-Sharp, the defence company that I made up for a short story that I wrote a long time ago, or featuring an incidental character called Dr Keller in multiple stories.

OK. That does sound a bit like simple copy-and-paste replication.

But at a slightly more complex level it involves incorporating those things, and the qualities that relate to them, as a part of the plot. An example of this is my having a character in my novel claim to have studied under the magician that I invented (The Great Meliakoff) and to describe the magician’s final ever performance – an event about which I have written a short story (I’m just putting the finishing touches to it).

There are two reasons for doing this kind of thing, I think. Firstly, certain names just sound so right that it seems impossible not to reuse them wherever appropriate; secondly, and more importantly, I think that by using a fictional element that you have already created, you are able to bypass the normal creative process of inventing it.

Now, that sounds lazy, but I would argue that it’s less about labour saving and more about building a convincing, self-sustaining fictional world that spreads beyond the confines of a single piece of fiction. With each piece of fiction propping up elements within other pieces of fiction, the imaginary world begins to solidify.

I’m hardly blazing a trail here. Philip Roth has his Nathan Zuckerman narrator character, and H. P. Lovecraft invented an entire fictional mythos – Arkham, Dunwich, Cthulu, the Necronomicon – that is as vibrant today as it was when he created it around 80 years ago. J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion was a fictional mythology of an entire world, in which the events of the Lord Of The Rings comprised around four lines. The characters of John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat return in Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday.

Even discounting traditional sequential or character-themed series fiction – Sherlock Holmes,  Hercule Poirot, Harry Potter, Twilight, Millennium – which in my opinion don’t really count as recycling because they’re either really a single narrative broken into chunks or because they wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the common element(s) (usually the protagonist), there’s a lot of recycling going on out there.

I think it’s quite an exciting way of approaching a multiplicity of fictional narratives, and I wonder what opportunities it affords authors in the terrifying and remorseless new world of digital publishing. I can envisage hyperlinking character names, for example – or companies, or places – and then perhaps linking out to (or popping up) fictional encyclopaedia entries about these things, and then links to other stories in which they feature…something like a DVD extra.

I have no idea how easy that is, or whether readers would engage with it or not, however.

Whether it leads to related innovations in digital publishing or not, however, I’m finding that by responsibly recycling my fiction I’m adding substance to and further developing and refining my invented fictional elements, which is improving my writing…and that can’t be a bad thing.

And I don’t even have to remember which week it is that the council takes the brown bin away.

This post is also posted on the Tunbridge Wells Writers blog


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