How to Get the Most Mileage Out of Your Writing

 

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by Jenna Kalinsky, Director, One Lit Place

Do you hold onto your best material, thinking that once you use it, you can’t write about it again? If so, here’s some great news: not only can you write about the same theme, topic, characters, settings, and general ideas over and over to get the most mileage out of your writing, but you can repurpose your content into all manner of other work. When you use your writing as a launching pad for yet more writing, you’ll have a near endless resource of options for future publications!


As you strive to write your novel, memoir, or book-length work of poetry or nonfiction, you generate a lot of material. Naturally, as you refine the work for publication, you hone and whittle all that raw material down to its shiny essence. This is good for the project but it always hurts a little to take out so much writing.

It also happens that writing begets more writing. When you’re working on your project, you’ll see that you want to explore territory that your book or short work can’t reasonably house.

Rather than rue the fact that you had to hack so much out of your book or short work or that you couldn’t stuff everything into the one piece, you can rejoice! The glorious side effect of all that writing, both cut and kept, is you now have loads of material. You can reuse or repurpose this material for infinitely more pieces, enabling you to get the most mileage out of that one project.

All the research, explored themes, character events and relationships, and even whole sections’ ideas can serve as springboards for new personal essays, short stories, nonfiction magazine articles, poems, or other books- or you can even lift your content straight from an existing work and publish it as an excerpt as-is.

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Short Stories, Personal Essays, and Nonfiction Articles

In advance of her memoir’s publication date, Judy Cohen turned two important elements in her memoir, Laugh Cry Rewind, into short personal essays. She published “Music Brings Us Together: Bonding with My Video Game Loving Son,” in Your Teen Magazine. The essay is about how she used her past as a music producer and love of music to connect with her son. She also published “A Letter to My Late Sister on Our Shared Birthday,” in Next Avenue Magazine, which furthers the beautiful bond she had with her sister who passed away as a young woman.

Eden Boudreau, whose upcoming memoir, Cry Wolf, charts her journey to healing after violent assault, found opportunity to share aspects of her story in personal essay.

Writers will often pull out such tendrils from their books and explore them in short pieces. Doing this enables you to get the most mileage out of an existing theme, character, or event that’s referenced in your book but not fulfilled in its own right and explore it in its own narrative anew.

stack of magazines

Another option is to adapt existing sections or chapters from your novel, memoir, or nonfiction work so they are self-standing and publish them as short stories or personal essays.

Turning Short Publications into Book-Length Works

Writer Yvonne Liu, who is currently writing her memoir I Talk to My Mother in the Clouds began publishing short works on the topic of her youth in The New York Times, Huffpost, Newsweek and others. These early projects and their subsequent enthusiastic feedback from readers (her Huffpost piece, “I Kept My Family’s Secret for Over 60 Years. Now I’m Finally Telling the Truth,” has been read by more than 1.5 million people!) has enabled her to find the locus of what her book would become and acquire attention from literary agents and publishers.

Excerpts & Free Downloads

An excerpt is an entire section or chapter of your book neatly lifted out like a slice of pie and offered to a magazine or newspaper. An excerpt is a fantastic (and easy) way of creating buzz around your soon-to-be published book prior to its publication.

The excerpt may be self-standing as a reading experience, or it may invite curiosity about the larger project (such as a chapter of a novel which invariably leave a reader wanting to know more).

Here are some great best practices for getting your excerpts placed in literary magazines.

books on bookshelf

If you’re traditionally published or repped by a literary agent, they may offer excerpts of your book to mainstream magazines on your behalf to get your name out there and create interest in advance of the book’s publication.

I’ll always remember reading Michael Cunningham’s stunning chapter “White Angel” excerpted by The New Yorker from his novel Flesh and Blood on a New York bus. It’s a stunning chapter that he had annotated with his own feedback. I was so absorbed by its brilliance and gut-wrenching ending that I only realized we’d gotten to my stop as the doors were closing and leapt up, stumbling over several people, nearly pitching headfirst onto the sidewalk (*It was so worth it).

Self-published authors can do this as well by asking literary websites to excerpt your book as a guest blog, submitting it to literary magazines (print and online), and offering excerpts on your own website.

book cover on website page

Some authors offer their book’s first chapter or another excerpt from one of their books as a free download on their websites (check out how One Lit Place detective novelist Phil Eastwood or YA writer Victory Jo use their book’s content as lead magnets to bring people onto their newsletter list).

 

Get the Most Mileage Out of an Existing Topic by Revisiting It in New Projects Again and Again

The idea that you should hold onto your best material because once you use it it’s spent is entirely wrong! You should always blow your best material because

  • a) the more you write, the more you will generate great new ideas
  • b) you can revisit your material in new projects again and again.

Writer Kathryn Harrison, author of The Kiss and numerous other works, has repeatedly drawn on her same childhood experiences as points from which her stories begin. Charlotte Brontë, Dan Brown, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Edgar Allan Poe also published several books that more or less speak to the same topic. One writer says about Poe’s penchant for writing about beautiful women who die:

“Dude got a lot of mileage out of that one.”

Poet Lauren Camp found that while her father was slipping into Alzheimer’s the way she could try to understand what was happening to him, to her, and to their family in the context of the disease, was to write about the topic- again and again.

 

There are so many ways to write about a topic, and the more you write about it, the deeper you can go. I challenge you to write five poems on the same subject you’ve been circling. Write until you discover what was previously unknown, or articulate something familiar in a new way. Or maybe five poems won’t be enough. Push harder. Write more. Allow yourself to try something unexpected: a form, maybe? Come at the subject from another angle. Change the perspective, the tone, the timing. Allow yourself to write what you hadn’t known you could say. Then work to build a rhythm for your words.

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Mileage For Days: Writing Is All About Reuse & Recycle!

The next time you’re cursing (inwardly, of course) because your workshop group says your story “actually starts on page 46.” Or your editor gently suggests removing Chapter 3 of your nonfiction manuscript because the research, while interesting, is tangential. Or you realize while you’re writing that you have so much more you want to explore on the same subject, take heart. It’s all useable. Keep track of the ideas in a new file or notebook, and you’ll always have a garden of new ideas from which to draw.

Doing this gives a double benefit: your existing book or short work be leaner, more purposeful, and more concise because you’re not trying to say it all in the space of that one project. You also now have yet more wonderful ready-made content to publish elsewhere- and in many forms- that stretches all down the road for miles, clear through to the horizon.


Need a bit more gas in your car to help you go the extra mile with your writing? We specialize in helping writers be their most motivated, their most productive, and their most published. Feel free to contact us today for a FREE consultation about how we can support you with all the writing you do!

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