Dry Run

I’m currently writing a novel loosely connected to two previously published pieces of fiction.

In some cases, chunks of text from both The Owl and Rain have been transplanted into the book. They might be changed slightly – the characters are different, for example, and have to be moulded to fit their new avatars – but essentially what I’ve done is cut and pasted segments of old into a new piece of work, feathering the edges to make sure of a true fit.

I have form, here. Blonde on a Stick contains a chapter that was an unpublished short story from the early 1990s. The Unblemished contains a character, Gyorsi Salavaria, and associative text that was lifted from a short story, Bloodlines, written ten years previously. That novel also contains sections from a short story, Outfangthief, from the same period. It was as if those old stories recognised something in the new stuff I was doing and called out to it. Or maybe that old stuff hadn’t been finished properly, somehow, and the newer me set out to do the material justice without realising it, until those old words started tapping me on the shoulder.

At first I felt as if this was somehow a cheat. Maybe what I was doing wasn’t right, that it was peddling yesterday, that it wasn’t progressive, a sensitive recycling. The reader might notice, causing him to realise he is involved in a process of reading fiction, pulling him out of the story: a grim scenario when we’re in this partly to capture attention. But for me, I sometimes feel as if the novel contains apertures, like those in a jigsaw puzzle, that the relevant, related sections form the short stories fit well, with a little massaging. It helps when influential writers do the same thing…

I spoke to three friends of mine who all work in a similar way, and it was interesting to get their responses in relation to why they go back to earlier work as a starting point for, or an adjunct to something new.

Photo by Conrad Williams
Photo by Conrad Williams

Nicholas Royle’s new novel, First Novel, is his seventh. He is also a prolific short story writer.

When I’m starting to think about a new novel I will try out certain ideas in the form of short stories. I’m aware that stories and novels are different things and I know that by the time it comes to folding these early thoughts into the novel they will probably have changed shape. Often, endings imposed for the sake of the short story form will go, and other, less visible work will be done as part of the folding-in.

Photo by Charlie James
Photo by Charlie James

Graham Joyce, author of The Silent Land, Some Kind of Fairy Tale and, soon, The Year of the Ladybird, does things a bit differently. His stories An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen (from Memoirs of a Master Forger) and The Coventry Boy (from Facts of Life) came into being after the novels in which they were couched had been completed.

I tend to be a bit too much fascinated with “stories within stories” structures (I blame Scheherezade) but I usually know at the outset if it it will work as a standalone. I might finesse the head and tail of the story to sell it as a standalone. The thing is the aesthetics remain untouched. 

Photo by Cath Phillips
Photo by Cath Phillips

M John Harrison’s novels include The Course of the Heart, Signs of Life, Light, Nova Swing and, most recently, Empty Space. Climbers, his brilliant novel from 1989, is about to be reprinted.

It’s an article of faith with me, part of a method.

(a) I’m an obsessive. I deal very heavily in repeating images & obsessive affects. No one complains that Dali or Ernst or Picasso used the same imagery over & over again. It seems to work for painters, why not writers. & of course you see obsessive repetition as technique in people like Ballard, Anna Kavan, many of the 50s & 60s nouveau roman authors, who were interested in breaking down narrative structures & looking for organisational methods from other kinds of discourse.

(b) I don’t see fictions as being discrete, or ever “finished”. Something which is totally itself in one incarnation becomes part of something else in another. I work by bolting bits together to see what they make. The boundaries of a piece are like those chemical sites on viruses that allow them to bind to cells; change the sites, top & tail the segment, & it’ll fit somewhere else, become something else. Guess I’m a structuralist. But I also think it’s a way of entertaining the reader by showing them your process.

As subject matter, I like the idea of contexts switching suddenly to become subjects, subject that flips to context; works well at the technical level too. I do test-bedding of novels as shorts, the topping & tailing of shorts so that they become chapters in novels, blog pieces that become bits of shorts, shorts that break up & get scattered as blog posts or tweets; but, really, that’s because any given component suggested all those possible relations during the process itself. If it’s fluid for me, let it be fluid for the reader. Nothing really “exists”: everything that seems solid in the universe is made of the dynamic relations between structures at the next level down.

So I see the whole thing as a kind of fluid momentum. Not as discrete products.

I feel I’m justified (and in sterling company) when it comes to refashioning some of that old material in order to service the current story, if it’s sympathetically done, and feels right. The work all shares the same blood, after all.

first novel

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Thanks to Nick, Graham and Mike for their time.

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2 thoughts on “Dry Run

  1. Found this fascinating reading. I am currently working on a short story that features some repeated elements from one I wrote a few years back so tripped over this post via twitter at just the right time. As someone who is also working on his first novel, I hadn’t even considered ‘folding in’ other elements of my work into it. Now I have already identified one or two elements that might match the wallpaper. Safe to say, I have a lot to think about.

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