Stealing isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes, stealing is fun and productive. In baseball, stealing is good; stealing home, awesome. Stealing from the rich and giving to the poor? Illegal but still cool. For writers, stealing is almost always bad, unless you’re stealing from yourself. In fact, I would recommend that every writer pilfer their own work. If you’ve been writing for years, you probably have thousands of pages of material to bleed dry like the first girl in a gory torture film, to pick clean like a holiday turkey, to recycle like a human organ thief. Stealing from yourself is cathartic. Plus, you probably won’t sue yourself, unless you want some publicity.
Most writers have a wasteland of old, seemingly-unusable material. If you search through your writing files, you’ll probably find stories you’d forgot you’ve even written. Personally, I found three short stories I had almost no recollection of ever writing, but they have my name on them, so I guess I’m guilty. Much of that discarded material was probably written when you were just starting out, finding a style, tinkering, practicing your dialogue, developing your many ideas, honing your craft, or simply just learning how to write. Those old stories could very well be a goldmine.
What does one do with old material they find to be sub par? There are a few options, including thievery.
Many years ago, I wrote a novel. Reading it over recently, I discovered that it’s actually better than I’d thought. I was shocked to discover that most of the writing didn’t make me want to cry. I decided to take that old novel and give it a re-write, applying all that I’ve learned over the last six or seven years since I originally wrote it. The novel is decent, but I know I can make it great. If you’ve got an old novel gathering dust or taking up computer space, why not go back to it and give it another go? The good news is, since it’s already finished, the task of improving that old novel is not so daunting. Maybe the writing just needs a touch-up, or maybe entire chapters or plotlines simply don’t work. Whatever the case, I’ll bet almost everyone reading this has a first novel (or fifth) that could be greatly improved by applying all the skills you’ve acquired over the years. Who knows? You might have a diamond that just needs a bit of polishing. Re-writing your older work is not thievery per se; more like recycling, and recycling is almost always good.
If you’ve got older work that simply can’t be saved, that’s where stealing comes in. If you’ve written something that hasn’t been published, take whatever you want from it. Have a bad story but a great character? Take that character and place him or her in a completely new story. Have a great story with lousy characters? Write that story again, with new, better characters. It’s your story. Write it fifty times if you must, until you get it right. Maybe you’ve a got a novel with many, many wonderful ideas, too many ideas. Take just one of those ideas and use it again. Steal from yourself liberally and without shame. Great ideas are rare, and you’ve probably got several hidden away in the deepest caverns of your computer.
Hell, even if you’ve already had an idea that’s been published in story form, use it again if you feel you can add to it or use it to better effect. Garth Ennis is a well-known comic book writer. His masterpiece is a series called Preacher, published by DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint. The series focuses on a character named Jesse Custer, a preacher in a small town who becomes possessed by a supernatural force called Genesis, and Genesis was born out of the coupling of an angel and a demon. Ennis had used this idea previously in a series called Hellblazer. He freely admits to stealing the idea from himself, because he felt that he hadn’t fully developed it the first time around. The story he crafted was good the first time around, but brilliant the second time.
If you have spare time, or are simply at a loss for what to write next, dig up those old stories and see what you’ve got. It might just be more than you think. What you uncover will probably put a big smile on your face. Steal from yourself. Rob yourself blind. Finding a great idea from your old work is like finding money in an old pair of jeans. So, please, begin your life of crime. You know you want to. Stealing is fun.