Thursday, July 01, 2010

You've come a long way, baby

We writers forget just how horribly gruesome we were when we first started out. I know I did.

Yeah, yeah, I was green, and I remember being so dumb I didn't even know what I didn't know. But even before that, I had a sort of arrogance about me, that, "I could do that," when I polished off the last page of a book I'd bought.

It was usually the less-than-stellar books that inspired such confidence. And yeah, I can say I've read less-than-stellar books. In fact, to some writers or readers, my own books make them whack their heads and say, "I could do that."

So it was an eye-opening experience this weekend when I opened up a long discarded "trunk" novel with the thought that, as it was at least a first chapter written, I could resurrect it.

The first sentence, with its clunky introductory gerund phrase, warned of woe. The chapter didn't, for the most part, rise above it.

Keep in mind that this was a novel I started NOT when I was 16 (I was still writing very bad poetry about the football player upon whom I crushed on and upon whom didn't even know I existed), or when I was in college (writing a really bad, over-the-top family saga about a NASCAR family of all things).

Nope, this was a novel I started in 2003, after I'd won at least two first place Georgia Press Association Awards and after I'd been making my living off writing for five years (I was an editor/reporter).

My heroine was a shrew with an entitlement complex. My hero was a chauvinist who came across patronizing at best and Neanderthal at worst. The best character in the whole chapter was the tow-truck driver, who had a scant two or three lines to his credit. And since, in the years that have stretched on from 2003, "boots" have replaced tow-truck drivers for parking violations, Tow-Truck Driver would wind up on the cutting room floor.

I cringed with embarrassment, but I sent it to Tawna Fenske for her to take a look-see. She agreed, and I cringed some more.

But you know what? I really shouldn't cringe. I should celebrate three things: the scant flashes of talent that I came across (they registered as a "well, that's not so bad" upon re-reading), and the fact that I have improved, and finally, that I can SEE said improvement.

Being able to see that you sometimes, oftentimes, suck at writing -- or any skill, really -- is something you don't learn immediately. But you have to learn that humbling lesson if you're ever going to make it. If I had never been able to see the wisdom in my critique partners' line edits, I would have never improved. You can't improve what you don't first embrace as something that NEEDS improving.

So don't pull a Van Gogh and trash your early efforts in a blaze of feverish delete-delete-delete. Keep those trunk novels tucked away in your trunk or drawer or under your bed. And on the days when you swear you can't write, when you haven't learned one iota ... that's when you pull out those early mess-terpieces. And you'll see that, like me, you've come a long, long, long way.


Piedmont Writer said...

I've done that with two 'under the bed' novels. I don't know how I wrote them, they are so bad, yet in the strangest of places there are flashes of brilliance and poignancy that make me say, "I wrote this?"

I use it as a fun exercise every once in awhile to whip them out and read. It allows me to see that I've come a long way.

Mary McDonald said...

My early efforts are out on the internet for all the world to see in the form of some bad fanfic. lol

Tawna Fenske said...

Thanks for the timely reminder! I'm in a bit of a frustrating patch with the current WIP and keep finding myself thinking I've regressed as a writer. I should go dig out some of my earlier efforts to remind myself how far I've come! :)

And your trunk novel definitely has potential. Just keep at it!


Linda G. said...

I pull my drawer novel out every now and then, and hug it to me like a raggedy-but-still-cherished security blanket. It's the book that proved to me I could write a whole novel, and I still love it, frayed edges and all. :)

Patty Blount said...

Mess-terpieces. I love that.

I just wrote a similar blog entry on early efforts. I think it may be a worthy writing exercise to go back to our first works and revise them according to where we are TODAY as writers. Like Mary, mine are in the form of some very bad fanfic. :(

KD Easley said...

Mess-terpiece. What a great word.

Kelly Breakey said...

As said it best. If we don't improve as we get older, we need to spend more time doing whatever it is we needed improving on in the first place. Did that make a lick of sense?

Donna Hosie said...

Love this post. When I wrote my first novel, I genuinely believed it to be prize winning material! Now I just die at the thought I sent it out. Writing is a craft that is perfected with time.

Nicole MacDonald said...

Its always, always good to know you get better :)

Anonymous said...

I only have just begun, but I agree. I look back at some very early writing efforts, and while I cringed, I'm also deliriously happy because at least now I'm good enough to realize how terrible my writing was back then. It's refreshing to think that, a few years from now, I'll think the same of my writing now -- it'll mean I've improved. :)