Quick-Tip Tuesday: Revisiting the Past, and Finding Out We Sucked

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David B. Coe/D.B. JacksonI owe an apology to all of you.

Seriously.

To every person I have critiqued at a Live Action Slush, to every student whose manuscript I’ve marked up, to every aspiring writer I’ve advised with arrogant confidence, I am truly sorry.

For what, you ask.

For failing to realize just how fortunate I am, and have been, to have the career I’ve had.

What has brought this on?

Well, I am editing Children of Amarid, my very first novel. I have the rights back to the book — to the entire series, actually — and I’m planning to come out with what I call the Author’s Edit (kind of like the Director’s Cut of a movie). So I’m reading through the book, editing as I go, rediscovering the tale that kicked off my career.

Children of Amarid, by David B. CoeAnd it’s awful. I mean TERRIBLE. I am mortified to realize this book has been in print for nearly 20 years. I cannot explain how it ever got published in the first place.

Okay, maybe that’s overstating the case. It’s not the worst thing ever. But it is a book with significant flaws. It’s filled with passive voice, distancing words (felt, heard, saw, etc.), adverb upon adverb upon adverb, said-bookisms, point-of-view issues, grins and nods and smiles and other mannerisms that are way overdone, overwrought prose, and did I mention the adverbs . . . The good guys are a little too good, and the bad guys are baaaaad. Yuck!

I still like the characters (mostly), and the story, and the worldbuilding. But oh-my-God, the writing.

I’m fixing it, of course — it’s taking me forever, but I’m turning it into the book it should have been all along. I find myself thinking about my poor editor, who obviously felt it needed so much work from a plotting and pacing perspective (that part of it I improved immensely before its release) that he had to leave these other issues for subsequent volumes. It must have pained him to let them go.

You want an example? Okay.

Here’s one passage from early in the opening chapter:

The early morning air felt cool and damp, and the briny scent of the nearby harbor lay heavy over the village. The sky was azure, and the first rays of sunlight cast elongated shadows in front of them as they crossed through the village and down to the shore. When they reached the waterfront they walked among the small, wooden boats that sat on the sandy beach until they reached the dugout Gerek had fash­ioned the previous spring. In the boat lay three wooden pad­dles, two of them full sized, and one of them, clearly intended for Kori, half the size of the others. Kori removed his paddle and one of the larger ones, struggling slightly with the latter, and his father pushed the dugout along the sand until it glided onto the glasslike surface of the harbor. There, he held it still, allowing Kori to climb in and move to the front. Then Gerek took his place at the stern and began to paddle away from the shore.

Here’s my rewrite of the same paragraph:

Cool, damp air brushed Gerek’s cheeks, and the scents of brine and fish lay heavy over the village. The sky was azure, and the sun’s first light cast elongated shadows in front of them as they followed a dirt path through Sern to the harbor shore. When they reached the waterfront they walked among the small boats that lay on the beach until they reached the dugout Gerek had fash­ioned the previous spring. In the boat lay three wooden pad­dles, one of them, Kori’s, half the size of the other two. Kori removed his paddle and one of the larger ones, struggling with the latter. Gerek pushed the dugout along the sand until it glided onto the glassy surface of the water. There, he held it still, allowing Kori to climb in and move to the front, before taking his place at the stern and paddling them away from the shore.

Version two is not only cleaner, without so many descriptors and “that”s and “then”s, it’s also 18 words shorter. In the first 175 manuscript pages, I’ve already shortened the novel by more than 4,000 words, simply by cutting verbiage.

You might be reading this thinking, “Well, version two is better, but the first passage isn’t SO bad.” And maybe you’re right. This first book sold well, established me as a professional, and, along with book 2, won me the Crawford Award.

But I know how much better my prose is now. I know how much better even the second and third books in this series were than the first. And as I read through the manuscript, I see improvement, chapter to chapter, even page to page. In a way, I’m reliving my growth as a writer. But seeing all the problems in these early pages has been humbling, to say the least. I see in my work all the mistakes (and more) that I identify in the work of students and aspiring colleagues. Let’s just say that I’ll be more tolerant going forward. Maybe my hand won’t shoot up quite so quickly in those Live Slush panels . . .

This is a Quick-Tip post, and so I ought to turn this parable into advice.

Actually, it’s not that hard to do. Go back and read your earliest work. (Not from childhood, but from when writing became a serious adult endeavor.) Because the truth is, this has been a fantastic exercise for me. I see how much I’ve grown over the years, as a craftsman, as a storyteller, as an observer of human behavior. I see as well the seeds of my later artistic successes in this novel. Bad as it is in spots, it also has a raw emotional quality, a passion, that I sometimes need to rediscover all these years later.

And I see as well, crutches in my writing on which I still lean to this day. I’m not as reliant on them as I used to be, but they linger in my prose. It’s good for me to be reminded of them.

Reading our old work offers both encouragement — look at how much we’ve grown! — and cause for humility — look at these stupid mistakes we’re still making!

And what writer couldn’t do with a bit more of both?

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17 comments to Quick-Tip Tuesday: Revisiting the Past, and Finding Out We Sucked

  • […] What I’ve found is a book filled with many of the common errors I encounter in the first novels of aspiring writers and students with whom I work. That’s not surprising — this wasn’t just my first published novel, it was my first novel ever. But still, going back and editing the book has been an eye-opening experience. Read about it here. […]

  • David, I love this. I cringe when I look at my early work. My biggest problem was purple writing. And not just purple, but purplelavendargrape writing. It is a good exercise to go back and see how I’d do it now, for the writer I am and for the market as it exists today. BTW — example 2 is clean and crisp and lively. 🙂

  • Is it just me or does rereading stuff you’ve written feel more like examining who you used to be (or are) than it does like you’re looking at something external? I don’t think it is a good idea to totally align a sense of self with the writing produced, but it is hard not to. I also sometimes find it weirdly disjointed–like the person who wrote it was someone I’ve met, but not someone I know well–let alone someone I used to be.

  • Alex Pendergrass

    Thanks for this article. It’s certainly encouraging to know that even seasoned pros look back in horror at their work. (Although I must admit that I thought the first paragraph wasn’t bad at all. But I can see the improvements in the second one.)

    I’m in a bit of a revising rut, struggling to see what’s wrong and to change what needs changing. Perhaps looking at the first novel I wrote would help show the poorer aspects of my prose in a clearer light so that I can tackle it with more confidence in the current WIP.

    As for the re-releases, were you thinking of an omnibus with the whole trilogy in one volume? That would be pretty cool, especially if it were given some special qualities to the book as a physical piece in the vein of Subterranean Press. (I love big, beautiful books. You might say I’ve got a book collecting problem.)

  • Faith, yes, I have that, too. I think it’s purple — I’m color blind so, you know . . . But yeah, overwriting was another of my original sins. 😉

    Emily, it is definitely an emotionally fraught process. I find myself wondering what I was thinking, trying to recapture a sense of that old self. So yes, I know just what you mean. I’m trying not to be too hard on that younger me, but it’s hard sometimes.

    Alex, thanks. I thought about an omnibus for these books. But frankly, they’re really, really long. 200,000 words each. So it would be a REALLY big omnibus. Right now, the plan is to release them as three volumes. As for your work, I do think that you might find it helpful to look at your older work, for just the reasons you mention. Give it a try. If nothing else, you’ll see the improvements you’ve made, and that might help you out of the rut. Best of luck with it.

  • In the last twenty years, narrative style has changed drastically. The intimacy of the current narrative technique started in romance, and, since so many writers got their education from RWA and teachers who wrote romance then moved into fantasy and science fiction, the intimate narrative has become standard because readers prefer that intimacy.

    When you wrote that fantasy novel twenty years ago, you were writing the standard cold narrative of the period. Fortunately, your style has evolved with the times. Good for you.

  • Thanks, Marilynn. That’s a good point, and something we should all remember. Markets change. Point of view preferences shift. Said-bookisms go in and out of style. It’s all a moving target.

  • Janet Walden-West

    Even as someone very new to writing, I can look at drafts from a couple of years ago and see both the progress I’ve made and the sins I still committ. It’s the literary version of watching a horror movie while hiding behind your fingers–kinda horrific, but you can’t look away 🙂

  • Razziecat

    David, this made me smile! I can look at what I wrote when I got back into writing almost ten years ago, and boy, what a difference! In fact, over one rather long, over-written story, I later added these words: “Thrills! Chills! Sex and violence! Temper tantrums! Obvious influence from other writers! But it was fun, damn it!” Sometimes I go back and reread it, and that silly heading still fits 😀

    I think we need to get the purple prose out of our systems; and we also need to explore different voices, imitate our favorite authors, and play around with words. I could name authors whose earlier works were obviously not as good as their later ones, and among them are three of my favorite writers 😉 The learning and improving never stops; writing is a craft that lives and grows.

  • I think I needed this today. I was just past my story climax of a new novel I’m writing when I realized that there was going to be a small battle in it, which I suck at. I was and wasn’t looking forward to it, thinking about how much I love the story, but then hating the idea of working on something I’m so bad at writing. Then I read your article and remembered that the first novel I wrote (that actually was a finished novel) had a flimsy plot, no description, no villain and actually included the line, “I just knew I had to get Sumae away from the life-draining skeletal area.” It may have been horrible, but it was my first. Because I’ve looked back, I know that just because I’m bad at something now, doesn’t mean I’ll always be bad at it. Sometimes, just knowing that I am getting better even when I can’t see it myself is inspiring. Thank you.

  • Janet, I love the analogy. It’s so great that you’re already seeing that progress. I’m sure the trend will continue. Thanks for the comment.

    Razz, thank you. You’re so right. I was trying to do things with the early chapters of this first book that I just wasn’t capable of pulling off. And I’m getting to the point in my edits where I’m starting to see improvements in the original manuscript. I really do see myself growing into my craft. Love the heading on your story!

    BA, thanks so much for the kind comment. I’m glad to have helped in some small way. We are always pushing ourselves as writers, making ourselves take on challenges. Each book presents something that we’ve never done before — at least it should be this way. And so each new project is bound to be an improvement over the last. And that is what keeps us going. Best of luck with your work and thanks again.

  • Alex Pendergrass

    Just want to add that I think a Thieftaker leather bound omnibus, including the shorts, so that it looks like it could come from the shelf of Samuel Adams would be just swell.

  • Adding my voice to Alex’ on the idea of the leather-bound Thieftaker set. Hey, Subterranean Press, are you listening??? 😉

  • I’d love to see it happen. But I’m not holding my breath . . .

  • *shrieks with laughter*

    OMG, OMG, OMG, I have JUST DONE THIS with what was my second-ever novel and it was EXACTLY LIKE THIS!!! All of these passages where I was like “Oh, little writer, I see what you were trying to do there, but, sweetheart, you just weren’t very good at it…” AND THE ADVERBS, OH MY EVER LOVING STARS, THE ADVERBS!!! *dies laughing* I feel your pain, mate! I feel your pain!

  • Love it, Catie. We should do a panel on this, or teach a course on it, or SOMETHING!

  • That would be SO. COOL!