In 2001 I wrote what I thought was going to be my break out book, a wry coming of age novel with what I thought was a sharp, witty voice and a rich core story. After years of struggling to attract agents my first five queries led to three requests for the full manuscript, followed by two offers of representation. I accepted one and am still with her.
But she couldn’t sell the book. We had lots of near misses and flashes of genuine interest, even enthusiasm, but in the end, no one wanted to buy it. At the time I put this down to the book’s generic oddness and the idea that it was never going to be a mainstream hit. It didn’t really occur to me that the book just wasn’t very good.
But that, it turns out, was the case.
This week, taking a break between a couple of other projects, I decided to go back to that book from 2001 with a view to tweaking it into something viable. I had a few specific ideas of things I thought needed changing, some strategies for freshening it up, but I didn’t really remember the novel that well, so I set out to reread it on Tuesday.
I was astonished to discover that not to put too fine a point on it, the book sucks. The story is next to nonexistent; it’s self-indulgent, wordy and meandering. There are some good moments here and there, but for the most part it’s just not very good at all.
Frankly, this was a pretty depressing discovery, and it shut down what I had thought would be a fairly easy project.
But there was an upside. The experience of rereading it has made a few things clear to me, and I wanted to share those thoughts today.
First, I see now why the book got me an agent but not a sale. Agents are looking for writers with potential, while editors are looking for finished product. The manuscript shows some flashes of something that may one day be competence, but it clearly wasn’t ready to be a real book.
Second, I am reminded how hard it is for me to assess the value of my own work when I first produce it. It’s taken more than ten years for me to see this book as someone else would. When I first finish a book, I’m too close to it, too invested. I need other people whose judgment I trust to point out what I won’t be able to see for a decade.
Third, and this is a big one, I realize how much better I am as a writer now than I was then. I simply wouldn’t have written that book now, wouldn’t have framed its sentences as I did. I don’t say that as a boast, and the fact that my writing has changed suggests that it’s about experience, not talent.
I explain the improvement in two ways. On the one hand I have emerged from my writer’s cave. Back then I wrote alone and talked to no one about my work. In the last eight years or so I have engaged with the writing community through conventions, friendships with other writers (published and unpublished) and blogs like MW. I’ve become more aware of my craft in the process and have internalized things I clearly just didn’t know in 2001, though I had been writing long fiction for over a decade by then.
The largest factor in my improvement, however, is that I’ve just produced so much writing since then, 14 books and counting. The point is an obvious one, and one we make a lot here: you learn by doing, by writing, by editing, by finishing. We improve in incremental ways we aren’t even aware of—hence our surprise and disappointment when we return to old material and find that it doesn’t measure up.
I’m still bent on revising the book, because I do think there are good things buried in there, but it’s going to take a lot more work than I had thought it would, and that might push it onto the back burner for a while. Maybe forever.
Because the last thing I’ve learned as I keep rereading this book is that sometimes something that you’ve worked hard on for a long time just can’t be saved. This is a really hard lesson but an important one. I might be able to knock this thing into shape but I’m increasingly convinced that doing so would take more work than would starting over. Worse, I know that the revision wouldn’t be as good as would a new project, because the old book will persist with all its bad habits, its structures that don’t quite work, its shapes and arcs and characters that don’t really belong in the new book but which are just so hard to throw away because I WORKED SO DAMNED HARD ON THEM…
When you’ve slaved over something, poured yourself into it, it’s hard to tell yourself to stop. To let it go. It feels like such a waste. But I could spend the rest of my life trying to save this book, while knowing in my heart that it just isn’t worth it.
But it’s not a waste. The book may not be any good, but it was a process I learned from, a process which has continued up to the moment I write these words.
Sometimes you have to quit while you’re behind.
Sometimes you just have to shed old work like dead skin, and move on to something new.
What about you? Horror stories of looking back on old material or specific things you think you have learned over the years? Festering projects you think you should walk away from? Chime in, then get back to work. Only by actually writing do we improve.
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