Look back in chagrin

Recently I’ve been revising an old manuscript that I originally wrote over a decade ago, and haven’t touched in at least seven years. It’s an interesting window into the past of my own creative process, and some lessons I’ve since learned are vividly displayed in all their teeth-gnashing glory. Here are some examples.

1) A little description goes a long way. I described the physical settings in great detail, thinking at the time that the action wouldn’t work without it. I try to always make my action scenes use the specific geography I’ve set up, so that the reader gets the sense that these events could happen nowhere else. I now know that back then, I seriously underestimated the reader’s ability to comprehend. For example, I had this as a description of a creek:

“The creek occupied an open ribbon of ground fifty feet wide, and the grass beyond it grew high enough to hide anything.”

I thought that readers needed to know that the width of open ground would accommodate the events about to occur. However, in revision I realized this was didactic overkill. Whatever image of a “creek” the reader conjures will work quite well, and has the virtue of getting the reader to contribute to the story’s reality.

I also tended to give exact measurements when they weren’t necessary. For example, “[it] landed hard on its belly ten yards away.” In context of the scene, knowing the precise distance is pedantic and unnecessary.

2) There’s a fine line between ambiguity and confusing lack of information, and I often have trouble seeing this line until someone points it out to me. In this story, the plot was set in motion by a man wandering out of the desert and promptly dropping dead. We never found out who he was, where he came from, or why he carried the McGuffin he brought. In re-reading I realized this was a huge dangling plot point that might–and probably should–annoy the reader. So while I liked the ambiguity and wanted to keep as much as possible, I filled in some more detail and implication, so there’s at least some sort of explanation.

3) Elmore Leonard, a man who should know, advises, “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.” I had clearly not grasped that concept. If the tone of the dialogue isn’t clear from the dialogue itself, then in most cases you need to back up and rethink the words. Certainly I did.

4) My chapters have gotten shorter. The first five chapters of this book averaged 17-18 manuscript pages, while my more recent ones are between 13-15. This is an observation, not a value judgment, since in one sense a chapter is as long as it needs to be. But evidently mine need to be shorter than they used to.

And finally,

5) The chapters may be longer, but this book was short. Really short. 350 manuscript pages, when my average for the Eddie LaCrosse series is between 400-420 (and even that’s short compared to most fantasy novels). As I revise, I’ve found places to legitimately add more detail and incident, but I internalized too much journalism to tolerate any padding. And that’s another important lesson: like a chapter, a story is as long as it is. Some stories might need multiple volumes of a thousand pages each; then again, some might just take 400 or so pages. Maybe less.

Yes, a lot of these lessons caused me to wince, clench my teeth and look away in both disgust and horror. The urge to think, “I can’t believe I wrote something so bad” is pretty strong. But it’s also incorrect. I wrote this story the best that I could at the time. I improve with each story I write, with each comment and suggestion I get from my editor, and with each book I read. The process doesn’t end. So if you’re an aspiring writer out there, and you resurrect an old manuscript that makes you want to give up writing forever, remember two things: a) it was the best you could do at the time, and b) you’re better now.

And that should always be true.

3 Comments on “Look back in chagrin”

  1. Thanks, Alex. That's an important lesson for writers. I know I cringe when I look back at my older stuff, but the more recently I wrote it, the less cringe-worthy it seems to me. I guess that proves your point. 🙂

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