The Evolution of a Writer

Let’s take a quick break from whining about editing and look at writing instead. Specifically, I want to suggest a fun little exercise – one that I find both very informative and a great source of motivation when I don’t feel so gung-ho about my chances to make it as an author.

Take one of your favorite authors. Ideally, you want one who has written lots of books in a similar style.

Then read and compare his latest (and/or best-written book, if one qualifies) with the first book he or she wrote. Try and spot the differences in style, the weaker sections, and so on.

It’s surprising how amateurish some very-well received books look under that lense.

When I did that exercise the first time, it was with Jim Butcher’s Cold Days and his first Dresden short story, The Restoration of Faith. Now, that’s cheating a bit, because Restoration was only published several years later as part of an omnibus (and, as Butcher himself explains in his foreword to that particular story, it really was a first-try effort that “wasn’t ready for the commercial market.”)

But even if you compare, say, Storm Front (the first published Dresden Files book) to the later novels of the series, the evolution of Jim Butcher’s skills as a writer is obvious.

The point of the exercise is to realize that:

  1. Yes, practice does make you better. You’ll see it when going from the shitty first draft to the readable second draft, and you’ll see improvement from your first published novel to your last.
  2. Even the best authors started out as “merely okay” authors. Sure, they had good stories, and a certain level of writing skills, but they were probably not as good as you recall through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia.

Work/Life/Writing Balance

Once in a while, life gets in the way of my writing. This week was one such case: between work, the classes I’ve begun to take, and some medical checkups, there wasn’t enough free time for me to give this blog any attention.

It did give me an idea for a post, though.

Whenever I talk about my writing project with my family and friends, someone will mention that I’m lucky to have the time to do it. Which invariably makes me slightly snippy, because luck has nothing to do with it.

It’s just a matter of priorities.

It’s entirely possible to write a book while working full time, having a girlfriend, running a (possibly overambitious) D&D campaign and taking classes at the same time. (Although adding more to my plate at the moment would be problematic, I will admit.)

But that means making some sacrifices: my job is not one of those high-powered, 90-hours-a-week grind. The D&D campaign runs on a monthly, not weekly, basis. And I didn’t play whatever videogame you want to talk about.

Some weeks, it means that the book doesn’t move forward as much as I want it to, because I have to be in court and that generally means being prepared.And sometimes, it means going out with the girlfriend instead of staying home.

More prosaically, it also means that I lead a really well-organized life. I edit my book on the bus. I have a daily to-do list, and I check items off it near-compulsively. The time I waste being inefficient is, ultimately, time I could be using to write, and so I try not to waste any.

But the point is – if you want to write, you can do it. There’s probably some free minutes or hours you can reclaim from the daily routine, just by getting organized. And if getting 103% completion in the latest Madden’s Shoot Guy Auto 6  isn’t as satisfying a life goal as it once was, well, that’s just extra scribbling time.

On Screens, Hardcopy and E-readers

I love my Kindle. As an avid reader, having access to an entire library with me when I’m on the bus, on a plane or on vacation is a godsend.

But lately, I’ve fallen in love with how it gives me a new perspective when re-reading my manuscript.

Obviously, most of my revision work has been done directly on my laptop screen. It’s where I work, there’re those handy red squiggly lines to let me know about typos, there’s a thesaurus (and Google) right in the next window over…

But at some point, you have to review your manuscript in hardcopy, if only because your eyes get too used to the text on screen. Reading your text on paper will let you spot other mistakes and, if you’re anything like me, will let you get a better sense of the timing of your novel.

Recently, I converted my manuscript to a PDF and threw it on my Kindle, figuring Yet Another Reading of the Book couldn’t hurt. I expected to find a few more mistakes and possible improvements. But let me tell you, seeing my work in the same type, size and format as everything else I’ve read in the last few years has been eye-opening.

On the plus side: the Book is really quite good. I’ve read commercially successful works in the same genre that weren’t as well written.

On the minus side: over a hundred additionnal small corrections to make already, and I’m nowhere near done with that re-reading. Well, good thing I wasn’t planning on querying this weekend.

But seriously: if you’re writing your own manuscript, get a Kindle (or another e-Reader.) It’s absolutely worth it just for the new perspective it will give you on your work.

Revising, Reviewing and Rewriting

Since I’m currently finalizing my manuscript, I figure now is the right time to discuss all the steps I went through to get there.

First, I wrote my first draft, skipping all those nitpicky details like “planning” or “writing an outline.” Surprisingly enough, that wasn’t as bad an idea as it seems. It probably cost me some efficiency, but on the other hand getting that first draft done was probably more important than getting it right. I needed to know that I could bring the project at least that far before running out of motivation.

Once I had that first draft done, however, it was time to make it good. So I grabbed my red pen, printed out the whole manuscript, and got to work. That first revision covered everything, from fixing plot holes to improving my characterization (and, of course, correcting all those inevitable typos and grammar issues.) In the process, I added about 20,000 words to the manuscript, bringing it up to a publishable size.

I also realized how much my writing had improved in the relatively small interval between starting my prologue and completing my epilogue. So I actually ended up my first revision with even greater motivation than ever before.

While I was revising, I was also sending my completed chapters to a pair of first readers. Inevitably, they caught mistakes I missed, but their input was also valuable for additional plot doctoring and characterization editing.

Which brings me up to now. As I wait for the final comments from the second of my first readers, I’ve started Yet Another Revision. This time, I put my book onto my Kindle, just to look at it from another perspective. And… it was a good idea. I still see small stuff I want to fix, some minor issues and weaker sections. It’s a bit frustrating to see how imperfect the book is… but on the other hand, I can see how quickly I’m improving my writing skills.

And on the plus side, I think that once I’m done with that final revision, the book will absolutely be of publishable quality. So it’s not as demotivating as “third revision” might imply.

Moral of the story: don’t underestimate the need for revising your work, but also don’t underestimate the benefits of doing so. I’ve gotten so much better at writing just by reviewing my work that even if Book 1 fails to ever see the light of day, I know that my next project will get closer to that goal.