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.
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