A while back, a blog reader asked this question in response to a writing inspiration post:
I hear authors talk all the time about how awfull they used to be, and how they're glad that first book they wrote won't ever see the light of day, etc. But they say they thought they were hot stuff while they were writing those not so great stories . . . So, my question to you, how can you tell when you work stops being crap, and starts being more like the work you admire? When you publish a book, are you ever afraid that in a few years your writing will be so much better, and you will be embarrassed you let that earlier work into the world?
The truth is that I don't know when that frontier from embarrassing to worthy is finally crossed. Usually it happens when I'm not paying attention, when I'm just trying to get from really crappy to less crappy.
There are things about "finished" work that a writer will never be wholly satisfied with. Somebody said that you don't finish a book, you simply abandon it. And he was talking about published work!
What I do know is that there are many writers who will never find readers because they can't bear the gap that always remains between what we write and what we dream of having written. They can't stand for readers to read the work that is, so they never publish at all. But I say that is a shame.
Regarding the last question, I don't think there's anything to be embarrassed about in "young" work. Every book sets its own terms, and its success depends on how well it fulfills those terms. In general, a first novel--my own What Can't Wait included--is a bit less ambitious, trying to do something small well rather than trying to take over the world and failing. (Of course, there are exceptions, like Junot Diaz's first novel, to name just one.) I feel my second novel, The Knife and the Butterfly, attempts something larger and riskier. I stepped outside of my comfort zone with the plotting, for example, and there's something of a paranormal twist.
For me, being a writer means embracing the challenge of working with words--and pushing the envelope of what I'm able to do with each word. I know that I'll (still) write a lot of crap along the way. I don't think the crap every goes away. But most of it stays in writer's notebooks and scrivener files that the reader never sees.
This is another reason that a good editor is indispensable. He or she will usually spot any crap that tries to sneak into the final manuscript.