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.
Q: How do you push yourself to improve as a writer? Do you have any tips for us writers who are just starting out?*
A: Read. Everything. Seriously, reading a ton of fiction is a fiction writer’s number one job, besides writing. I'm a firm believer in reading great books--how you define "great" really depends, of course--but I'm also a fan of reading not-so-great books from time to time. In fact, you can learn an amazing amount from books that are far from amazing. Anyway, you should read in three ways:
(1) just going along, sort of soaking up awesome writing even if it’s completely different from what you want to do. This is how I read Haruki Marukami’s work. I just hope something sinks in.
(2) very deliberately paying attention to a writer’s moves. I tend to struggle more with plot than character development, so I tend to obsessively chart the plot development in books that build tension and effectively weave together many threads. Then I try to see how and when I can make their moves work in my own fiction. This usually happens in revision.
(3) learning what NOT to do. When something makes you groan, pay attention. What went wrong for that writer? How would you have fixed it? Where did the problem start? Sometimes, for example, the problem with the ending of a book is somewhere in the middle.
Of course, aspiring writers need to WRITE, too, but that's obvious. Never underestimate the power of your reading to transform your writing.
I reader recently emailed me to ask about the most-read articles on this blog. (Thanks for your question, Christy!) Here are the ten most popular posts, in reverse order to maximize suspense.
10. Five reasons NOT to self-publish your novel as an e-book. My tough-love advice for the eager-to-be-published.
9. The shit detector with on-off switch. Slight modifications to Hemingway's adage result in handy gift-giving advice for writers.
8. YA saves, but not like you think. A post responding to the second Gurdon article in the summer of 2011 (Remember? "AAAAAH! YA IS SO SCARY AND DARK!") and the responding rallying cry of "YA saves." Basically about the difference between parent-vision and teen-vision and what matters most for the YA audience.
7. Scrivener and me. A little shout-out for the program that is (STILL!) rocking my world. Coming soon... a post on organizing blog tours using Scrivener.
6. The Dropout Story. I am quite possibly the world's nerdiest high-school dropout.
5. Teens are (sexual) people, too. No surprise here... Sex always gets folks reading! One of my favorite posts on why I think sexuality has a place in books for teens... and why anybody who cares for a teen also ought to be thinking about the fact that sex--in some way--is in that teen's life.
4. How to Accidentally Make Ten Gallons of Soup. I can't help but think that these 1,000s of hits are from folks (cafeteria cooks?) actually interested in making 10 gallons of soup. Otherwise... are my mistakes really that compelling?
3. Stakeouts, Knives, Graffiti, and More. The truth about researching The Knife and the Butterfly.
2. Borges on visiting America. Tiny post with a Borges quote and a photo of the English building where he taught (and I attended classes) at The University of Texas at Austin.
1. Review of Benjamin Alire Saenz's Last Night I Sang to the Monster. This was the first book review I wrote after receiving a contract for What Can't Wait and The Knife and the Butterfly.
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