The lovely folks at MiFiWriters are still open to submissions for their latest Division by Zero anthology. I set a stretch goal of writing something for their consideration. A few nights ago, warmed by a purring cat and a dram of bourbon, it occurred to me that I could use parts of an early, failed NaNoWriMo novel as the foundation of that story.

I will probably still use the concept of that aborted novel for the short story, but I cannot use the material itself. Because — and I say this delicately — it’s abysmal. I opened the story, read the first few chapters, and poured myself another couple of fingers of the whiskey just to salve my wounded pride. The half-finished novel suffered myriad deficiencies:

  • Most of my characters were walking stereotypes — the sarcastic Mexican engineer, the starship captain modeled after Kathryn Janeway, the super-smart (and drop-dead gorgeous) emo security officer, the cyborg doctor who resented his implants, the Japanese astrophysicist who just happened to be an expert swordsman. You get the picture. The cast of main characters felt very “United Colors of Benneton” while offering almost no individual depth.
  • The dialogue was so forced it was as if I had written it at gunpoint. I think I wanted to humanize my stereotypical characters, therefore much of the dialogue consists of good-natured insults and pseudo-witty banter. But the net result was heavy on sarcasm, which doesn’t resonate with most readers.
  • Speech attribution … well, the story needed more of it. ‘Nuff said.
  • Scenes had no real transitions. Chapters did, but scenes within a chapter just kind of blended together — with the structural equivalent of a “time passes” or a “and then he did this” segue.
  • Very little descriptions of stuff. Heavy with dialogue and with dry recitation of activities, but without any significant image-painting to inform the reader.

I was, to be honest, embarrassed by the material. Then I remembered a panelist at a regional writers’ conference I attended several years ago. She said that she wrote one novel that went through something like 17 or 19 separate rewrites before it was finally published. I recall surveying the audience and seeing their disbelief. I might have been one of those disbelieving folks, myself. That’s a lot of work. She also said something that comforted me, to the effect that (I paraphrase) most commercially successful authors have a half-dozen or so finished or mostly finished manuscripts sitting in the back of the file cabinet, never to be seen by anyone for any reason whatsoever.

They’re training manuscripts, basically. Even people who are “good writers” need time and practice to become proficient at long-form work. It’s not easy. There’s a myth — we see it with material that comes from early-career authors — that anyone can write a first novel, self-edit it and then successfully position it on the open market with a traditional publisher or agent.

To be sure, some people really can parley a first-time novel into a commercial best-seller. But “some” is several orders of magnitude smaller than the universe of all first-time authors.

Writing well is a skill. But it’s not like riding a bicycle, where once you master it, you master it. Instead, writing is more like running a marathon or practicing the martial arts: Most people can get to “proficient” status with just a bit of training and practice, but advancing to the level of a Boston qualifier or a third-degree black belt takes thousands of hours of practice under the direction of people with similar or higher levels of skill. And if you stop for a while, you’ll backslide. Diligence and persistence sometimes matter more than initial raw talent.

(Check out the sublime What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami for an excellent fusion on writing and long-distance running.)

Most writers, myself included, are blind to our specific faults while we’re in the middle of a major writing project. I know my foibles — a tendency to use the same word in successive paragraphs; an occasional over-reliance on asides; a proclivity toward complex sentences — because I’ve studied my old work and because I’ve had respected peer writers give me their honest feedback. Getting from “proficient” to “master” requires this kind of self-critical reflection on how you perform your craft, but also the trajectory of your evolution.

That trajectory is best illuminated through occasional cold reads of your very old work. I am not a fan of deleting archival material. Everything you write is a treasure — if not because it’s great, then at least because it’s a learning opportunity.

Every now and then, dig through your archive. Read with fresh eyes your early work product. Reflect on what you see that’s different today compared to when the original story was written. Can you see major changes? If so, what are they? How did those changes come about?

You cannot get driving directions to New York if you don’t know your starting point. Likewise, you can’t advance as a writer without understanding how you’ve evolved over time. When you ignore your point of origin, it’s infinitely harder to chart an efficient course to your destination.

So even though it might be embarrassing, an occasional trip down memory lane is useful. And it’s worth remembering, too, that your first or second novel will almost surely end up in the back of your file cabinet. That’s OK. It’s healthy. Your goal shouldn’t be to write and then to publish, but rather to write until you’re ready to publish.

An expensive investment of time, surely. But a worthwhile one.

A Brief Discourse on Reading What You Wrote
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