While I was looking for a novel to write during NaNoWriMo 2014, I did a little archeological foray into my older, unfinished stories. Not only did I find a project to work on, but I also learned something new about my writing.
I read a lot of writing blogs and I talk to a lot of writers on Twitter and Facebook. All of them say that the more you write, the better you get. Up until now, I was skeptical about that, because I wasn’t seeing progress in my own writing. Other people, notably my beta readers, have told me that they noticed an improvement, but I just couldn’t see it. Maybe because I was too close to my work to notice the difference: I usually let my first drafts rest for only a week or two before I dive into edits.
Well, I understand the truth of this saying now. Choices is a story I had last worked on back in 2012. I got stuck about 25k words into the story and abandoned it. Last Monday, I decided to read through what I already had to see if anything could be salvaged. Well, two hours later, I was forced to admit that I was better off just scrapping the whole thing and just starting from scratch.
But that reread wasn’t all negative. It made me realize how much I had grown as a writer since 2012 when I had tried (and failed) to first write that story.
Back in 2012, I had no idea what I was doing, or what writing a novel required. I had no idea about story structure, tension and plot or character development. Most importantly, I had only a very vague grasp on what my writing process was. The result was a barely reanimated corpse of a novel.
I had no outline. I had no idea where my plot was going or if I even had a plot at all. I had a backstory only on my two main protagonists; everyone else, even the antagonist, was just vague shadows in the background. No wonder I got stuck and abandoned that story!
I have learned since then that I can’t write without a detailed outline, a good backstory on most of my characters, and a lot of worldbuilding. Oh, and I absolutely need a clear idea of the ending. So that’s what I will be working on during October, and once I’m done, I have full confidence that I can write this story to the end without problem.
Reading through my failed first attempt, I also noticed just how many rookie mistakes I had made. In fact, I might keep that draft as a perfect illustration on how NOT to write a story. I started with a small prologue that didn’t bring anything to the story and would have been better situated at the end of Chapter 1 or cut out of the story altogether. Most of my worldbuilding and character backstory were huge info-dumps that almost managed to put me to sleep during my re-read. All the dialogues had some truly “creative” dialogue tags when a simple “he / she said” would have done just fine. And, most importantly, I told about my characters’ reactions instead of showing them.
Back when I wrote those words, I didn’t know any better, but now, one finished novel and several short stories later, the flaws of that draft stood out like a sore thumb.
For me, it was an eye-opening but also reassuring experience: I did become a better writer in the past two years, even if I hadn’t noticed it. And I did that by sticking with my stories, not being afraid to write crappy first drafts that I would later edit within an inch of their lives. And I was not afraid to start all over again with a brand new story each time the old one was done. I also read wildly about writing, editing, and publishing.
I think as writers, we need that sort of reassurance from time to time, especially if we are querying our first novel and getting only silence or rejections back. So my advice would be – do not lose hope. When you feel like giving up, open that dusty box where you banished all of your older failures and read through one of them. See how much you have grown since then and feel proud of what you have accomplished. Then put your pen to paper or your fingers on the keyboard and start working on a new story!
One day I might be confident enough in my skill that I might even unearth some of my unfinished stories from 2004-2005, though I rather dread the horrors that might be lurking between those pages.