Not literally the baby, though I have always been fond of the passage in Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger where Megan says cats eat the babies they don’t like, and she wishes that humans would do the same because it would be more honest. No, I don’t approve of eating babies. But when I read it first I was a rather unhappy teenager and that sentiment felt very true (if not a good or sane idea.) Actually, I like that entire character because I was a lot like her, though at a much earlier age, and of course the romantic subplot is the perfect Cinderella story.
Which brings me past my usual nattering and to the main point of this post. How come I can still love the same books I loved at 12 – Christie, Heinlein, Simak, etc – and be unable to read anything of mine more than five years old without cringing?
It makes no sense, does it? A good story is a good story and good writing is good writing, and I’m not even one of those people who think that there’s only one way for writing to be good: I read romance and hard science fiction and non fiction and everything around it. So even if my writing has changed, it shouldn’t make me cringe.
Mind you, most writers are perfectly capable of maintaining in their heads, at the same time the notion that their stuff is the worst dreck that pixels ever died for, and the best piece of writing since Shakespeare went to his just reward. It’s one of the many things we don’t tend to talk about to non-writers in case they decide that whether it results in stories or not, our condition is serious and we need treatment.
However, sometimes, the scales of “hate” tip deeper, and for me it can happen in a variety of circumstances.
Sometimes I “hate” a book of mine as soon as I finish it, because of the writing process. Heart of Light, for instance, suffers from having been started eight years before it was finished, which means when I came to finish it, not only the wording and the plot I’d planned, but also the various ideas embedded in the novel belonged to a younger and much more naive writer. But the book had sold, and I needed the money – particularly since it was a trilogy – so I wrote it.
Have I noticed it selling worse, or any other problems of the kind? Other than reviewers accusing me of anti-white racism – what happens is necessary for the story arc. Also, I’d never have SOLD it otherwise, in the publishing world as it was then – it didn’t do any worse – and might have done slightly better – than books I loved a lot more. I have a bad tendency to recommend people just read Soul of Fire first, but that’s because that was one of those books that turned out unexpectedly well. (Or at least I think so, but I haven’t cracked it open in 7 years.)
Then there are in-mid-stride books: books written when I felt as though my technique, style and… well, the way I DO writing, was changing. This is an odd feeling, impossible to describe well enough that someone who never felt it will understand, but possibly recognizeable to those of you who have felt it.
You develop habits – ways of doing things – in writing, the same way you develop habits in everything else. I tend to try to become aware of those habits, so that I don’t let them become short-cuts that someone not used to my writing will not “get”.
Now, for instance, when I was very little, my mom lived in a shotgun apartment with no running water inside. You had to cart the water for washing up from the outside faucet. Doing dishes was a three-part process: warm up the water. Fill one basin with about 1/3 of the water and detergent. Fill the other basin with the other third of the water. Start the dishes with glasses and other non-greasy things and end with the cooking pans.
When I was seven we moved to a perfectly modern house (except for not having built in heating, but no Portuguese house of the time did.) and she had hot and cold running water. Yet, except for heating the water on the stove, she did dishes exactly the same way. Not only did she disapprove of the way I did dishes – under the running water, though I did use cold-only for rinsing, but some of our greatest fights were over it. And it took till I got married and left the house for her to start doing it that way. (And for those who are parents and are thinking “the water bill” – our water came from a well. It’s actually bought-water now, because the well got polluted by a nearby factory, BUT now she does dishes under-running-water. It was a process thing.)
Now imagine the same thing going on but just within the writer. There’s the way I’ve always done things – written action or plotted a novel – and then there’s the way that wants to impose itself now. And it’s telling me it’s more hygienic and faster, and I’m threatening to ground it until it’s thirty.
It’s the oddest feeling, like you’re not sure which leg to move next. These books can be surprisingly good and break you through to a new level of sales. BUT they’ll always feel like there’s something odd about them, that you could fix if you could just go back and re-do it. Don’t do that. Those books might not be quite as good as their younger brothers will be, but they often have a unique charm of their own. Gentleman Takes A Chance is one of those for me, and I had to be calmed down to actually send the poor, long overdue thing out – but I re-read it (to try to recapture the feel for Noah’s Boy) and it reads clean and funny and quite decent.
And then there are the books that are unfortunate enough to be decent enough books for which you did the best you could… Written just before a book that’s a major breakthrough in your style and ability. Maybe you guys will get lucky and your development will be gradual. My development is saltational. I’ll poke around at a certain level for months or years, then suddenly the style/voice/ feel – my internal feel of what makes a good novel – will change in the space of weeks (and usually mid book.) This means, one book later – sometimes mere weeks – you can look back and feel like the “book before last” was trash.
This is not “real” and it won’t affect the readers that way, mostly because they won’t be reading your books backwards. Even if they do, they won’t hold it against you that one book is better than the other. I’m completely capable of reading Pratchett’s Night Watch and then the early Rincewind books, and I don’t think Pratchett was a total idiot with Rincewind. Rincewind was good enough (given the limitations of a plot based on running away), Night Watch is better. I don’t know if Pratchett would be one of my favorite writers if he’d never gone past Rincewind – probably. I was scouring bookshelves for him even then – but I’m glad he’s moved past that.
So that feeling you have that you should have done better in book-before-last? It’s all in your head. Yeah, you can do better now, but it doesn’t mean you could do better then. And you couldn’t have written the last book if you’d never written the book before last.
Then there are books you hate because something in the editing – the way you changed it on an editor’s suggestion (and I’ve done that too) – makes the book feel wrong. Look, if it feels wrong there is a chance it is, no matter how much more “technically perfect” the book is with the change. go read Kris Rusch’s post last week on perfect in writing and the definitions of perfect, and if you realize a change bothers you that much, consider not doing it. Explain to the editor how it makes you feel. A good one will “get” it.
When I was a teen I had a ton of pen pals all over the world – partly to practice English, partly to expand my social circle – and one thing the instructions these services sent you – and which I learned was true really quickly – is that the mood you’re in communicates itself to the letter, even though you don’t realize it. So when I was fuming at something else and wrote a letter, the pen pal would write back “hey! What did I do to make you mad?” No matter how polite and nice I thought I was.
I’ve seen a similar process with books. Not to the same extent, since they’re not written in one hour or so, so your mood will vary. BUT a similar process nonetheless. So, if you’re doing edits you resent (even if logically you feel you shouldn’t) this will communicate itself to the book, and the readers will pick up on it.
And finally there are the books you wrote years ago. Dean Wesley Smith says never to re-read your writing. Or as he put it “Why would you? You know what’s in it.”
He’s admirably right but when, like me, you’re juggling three or four series with very different settings and feels, it becomes necessary to read the last book, sometimes written years before, to remember the minor details and try to get back in the style.
And when you do, you’ll cringe. Even Darkship Thieves makes me cringe now. But you know, part of it is not how bad it is. A lot of it I think is this: Writing is, as someone said in the comments, an act of mental and moral strip tease. If you’re a natural introvert, you have to brave yourself to go out there and take your clothes off. And you have to do it – you have to reach the part that you cringe from – for the book to be good (trust me on this.) You can do it and run at it, and get it done. BUT then years later when you review the experience, it’s impossible not to cringe.
Most of what made me cringe in DST was “OMG, this is so dramatic. Why am I not keeping a stiff upper lip?” And “Did I have to have that happen? Good heavens this man is always getting injured. What will people think?”
Yes, there will also be wording – particularly for me, who am still and forever in the ongoing process of forging three dialects of English into my own unique mess – that feels unnatural and contrived and things you’d have smoothed, but be aware most readers don’t ever notice that unless it’s bad enough to stop them cold. Most of that stuff doesn’t even come close.
BUT most of what you’ll be cringing at was how much you “revealed” of how your mind worked at the time.
Don’t cringe. And don’t read your stuff if you don’t need to. Dean Wesley Smith might be right on that.
You know, you’ll still need to strip your clothes tomorrow (and tomorrow, and tomorrow) – reviewing how you took them off last time will do nothing but make you self conscious and stop you cold. And you still need to achieve that same level of “nakedness” or the book will be no good.
So what do you do when you hate the baby? No idea. Didn’t hate either of mine. I did hate one of my cats as a kitten – for good an sufficient – but I raised him the best I could and he grew up to be a magnificent b*stard, still evil, but also still missed now when he’s been gone 11 years.
So what do you do when you hate the book? Nothing. Particularly if it’s selling well enough. You learn that your perspective is NOT the reader’s perspective, you learn that you’re not the writer you were when you wrote it, and you forge ahead as best you can.
The past is not only another country, your past self is a foreigner into whose mind and works you do not have the right to meddle. Impossible to recapture, and far easier to make a mess of it.
Finish the book, send it out or put it up and then write the next one. And let it go. Even book-children grow up and leave the nest. And you shouldn’t call them back.