When You Hate The Baby

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.

34 responses to “When You Hate The Baby

  1. Two pieces of advice I heard: Don’t be your own biggest fan or your own worst critic. I actually suffer from the former more than the latter.

    • One problem for the writer as editor is that you “get” all of your allusions, puns and sly references — often the only person who will do so.

      One benefit of long-standing relationships is the ability to convey vast swaths of meaning with a single word or phrase (e.g., “puppies.”) Authors sometimes forget they don’t share this sort of relationship with their readership.

      • YES. In the Shakespeare trilogy there’s probably a dozen jokes that only I and ten Shakespeare experts share. (Sigh.) Including the argument with Shakespeare speaking only in Marlowe quotes and vice versa. Look, I was young and STOOOOOOPID

        • But I bet those ten Shakespeare experts love you for it!

          • one of them used it for his Shakespeare biography class. (Rolls eyes.)

            • Wish I’d been in *that* class!

              • The beauty of that kind of joke is the delayed reaction. Years later, somebody is reading Marlowe or Shakespeare, and they suddenly realize the full extent of your evil plan. And then they rush out and push your books on their friends.

                Tons of jokes when I was a kid that I didn’t get until later. I’m still very pleased today when I come across some reference.

                • Some of the innuendo in many of the Disney movies is lost on children under about 15, but make adults want to burst out laughing. Some of the early Warner Brothers cartoons also include lines that will occasionally send me into hysterics. Should have included that in the writing thread — what line have you inadvertently included in a book that you later found and laughed out loud about.

        • I don’t see that as being stupid. I am constantly putting in “Easter eggs” for my readers to find. My editor finally figured that one out and started looking for them herself. And when a reader finds something they’re usually delighted, and I get an email or a Facebook message about it.

      • Another problem is that in the worry to make certain everyone “gets” what you have to say, you overexplain and kill the nuance that draws readers to you. Sometimes, hard as it may be, we have to trust our readers to fill in the gaps.

        • Yes. There is a fine balance between dropping Easter eggs and egging your reader.

          Whatever you do it should never distract from the story, and if possible it should be like a cherry on top, not necessary but nice. I know, for example, know that I don’t get everything in a given Pratchett, but it doesn’t matter. It is fun anyway.

  2. “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.) ”
    I trust you – and myself – and am doing it anyway – but it still feels like standing naked on stage under a strong spotlight.
    Especially when the beta reader knows some of where it comes from. But there’s no hope: writers are exhibitionists, and we feel it’s our duty to write what others feel and can’t write.
    Some writers grow up publicly – like you, they’ve been writing for years, through all the stages. Others are not going to get into print (or digital) until they are far past youthful indiscretions – and I think it may be even more of a shock.
    You’re right to bring it up – and to insist that going back to try to change anything is, well, cowardly.
    Mostly we don’t fear readers so much as friends and family. The exposure is bearable only if sales vindicate it – who can argue with success?But what if we turn out to be of the talentless deluded kind of writer? Then we’ll be exposed by our own words and shown to be clueless.
    Ralph Keyes has a book out called The Courage to Write. It always makes me chuckle that he never dared write fiction. The book is still good.

  3. It is indeed a form of self-consciousness, and requires you keep in mind that you are not the intended audience.

    A charming slap-dash style may become a stiff formality as a writer “matures” and more consciously plies the trade, finally achieving an unselfconscious effortlessness in their story-telling. In that mid-period the writer may be more technically proficient but have lost the charm of the earlier work — a charm to which they are blind because what stands out to them are the technical flaws.

    • Yes. Actually that’s a normal trajectory. Also, because it was taking so long to break in, a lot of writers broke in in the stiff-and-formal stage. (I think I did.) Most of the work I’ve done in the last ten years is bring back some of the “naturalness” to my writing.

      I could illustrate this with my short story thirst and its multiple incarnations through the years while I polished it till it became mechanical and written-by-robot. (I could if I were willing to dig through the diskettes and post multiple versions, which I’m not because it’s for sale at Amazon and they get upset when I put it up for free.) Eventually I realized that (even though it took me years to realize it about the other stuff) ditched the “polish” and sent out the first version, with typos fixed. It sold. Eight times before it saw the light of day, but that’s something else.

      • This brings to mind a circumstance I expect is familiar to all of us: the brilliant blog comment that gets lost because the system crashes. I find invariably that efforts to reproduce the lost post are awkward and stiff. The effortless elan of the original becomes forced and inert, a Frankensteinian comment forced to life against its will.

        • We need to convince the Normal family to stop the tradition of naming all the girls Abby. We allso need to convince the local university medical lab to stop the multigenerational posthumous brain study they have been running on the Normal Girls. It all just causes problems for poor Igor…

  4. I’m currently editing a bunch of rough drafts . . . oh my. “What mood was I in when I wrote that scene!!!!” is often thought–although generally it’s pretty obvious. Yikes!

    And resenting editting? Oh yeah, you and Amanda had to beat me to get me to finally stop snarling protectively over my baby, and clean the filthy, flabby little brat up. The _very_ improved results were enough to make me appreciate the value of throwing away two thirds of your words.

  5. Writers, and other artists, are definitely not their own best critics. Ask any writer which of their pieces is their favorite and its never the most popular one, it’s always the obscure piece that no one gets. Tchaikovsky hated The Nutcracker. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Sullivan hated those silly things he did with W.S. Gilbert and wanted to do grand opera instead. (There’s some kind of curse in there, somewhere.)

  6. I generally enjoy rereading my older stuff. I can see places where I’d improve the wording, but that’s about all. Rereading a story is a chance to become the earlier version of myself who wrote it.

  7. Since we have to be critical of our own work in an effort to make it better, we sometimes get caught in that paradigm. In other books in which we find a lot of flaws, we can just put them down and ignore them, but we have to go back to our own work time after time after time…

  8. Grad school seemed to cure me of overly-protecting my babies. Something about the green and red pens of doom attacking everything, no matter how witty I thought it was. However, I also learned to include sacrificial, blatantly snarky or punny bits, so the more subtle humor would slide through.

    That said, when I re-read my dissertation after a year of ignoring it while writing a second book, I really wondered how something that bad ever got approved by my committee. And I avoid my aviation fantasy stories. They might see the light of day again, but not as they are now.

    • I read somewhere that Asimov was concerned that, after writing excellent fiction, he wouldn’t be able to write badly enough to do his dissertation, and he had to practice bad writing.

  9. Kate Paulk

    I apparently have an odd perspective on this. Some of my older stuff I can now see the flaws I knew were there (although not necessarily see what’s needed to fix them in the case of unpublished things), but usually I find if I’ve given it long enough it will pull me in.

    Makes editing… interesting.

    • It only bothers me if if the work is published and has been out about five years. OR if I’ve written five or six books meanwhile (seems to be related tot he books that have “gone by” in between. If it’s not published, I too see flaws, but it draws me in enough that it often sparks a new version.

  10. 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?

    We love our childhood favorites with a love that is beyond logic. I’ve gone back to some of them, and re-read them from the point of view of an editor. I can see the mistakes. I can see how improvements can be made.

    I can’t stop loving them.

    Things that I first meet as an adult I don’t have the same connection to, and I’ll never have the same connection to.

    My guess is that our childhood loves are deeper, because they are the first ones that we have, and that explains why even when we recognize the faults in them, that we still can’t stop loving them.

    And since what we write isn’t a childhood love….


    • I still love Lloyd Alexander and “The black cauldron” … I go back to read it every so often. Time to do it again I think.

      • Yes, those are some of my favorites (a friend of mine had a professor of theology who gave out boxed sets to favored students).

        The good ones from childhood hold up to adult re-reading.

  11. Once it’s really old and the pain/embarrassment stage goes away, it either gets kinda endearing (“I was such a funny, cute kid!”), or you can’t remember writing it at all and it’s like reading something totally new.

    • I love the stuff I wrote the six months after concussion, including the full historical medieval romance. It’s flawed, but it’s like “Oh, wow, uh. No memory.”

  12. I’ve been planning on issuing a new edition of Burnout, my first novel, once the movie comes out (assuming it ever gets investors in this economy). For one, it’ll have to be updated to handle bringing the Shuttles out of retirement, but I also planned to edit the whole thing to fix some chronic stylistic mistakes I tend to regularly make and which Travis taught me not to do. Do you think that’s a bad decision, then?

    • I don’t know. Darkship Thieves is much better for being rewritten. I had fifteen years of experience behind me. You just need to make sure you’re not throttling what’s good/charming about it. Having a trusted beta help and give opinions might be a good thing?

  13. Yeah, I would probably do that anyway. I have several trusted beta-readers now. What I need to do for that book is to 1) eliminate head-jumping, 2) reverse the order of dialogue and narrative to read better. And of course the historical updates.