In L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Avonlea, Anne and her best friend Diana are getting ready to host an esteemed author for the afternoon, and among other worries, Diana frets about embarrassing herself by forgetting good grammar and saying “I seen.”
I recently rediscovered some of my own “I seen” moments in my own writing. While transferring all of my documents from my eight-and-a-half-year-old PC to my MacBook, I found some files that have been following me around from computer to computer since my early teens.
One story has been kicking around since I was thirteen, and although I haven’t worked on it since I was a junior in college, I still think about it from time to time. (If you read last week’s blog, it’s one of my infamous books that I wish someone else would finish writing for me.) When I was fourteen or fifteen, my computer corrupted this story’s original file. Thank goodness I’d printed some of it, but even that was only about a tenth of what I’d written and an old version, to boot. Naturally, I became depressed about not being able to replicate all that I lost. Not that any of it was great, as I rediscovered when I re-read some of it. Granted, the awfulness I am about to shame myself with is from the story’s outline, not the narrative itself. But still, I wrote it. Ready? In the second point of my outline, a character “has a car accident that strikes her in more ways than one.” I am pretty sure that I thought I was being clever with this terrible pun-slash-cliche. The only thing I can say in my favor is that I wrote it in high school, but I wish that I knew better back then.
The story itself is better, at least. I’ve always been a good speller and proofreader, and my real talent is dialogue (although dialogue tags are another matter). But there is too much exposition, too much telling bogging down the narrative. I was worried about readers seeing hairstyles and sweaters and kitchens exactly as I saw them–a common mistake for new writers. And it really did take until college for me to understand that cliches are no-nos. Here’s another little gem (from the story this time) that I can’t believe I wrote: “The world is everyone’s backyard.” Ugh. No wonder I gave up and went on to other stories.
When I took my first fiction workshop in 2002, I thought I was pretty hot stuff. Naive enough to assume that I was one of the few unpublished future bestsellers just waiting to be discovered, I was knocked off my self-constructed pedestal when my first story was critiqued. I thought it was unique. Well, it was definitely different. No one really understood it, and the piece that I thought would be published in some well-known literary rag and set me down the road to stardom soon went into my own personal slush pile. I worked with it some, but once I began to see the flaws, I realized there were more problems than acceptable prose.
I was disheartened to discover that, while I was an excellent editor, my writing skills weren’t nearly as honed or appreciated. I continued to write but with more realistic expectations. The key is that I did not give up, and I published a couple stories. One of them, “Stranded,” made it into the University of North Florida curriculum for some literature classes, and I visited a couple of those classes to talk to students. I always liked that story, had fun with the ending because it doesn’t resolve in a gift-wrapped package, complete with little bow. But I always had this nagging feeling that something needed to change, that it could be better. I even thought it might have to do with the pacing, but I didn’t know how to solve the problem. And since it was already in print, there was nothing I could do about it anyway, right?
I moved on again, devouring adolescent lit in every spare second, and that’s when I discovered my true voice and style as a writer. I started and finished my first novel, then had it workshopped and critiqued by a room full of writers. It was rough, very rough (even though I’d already revised it once), but with those critiques, I started making changes that improved the manuscript. I read more novels, more advice from writers, and I kept working. I received rejection after rejection from literary agents, which made me second- and triple-guess every element in my book. Often I despaired and gave myself ultimatums: If I’m not published by such-and-such a time, I’ll just save the money and self-publish it, so I can at least show my family what I’ve been doing all these years. I could have done that at any time, but while I might have had the joy of seeing it in print, I would not have made some of the changes that have finally brought the book to life. Recently, I asked some of my original readers from years ago to read a little of my book in its current revision. The story that had a good start eight-plus years ago but still had so far to go was met with unanimous enthusiasm, encouragement, and praise, not to mention some incredulity that I have yet to find a publisher.
As for “Stranded,” which I liked but never quite felt was finished, there’s this new thing you might have heard of called e-publishing, and it’s awesome. It puts not only publishing but even formatting into the authors’ hands. Of course, it also means that there are more people than ever who are able to publish absolute crap, but the readers are ultimately the ones who decide which writers make it or not. Through the eBook distributor Smashwords, I finally reprinted “Stranded” with the changes that I wanted (but didn’t know how) to make years ago.
I’ll never stop learning. Every time I read a book that gives me the best advice I think I’ve ever read, along comes another one that delivers new revelations. I love the challenge of topping my personal best, of moving ever forward. Maybe one day I’ll pass the level of “most improved” to “most read.” (A girl can dream, right?) Until then, I’ll make sure I don’t revert to my personal “I seen” moments.