Recently I unearthed a piece of short fiction that I wrote about five years ago. I always liked this piece – at least I liked the idea behind it – and I’ve long wanted to revisit it. However, I was afraid that it was pretty unpublishable in its current form. The last time I looked at it, five years ago, I pretty much hated it. I was afraid that it would need major revision, maybe a complete overhaul, to even make it readable. I sat down one morning with the intent to start on a very long process.
I was surprised an hour later, when I got through it with a few minor edits and decided that was all it needed. It didn’t suck after all. Why was I so convinced it did? I think it had to do with the environment in which I had left it, and the fact that your opinions are influenced by how you feel at the time.
Five years ago I was in the middle of my no-sale-in-seven-years phase. I had sent three different novel projects to my then-agent, and she said that I needed to step back and choose some things to focus on, since she couldn’t sell them all at once. So I made a couple of fateful decisions (cue dramatic music) to occupy myself while I slowed down my production: I decided to begin work on what I called the Big Fat Historical Fantasy, and I decided to join a writers’ group.
As it turned out, these were not really fruitful decisions. I don’t want to analyze what when wrong with the Big Fat Historical Fantasy here (it would take several blog posts all its own), but it did leave me deeply frustrated as I tried several times and with several approaches to write it, only to throw out 1500 words here, 20,000 words there, 30,000 words again. As for the writers’ group, while they were wonderful and supportive people and I enjoyed talking shop with them, their writing styles were radically different from mine and they were looking for something different from the writers’ group experience. I’m a sort of intuitive writer and I want to know how people feel when they read my work; they tended to follow the Rules of Writing and they wanted to tell me about how many adverbs I was using. These two experiences, combined with the fact that I wasn’t selling a damn thing, left me pretty well convinced that I couldn’t write at all.
So when I workshopped this short story with the writers’ group and they made their criticisms, I admit I took the advice a little hard. I made the changes but I felt grumpy about it, and I felt the story had lost its way. I felt I’d lost my way in general. I figured it was a lousy story that needed more help than I could give it, and I trunked it.
Now it’s five years later. I’ve completed the first two manuscripts in a pretty promising series of new novels, I’m querying new agents and I’ve actually received a little interest. (No news yet; this is another waiting period.) Re-reading my story in this more optimistic context, I can see that it wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d feared. The changes I made after workshopping it weren’t bad, either – they were some positive improvements that strengthened the story.
My point is that writers need to find this delicate balance between having an intense grasp of emotion – bleeding all over the page, as it’s sometimes described – and being objective enough to analyze your work in a professional manner. Many writers get hung up on the editing process because they refuse to believe anything about their cherished work needs improvement; it’s also possible to go to the other extreme. Take some time to step away from your work and clear your mind. Take a month or a year or five. (Okay, five may be going too far.) Let the emotions that might have swayed your perception fade a little. Then you can see more clearly whether and what about your work needs improvement.