Sunday 29 December 2013

What my younger writing self has taught me

I spent the last two days re-reading and annotating a PDF copy of my first-ever German fantasy novel. It was co-written with a dear friend of mine, so you can really see that I've been pretty much a creative team-player from the get-go. I co-wrote the bulk of that novel in 2000, and it was published in 2001. Or thereabouts. Memory does get a bit hazy, so I'd have to dig through my livejournal to get to the posts.

There's a lot of very embarrassing mistakes around that book, so in the interest of appreciating how far I've come, I'm going to talk about that book a bit.

1) I didn't know back then that you don't "game" the review system. Quite a few reviews of the book are by friends. I didn't tell them what to write, but I do assume they wanted to help me and wrote nice stuff to help sell the book. These days, I wouldn't do that. I don't review friends without full disclosure. Back in the days, it seemed legit and okay - but in a way, our relationship with Amazon and reviewing was very much developing.

2) My first-ever review was a troll review and I survived it. Same book, and the first review of it was a nasty takedown written by my main characters (the troll had a sense of humor). These days, I know that "reviewers" who only have one 1-star review and are clearly trolling a book or author have very little credibility. Back then, it really hurt. By now, I know pretty much who did it. Someone who wanted to be published by never managed, and someone who was in a constant competition with me. The only thing that person could do was try to hurt me via my books. It's ancient history now, and didn't actually stop or impede or even slow me down. The best revenge is always to keep writing. The only thing that can stop me is my own head.

3) My "themes" are very very apparent even in this piece of juvenalia. Let's see, we have the murderous/destructive/controlling/tyrannical father who's quite definitely a threat to life and sanity of the main character. We have a very homoerotic student/teacher relationship, and a character with an ambivalent bisexuality; though he sleeps with women, he seems to bond mostly with men, and notices how attractive they are. We have the restrictive "system" subjugating the "hero" (the inquisition are essentially proto-Fascists). The character is very competent, but over/underestimates things, which comes back to bite him. He's being taught humility and humanity. The character is an idealist, and a twisted/wounded one. In some ways, there's a straight line running between him and Hagen of Unhinge. And again, it's about warriors. I always write about fighters/soldiers/warriors. And, yes, the villain/turncoat is most definitely in love with his teacher. Love/lust/possessiveness is his primary motivation. I thought I was very subtle when I wrote it that way, but it's screamingly obvious.

4) Learning the craft did me a world of good. I wrote this before I knew very much about the craft of writing, so all the newbie's mistake are there: show don't tell. Overexplaining. Over-writing. Hyperbole. I do think the book would be twice as good if I could kill about 5% of the text. Abused adjective and adverbs. Melodrama. We even have a character look at himself in the mirror to describe himself. Point-of-view is jumpy as hell. While it tries to be third person, it's really more omniscient with the narrator constantly chiming in. It's very distracting and the camera has moments where it's about as steady as in the beginning sequence of Saving Private Ryan.

5) The harsh editor is your friend. Yes, the book was edited - there was kind of a developmental edit and a line edit, but both didn't go nearly deep enough. An experienced editor should have seen the craft issues and might have taught us to spot and fix the craft-related problems that the book now suffers from. Looking back now, *I* could be the kind of editor and teach myself what went wrong here.

6) Publishing before you're ready is a mistake. Part of the attraction of writing this book was the pay cheque, I'm not lying. Those 3,000 EUR were a lot of money for me back then as a student, even split with my co-writer. I also felt, very strongly, that I could easily compete with the quality in the series (and I was right). However, just "writing it for the hell of it" is a poor reason - just a couple years later, I could have written it so much better. Part of me tries to be the indulgent parent and think "oh well, it reflects who I was at 25", but some other part reminds myself how old Goethe was when he wrote Faust. One part is proud I did it, another really believes I wasn't ready and it shouldn't have been published, or at least not without a very very strict, very good editor.

7) The plot actually works. Yes, it's a simple quest plus mystery, but the actual plot ticks along like clockwork. The characters are doing what they're supposed to do. The mystery adds up. The final battle is satisfying, stakes are high, the resolution is pretty dramatic and epic. The bulk of the novel's told at page 220. The mistake is that it has 60-70 more pages and a "second ending" that is less dramatic than the first ending.

8) Symbolism/metaphor really enhances story. There are some amazing lines in there, I was shocked. The whole book lives on the light/dark, cold/heat metaphorical field, and it really amplifies the story, heavy-handed as it is at times.

9) It's AAAAALIIIIVE! There's a raw power and life to it that carries through even though the craft itself is weak and it's not an amazing book. But it's a book that's still alive. It's not pretty with its drooping eyelids and uneven gait and hunchback, but it's breathing. It seems this young writer had some promise from the start - you can see unformed talent and I wish I could go back and coach myself to get better faster, because the material, the talent, the heart, are all there. They're just unformed and a bit ugly. I do think readers are seeking out that "life" in fiction more than the "pretty words", but personally for me, they have to come together to fully satisfy me.

10) It's still satisfying. Part of the driving force behind the book was the attempt to immortalise a few characters. My "gamemaster" when I played the mage character, for example, really didn't utilise his backstory well, so writing the book around the mage and his brother and his lover kinda allowed me to use the backstory myself and in a more satisfying way. It was maybe a little bit a "fuck you" to those people who hated my character. By writing the book, I made them "canon" in the game world, whereas *their* characters didn't become part of the greater whole. I think sometimes revenge is a dish best served in paperback. Also, "properly" using my character has always been a driving force behind my books. Kendras started as a gaming character too, and the game wasn't what I expected, so I took his backstory and turned it all into Scorpion. I'm no longer very good at giving any GM control over my characters. It should have been a clue from the start that I'm a writer and no longer a gamer.

So what did I do to the old biddy of a book? I cleaned up some scanning/OCR issues (not many, the text was pretty clean) and re-read the whole thing from start to ending, commenting in the PDF as I went along. I deleted some sentences that weakened the scene, took out some CAPITAL LETTERS and replaced them with italics. Set foreign language in italics.

After re-reading it, I'm ambivalent about the book. It has issues. Today, I would write it differently. The plot is pretty good, the characters decent. I'd really love to unleash everything I've learnt in the last 14-15 years on that set-up and really ride it this time.

It's also not a great use of my time. The book as-is is part of a larger world with fans who were paying stupid prices for the "collectors items" that some of the paperbacks have become. I believe in making old stuff accessible. I don't believe in paying 30+ EUR for a paperback. So in a way, the re-release and re-print can't be too far from the original, so the co-writer and myself have decided that we'll edit it, but do it very gently.

None of the changes I'm suggesting will hurt the integrity of the book. I'm not adding anything. I'm just taking some weak phrases out and did a basic proofing run. I'll also add an author's note that explains where I'm standing now, creatively, and how I worked on the book. I have to accept that it's my first book and has issues and will have issues forever. My inner perfectionist is screaming at this, but it's OK. There's much, much worse out there, and I'll look at it like at a historical document of sorts.

I've now sent the annotated file to the co-author so she can make her edits and then we'll move forward with this.

I have two more PDFs to work through. The good news is - they are "later", so I should be a better writer then.

Above all, I've learned how far I've come since 2000. I have to let go and accept I'm not perfect. 13-14 years from now, I'll be cringing at what I'm now considering my best writing. A writer is a river. Everything flows and changes and we're never the same person as the one who wrote yesterday's story. I'm hoping to embrace that a bit more in the future.

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