I was clearing out my desk drawers yesterday, and I quite unexpectedly found an old manuscript of mine: written when I was maybe 14, I suspect it’s the beginning of a sequel to my first attempt at writing a book. (I can say this with reasonable confidence because I know the first one was handwritten, in its earlier form. This one’s done on the typewriter saved up for all through one summer. I loved that typewriter, but I digress.)
Out of curiosity, I started flicking through it – and it really didn’t take long before I wished I hadn’t.
It starts with the weather. Of course it does. It’s a vampire story, so obviously, it’s night time, and it’s raining. Because that’s what happens in vampire stories, right? A sure sign that I had discovered Anne Rice by this point in my teens comes with the appearance of a “heavy black velvet cloak” in line 7. Later, there’s a clifftop castle with waves crashing below: also inhabited by a vampire.
I won’t go on – I can’t bear to – but it’s fair to say that by three pages in, we’ve pretty much covered emo-vampire bingo.
I was fond of adverbs: it’s littered with them. There’s 8 in the first paragraph alone. I was fond of moving from one thing into another with “And then, something strange happened:” Once is forgivable. Maybe. Twice, not so much. Four times – which is how many I counted in the first couple of chapters? Ouch.
There are fifteen characters mentioned by name on the first page. Frankly, it’s a wonder there was even space for the cloaks and the adverbs and the rain. Fifteen! What was I thinking? Was I drunk?
Well, no. The answer’s simple. I was 14, and I thought I was clever. I thought I was good.
There are reasons for that: firstly, I was 14. That’s a pretty big one. I hadn’t finished school. I hadn’t been to college. I hadn’t – to put it bluntly – grown up. That’s not to say there aren’t fourteen year-olds out there who can’t write – there are – but they’re the exception, rather than the rule. And I was not one of them.
I was 14, and I hadn’t finished school and I hadn’t been to college and I hadn’t grown up… and I hadn’t read enough, and I hadn’t written enough. I was writing a pastiche of the books I was reading (this was squarely in the middle of my vampire phase, fuelled by Anne Rice and repeat viewings of films like the “Lost Boys”, and “Near Dark” and endless versions of “Dracula” taped from late-night showings.) and I had no idea what I sounded like – or that I should sound like anything, even myself.
I was 14, and I read a lot of books. But was I ready to write one? Well, clearly I thought I was.
I’ll rephrase. Was I ready to write a good one?
I think we know the answer to that.
It’s a painful, painful thing, reading this, what… seventeen years later: mostly because I remember how proud I was of it. And that’s the thing that kills me: I thought it was the bestest thing, like, evar. I really did. Looking back at it now, it’s both profoundly embarrassing and surprisingly encouraging.
Embarrassing because… what, like I haven’t given you enough reasons already? And encouraging because I can see exactly why it would never have gone anywhere. Quite apart from the crushing lack of originality, it’s plain old bad.
The problem lies in how happy I remember I was with it. I didn’t know better. Now, quite aside from the age factor, the education factor, the having-read-more-books factor, there’s something else: I’ve written more. I’ve written lots more. Short stories; some of which got published, some of which didn’t. Articles: ditto. And when I finally did write that first “real” book… THE book… it got edited. The recent short stories have had to pass through the Gate of the Great Red Pen.
And here’s the thing: I learned from that process. Not only did I come away from it with a better book, a better story, I came away from it better equipped to write. (Obviously I’m loathe to say “a better writer” because, y’know, ego, and I’m awesome already and stuff, right? Right…?) More importantly, I will continue to learn from it.
These are all steps. None of them are the destination. I don’t know whether I’ll ever actually reach the destination: the point where I can look back on something further down the line and think, “Yep. That’s perfect.” I don’t think it works like that, this whole writing malarkey. Whether you’re doing it because you’re a professional writer, or you want to be a professional writer, or you just want to write stories for yourself… it doesn’t matter. Surely the whole point is that you’re never done learning; never done developing. It’s all about the journey (sound the cliche siren, if you would?) and the people you meet along the way – agent, editor, beta-reader, friend, colleague, proof-reader… they’re all a part of it.
I’m glad I found my little manuscript. Not because I think it’s a work of staggering genius – it blatantly isn’t – but because it’s a look back at the starting point. My starting point. And like any journey, it’s comforting to look back and see how far you’ve come… even if you know there’s still road ahead.
(By the way, my Suw Charman-Anderson has taken the conversation we had yesterday about rediscovered early-novels and written a fascinating article for Forbes – using our cringe-making MSs as an example of why you should never rush into self-publishing in this day & age. It’s probably worth my pointing out, though, that I’m not self-published, and never have been, as the article doesn’t exactly make this clear…)
If you’ve got an old manuscript knocking around on a hard-drive or in a drawer, and you’re feeling very brave – let me know. Leave a line in the comments: tell me about it. Believe me, you’ll get nothing but sympathy here…