The Manuscript Confessional

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.

I wasn’t.

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…

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19 comments

  1. I’ve got one I wrote when I was – yup 14, and totally in love wih David Eddings. It shows. And nobody ever says anything when they can shout, mutter, yell, ejaculate *snerk*, murmer…. acutally this is something I still haven’t quite got over, she ejaculated furiously. There’s a murder and a quest and everyone wears armour ALL THE TIME and it has a godawful hand-drawn cover, and boyfriend refuses to let me throw it out 😀

    1. I also had everyone doing everything except just, y’know, *speaking*. There’s a lot of sighing, for instance (emo-goth-vampires ftw!). And why wouldn’t someone wear armour ALL THE TIME? I know I do… 😉

      Don’t throw it out, whatever you do: once it’s gone, it’s gone for good- and however bad it makes you feel reading it now, younger you was proud of that. It’s nice – in a slightly masochistic way – to be able to look back at it. And then lock it away where no-one will ever find it.

  2. I’ll see your one and raise you two:-

    1. As I said on twitter, I wrote a story that involved elves with complicated names often ending in ‘uin’ or ‘iel’ and lots of billowing cloaks. Everyone said ‘my lady’ and ‘my lord’ and stopped just short of sentences like ‘whither are you about this portentous eve?’

    2. Also wrote one about a group of sexy, kind of evil vampires. In leather jackets. On motorbikes. I may, like you, have just discovered the heady combination of Anne Rice and The Lost Boys. O, God of Cringe.

  3. Looking back on an early effort of mine, which I co-wrote with a friend at school, the second chapter started with our protagonist waking in a different world (portal fantasy – check!) only to proceed to have a clumsy inner monologue about his past in a children’s home (orphaned hero – check! Infodump – check!) while not paying any attention to his new surroundings (logic failure – check!).

    We also thought this was one of The Best Things. We even sent it to agents… *CRINGE*

    1. Yes – tick all the boxes! It’s what I was doing with mine, clearly.

      Because it’s just not a [insert genre] book if it doesn’t contain [X], [Y] and [Z]. IN THAT ORDER.

  4. I wish I had one of my teenage manuscripts to cring over, but sadly I moved around too much and so did my parents, and I suspect they got chucked when I was at uni. A pity – when I was 14 I was writing bad TV scripts with a friend for a favourite SF show – fanfic, really, except it was meant seriously. As in, we actually sent it to the TV station. (I think it may even have been handwritten *winces*)

    The oldest stuff I have is from my late 20s, and by then my writing was not too bad – I just never finished anything 😦

  5. No, Anne, I’m not letting you have the late 20s stuff. That’s cheating. But the script – now that sounds awesome. I love that we all thought this kind of thing was really how it was done: it’s just so sweet, really.

    1. I wasn’t trying to claim it – just lamenting it’s all I have. I have my teenage scrapbooks with Star Wars cinema programme and stuff cut out from the Radio Times about various SF shows, just not any of my fiction AFAIK 😦

      1. I know, I’m only kidding 🙂

        It is a shame that you don’t have any of your older writing, but on the plus side, think of the pain you’re sparing yourself by not looking at it again!

  6. I have old two stories, the first one was half-assed. I was thinking what the ……! Anyways as for the other story, it is still in outline and notes, I plan to redo the other after chucking my old notes. After glancing at it. I was surprised that it still had somewhat of a decent concept, after all these years. I think it could be salvageable. Not sure, but I will find out. Then again it could be destined for my woodstove. since I don’t have a shredder.

  7. anyways, of what I read, in regards when looking at one’s first manuscript. It can give a person WTF or the head-scratching moment. as for me it was both, I was thinking what in god’s name did I wrote this. It was terrible, so it went into the flaming woodstove. Best to banish crappy first time manuscripts to the land of the spirits.
    Good thing that I haven’t published anything, I restarted writing thing again, my mind is itching to whack out words via keyboard or by pen and note pad. as the saying patience is a virtue, better to iron out the kinks first.
    I don’t know what fortune would bring to an individual person, whether it be ill or good. But it would be interesting journey for him/her to take. I think it’s best to glean from seasoned writers, learn what they’re doing.

    1. I think it’s quite nice to have your early manuscripts or stories, or scripts, or whatever to look back on. I just don’t necessarily think they should ever go anywhere beyond the back of a desk drawer! The good thing is being able to go over them and see how much you’ve changed: it’s no different, I suppose, from looking back at school exercise books if they’re still hanging around in an attic or somewhere.

      As for restarting writing: there’s no reason you can’t write whatever you want to – and keep doing it! It’s the way everyone gets better, regardless of where they’re starting from.

  8. What’s scary it that it’s not just the teen efforts that are painful. I have a storage box full of old manuscripts that I wrote in my 30s that are painful to read. I tortured myself with the work a couple of months ago. And that’s a good thing. If we aren’t advancing we’re stagnating.

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