Last year I read a really good essay about artists – whether they be painters, writers, musicians, whatever. I wish I could remember who wrote it, because I would give you the reference. The gist of it was that when a person starts out in her craft, she is doing it in part because she has been inspired by the creatives who came before her. And she sees those others ahead of her, and basks in the enjoyment of the marvellous art they have created.
And then she puts pen to paper, or brush to canvas, and creates garbage. Because she has not been doing the craft long enough to get the techniques and foundation down well enough to enable her to create a masterpiece. And the woe of it all is that she can see the wonderful art Da Vinci has created, and knows what she is aiming at, but she is only capable of stick figures.
The challenge becomes to keep creating art in the midst of knowing that what you are creating is awful. And your pathetic stick figures are really very poor, indeed, but try as you might, that’s all that seems to appear.
Until eventually, if you persevere long enough, your creations will finally catch up to your knowledge of what is good, and you start to see a light at the end of the tunnel.
But, oh, that road is hard. I’m somewhere in the middle of it, I think.
And it’s actually a little more tricky than that, because you don’t always think it’s garbage. At times you think it’s pretty good. But when you look at that “pretty good” stuff a couple of years down the line, a couple years in which you have been working at the craft and continuing to grow and develop as an artist, you realize that what you thought then was “pretty good” is, in reality, not so much. It is certainly better than the stuff you did a couple years before that, but not as good as what you are doing now.
You see the problem? You soon get haunted by the feeling that your current work, although perhaps acceptable and even good in your eyes, will no longer be so good when you look at it in the future.
It’s maddening, because this kind of thing tends to paralyze you. The only thing to do is to keep going and do the best you can. There are lots of writers, painters, or other artists who cringe a bit when they see their earlier work, so you have to take heart at that and continue.
It’s helpful to have objective third parties look at your work, which is why beta readers and editors are so very good for writers. But in the end you have to make the final decisions, sometimes operating more by instinct than anything else.
For example, here is a passage from my MS that I am working on right now. The first is from the original first draft. Keep in mind I wrote this over seven years ago (Ack. I know).
The smell of smoke grew stronger as they rode, and in an hour’s time they were once again closed in by trees. The path up ahead curved around a stand of poplars. Smoke curled through the trees around them – the breeze was blowing it towards them. Celyn reined in Arawn, putting up his hand, and they all pulled their horses to a halt.
“How much further, Father?” he asked.
“The trees thin out ahead, and then we will be upon it. It – “ he stopped abruptly. A thin moan pierced the air, brought to them on the breeze. A human voice – someone in distress.
“God have mercy!” Eata breathed, as Celyn pulled his sword out of his sheath.
“Follow closely!” he said, and touched his heels to Arawn’s sides again.
Eata was right. After a short gallop, they broke out of the trees, and reined their horses to a halt, surveying the scene before them.
The holding was ablaze. 3 structures burned, snapping and crackling, throwing heat into the winter’s chill air. A fourth, larger structure stood unharmed – obviously the main dwelling for the family. There were empty pens where pigs had been, and a dead goat lying stiff-legged in a pasture. Small lumps of feathers scattered around the yard – chickens, dead, their feathers lifting in the breeze as it passed. The air was full of smoke from the burning structures, stinging their eyes and lungs. Thomas pulled up his scarf, to try to filter the smoke out of the air he breathed.
So. It’s not bad, but there are definitely things to fix. And keeping in mind that I am striving to cut as much as possible where I can, here is the revised version.
The smell of smoke grew stronger as they rode. Soon it was visible in the air around them, curling through the trees.
Celyn reined in Arawn, putting up his hand, and they all pulled their horses to a halt. “How much further, Father?”
“The trees thin out ahead, and then we will be upon it. It—“ Eata stopped abruptly, interrupted by a thin moan which pierced the air. “God have mercy!”
Celyn pulled his sword out of his sheath.“Follow closely!”
After a short gallop, they broke out of the trees and reined their horses to a halt, surveying the scene before them.
The holding was ablaze. Three structures burned, the flames snapping and crackling, throwing heat into the winter’s chill air. A fourth, larger, structure stood unharmed. There were empty pens where pigs had been, and a dead goat lying stiff-legged in a pasture. Small lumps of feathers scattered around the yard—chickens, dead, their feathers intermittently lifting in the breeze. The air was full of smoke from the burning structures, stinging their eyes, mixing with the steadily falling snow to obscure the details. Thomas pulled up his scarf, to try to filter the smoke out of the air he breathed.
You can see that first of all, I fixed the paragraph problems, putting the dialogue in the same paragraph with the person speaking it. In doing so it not only flows better, but I am able to cut out some of the unnecessary speech tags, like he said and he asked. Bonus.
I also fixed the places where I added action that I didn’t need. I find that I do this a lot. I over-explain things. You see this in the first section, where I write,
“Follow closely!” he said, and touched his heels to Arawn’s side again.
I took the and touched his heels to Arawn’s side again out, because you can see that in my revised version I don’t need it, right? I have to watch this in my writing. Too often I am explaining things like the character stood here, or walked there, or whatever. I have to back off and let my readers fill in the blanks.
I pondered over the first paragraph for awhile, because this is one of those places where it’s a bit of a grey area. The original has some details that I cut in the revision. The time indicator (after about an hour’s time) was an easy cut. Again, too much detail. But the next sentence, The path up ahead curved around a stand of poplars, was trickier. I like the addition of the poplars into the scene, as they bring some detail to life. But do I really need it, especially in the light of the fact that I have to cut about half the words from my MS to get it into one book?
Well, no, I suppose not. So out it goes. But I do worry that taking too much of the details out will make it bland, with no zing. I have to find the happy medium between too much and not enough, and I have to do it sentence by sentence. I’m also wondering about that longer paragraph, with the details of the chickens and the burning buildings. Too much? I should probably take that hyphen out (I tend to overuse those, too) and rework that sentence. Decisions, decisions.
Even as I am looking at this, I can see other things I can fix, little things, words here and there. At some point, though, you have to set it aside and move on.
A lot of this comes down to style, personal preference, and the genre you are writing. There is a lot of second- and third-guessing. And you have to constantly ignore the niggling voice that’s telling you it all belongs on the garbage heap.
The other difficulty of doing these micro-edits, word by word, is that you tend to lose the sweep and emotional resonance of the story. Recently I downloaded the sections I have done to this point to my Kindle and did a read-through, just to see if it is working at all, and was heartened to see that it was.
I think. Hah. Ask me in a few years.