One thing I love about writing is getting better at doing it. But improvement at writing is often a bit vague. It’s hard to see, sometimes, whether you are actually getting better or not. Someone might tell you your latest book is the best thing you’ve ever written – and then someone else will post a one star review about how they hated it, reminding you that tastes are subjective. One person lauding a book is no more conclusive than one person saying it sucked.
But sometimes, writers can get a really clear picture of their improving skills. Those moments are fun, and precious. They’re precious because they are uncommon. They’re fun because improving over time is awesome. I don’t think any writer sits down to the keyboard NOT wanting this work to be better than the last. We all want to improve, to get better, to tell better stories in better ways.
So recently, I opened a story I wrote back in 2009. It was the second novel I wrote after returning to writing. I wrote one novel during NaNoWriMo in November 2008, then basically wrote nothing else til November 2009, when I wrote another one. Right about then was a turning point for me, and I started growing more writing focused in my day to day life.
A couple of people read that 2009 manuscript, and said it was a good read. I looked at it a year or so after writing it, and thought it looked rough, but the story was good. I set it aside. I had other stories to tell.
But recently, I’ve gone back to that story. It still wants to be told. The first try was a solid attempt – and the plotting was good. My control of language was not as strong then as it is today, which left the story sagging, weaker than it ought to have been. It had a few “make you cry” moments, and then other bits where the prose simply wasn’t written all that well.
Here’s a brief example from the beginning:
The cart chuntered down the narrow track away from the villa, rocking a bit as the wheels skittered in and out of the shallow ruts left over from wheels moving through mud left by recent rains. One long toothed horse drew the cart, which was empty except for the pair of silent riders.
The younger was a girl, brown hair cropped at her shoulders. Her lips were drawn together in a tight line, and one was split. Her eyes were tight, her arms crossed in front of her. Her tunica had a number of dirty streaks and a small tear. The man sitting beside her was much older, gray streaking his dark hair heavily. He gently tapped the reins now and then to guide the horse down the road, though the beast had traveled this route often enough to hardly need the instruction. A beard and mustache helped to hide the small smile that kept threatening to crack through his otherwise flat demeanor.
He carefully kept his eyes forward and face as bland as he could. The silence drew on, and it suited. The longer he could leave the girl to stew, the better. He’d been watching her quietly fume as he drove the wagon home. She was obviously waiting for his reprimand. He was just as happy to wait her out and let her be the first to speak.
He didn’t have much longer to wait. “You might as well say it, Da,” she finally said through gritted teeth. “I know I’m in it deep, and I don’t care.” She glared at him while he continued his deadpan gaze ahead. “I did what I did, and I would again.”
At times like this, she seemed so old to him! She was only seven, after all. Still very much a child. “So what happened?” He said the words slowly, carefully, and with as little emotion as he could put into them. He had a decent idea what had gone on already, but he wanted to hear what she had to say.
“I didn’t start the fight,” she replied. “Martinus did. I only ended it, just like you taught me.”
He snorted. “Ended it by laying Martinus out, with both eyes blackened and I suspect more than a few other bruises.”
“He deserved it,” she huffed. “He pushed me.”
“Was that all?” he asked. He knew it wasn’t. He had taught her better than that.
“No.” She paused. “He was talking about what his father had said. I called his father a liar, and he pushed me. So I pushed back. Hard.” She grinned a little, wincing as she ran her tongue over her split lip.
Lot of little flaws in the language in there, but there are flaws in the storytelling as well. For example, I don’t tell the reader where things are happening right away. The story is set in post Roman Britannia, in the early 400s CE. That’s not made entirely clear. There’s also no deep point of view at the start – I describe what is going on, like the narrator is floating there invisible, but don’t drift into a viewpoint character’s head. And then suddenly I snap from 3rd person omnipotent (which can work but is a tough sell for modern readers) to 3rd person limited POV (in Arthfael’s head). It’s poorly handled, and jarring.
And I’ve now rewritten that bit. I think the new version is a dramatic improvement, even in this rough, first re-draft form:
Arthfael skillfully guided the cart down the narrow track toward his home. It rocked a bit as the wheels skittered in and out of shallow ruts in the soil. Recent rains had left the ground soft, and this was no Roman built road of sunken stone. Just a bare dirt path, large enough for his horse and cart, but no more. The good roads were becoming fewer by the year since the Empire had pulled back from its most distant outpost in Britannia.
Beside him sat his daughter, who was being uncharacteristically silent. Normally a chatterbox, she hadn’t said a word since he told her to climb aboard the small wagon. In turn, he’d kept his own peace. He’d found it often paid more dividends to wait Faella out than to chastise her.
He peeked at her through the corner of his eye. Her gaze was still locked ahead, her jaw set. Her arms were crossed over her chest, and she seemed the perfect image of stubbornness made flesh. Her long dress tunic had a few dirty streaks and one small tear. That would require mending. Her hair was the same dark brown of his own, almost black. Or the same his own had once been, he thought ruefully, brushing a lock away from his eyes. His own hair had almost as much silver in it as brown, these days.
Arth ran a hand through his beard and mustache, trying to mask the smile he couldn’t quite keep from his lips. Oh, he was angry with her, no doubt! But he was proud, too. The girl was so much like her mother, most of the time. But in moments like this, he saw himself in her far too easily.
He kept his eyes forward and his face as bland as he could. The silence drew on, and it suited. The longer he could leave his girl to stew, the better. She was fuming now, obviously waiting for his reprimand and angrier by the minute that he was making her wait. He was just as happy to let her be the first to speak.
“You might as well just say it, Da,” she let out with an exasperated sigh. “I know I’m in deep, and I don’t care. I did what I did. And I would do it again.” She glared at him behind her crossed arms.
He struggled hard against the smile pushing at the corners of his mouth, and was pretty sure he’d won the battle. Maintaining the deadpan expression he wore was important here. Give her a palm length and she’d take a mile. She seemed so old, right now. She was only seven, after all.
“So what did happen?” he asked, slowly rolling out each word, keeping his voice toneless, as free of emotion as he could manage. He had a decent idea of what had passed, but he wanted to hear what she had to say.
“I didn’t start the fight,” she replied. “Martinus did. I only ended it. Just like you taught me.”
He snorted at that. “Ended it by laying Martinus out, with both his eyes blackened and I suspect more than a few other bruises to show.”
“He deserved it,” she huffed. “He pushed me.”
“Was that all?” Arth asked. He knew before he asked that there was more to it. He’d taught her better than that.
“No,” she said, and paused a moment. “He was talking about what his father said. I called his father a liar, and he pushed me. So I pushed back. Hard.” Faella grinned a little, wincing as she ran her tongue over a split lip.
The cool thing, of course, is that if I set this aside again and come back to it in five more years, I’ll likely be able to write it even better than I can today. I’m sure there are experienced writers out there who are looking at my second piece and seeing ways it can be improved, even now.
I’m OK with that.
What I write tomorrow will hopefully be better than what I write today. What I write next year will hopefully be MUCH better! I intend to keep spinning stories for a long time. With luck, each will be better than the one before.
What about you? How have you found ways to measure your improvement over time? Is it something you worry about at all, or just something you have faith will happen? Thanks for stopping by!