Before I can feel capable—or ready—to make a post like this for my most recent book, “The Girl with a Fairy’s Heart,” I thought it’d be fun to take an excursion through some of my old, developmental, unpublished work. This is in no particular order. I like to think, without meaning it at all, that this is somewhat brave of me—only because some of this old stuff is TERRIBLE. Delightfully, even insightfully, terrible.
But reading back on old stuff has lately been a wonderfully enlightening experience for how it makes me able to see my growth as a writer. I suggest to any writer who’s reading this to try this sometime, if it’s something you don’t already do. Emotionally prepare yourself to look back at some early work of your own. See how much you’ve grown, where and how you’ve improved, and cringe and laugh and be appalled.
I thought I’d start with a story of mine I came across recently. It was a short novel—about 50,000 words—called “Starlight,” written around 2012 and finished, I think, in 2013.
For some context, I was ten years old when I first tried writing a novel. So I’d been writing for about seven years or so. I don’t know how many books I’d written by that point, exactly, but it was a decent amount (not that any of them would be considered “readable” by my own standards, or by any standards).
“Starlight” was about a teenage girl named Carly Tills. The story begins with the death of her father—an apparent suicide. Later, in the course of her grieving, she begins to learn more about the man her father really was. For years he’d been obsessed with a serial killer he called Starlight. and had written several books on the killer. In some ways this was a coming-of-age story as Carly learns that her father was never the man she knew him to be. In other ways it was a meditative thriller as Carly suspects the serial killer is still out there and may have killed her father, and may now be targeting her.
It was a pretty strange story. But I remember it was incredibly fun to write.
And the writing… oh god, the writing…
What’s amazing to me about looking back on this book now, and on the writer I used to be, is how much I’ve grown since. My writing was very close to stream-of-consciousness back then, and I was able to pour writing out unself-consciously, charging forward. This is exactly what I needed to do. I’d have it no other way. But I just didn’t have the tools that I have now as a writer and storyteller.
Some of this is fundamental, which makes the story a delight to look back on. Filler words are in abundance, plenty of “that,” and “very”; or broader fillers like “began to,” or such stuff as “completely full.” I had also never heard what it meant to cut out filters in narrative, so there’s a lot of descriptions filtered through the character’s point of view rather than presented directly to the reader. By that I mean, I wrote “Carly saw…” instead of just describing what she saw. This creates an unconscious distance between the details of the story and the reader. This is so rampant in “Starlight,” I can’t even give any specific examples. It is, however, a mistake that all writers have to make at least once, or through a period of time as they develop, in able to learn not to do it.
Thankfully there are no mistakes of the “would of” instead of “would have” variety. I realize, as I look back over this story, that I’ve always been good at grammar and the technical nature of writing. I wasn’t great, but I had an intuition for it. That wasn’t always the case with sentence structure, but I was using semicolons correctly, for the most part (yes, I’m far too proud). So there’s that.
Many of my descriptions were abstract rather than visual. You’d get the feeling of a place without much to visualize it.
Oh, and this is a big one. Luckily it wasn’t something I overdid, but it’s something I’ve certainly overdone in some of my earliest stories. Occasionally, in “Starlight,” you will find such offenders as “a harsh gasp rattled violently through her.” This isn’t as bad as it could be. But it’s an unfortunate mistake to describe emotion as something that “strikes” or “rattles through” or “grips.” Well… I shouldn’t say this with authority, and I don’t mean to, because there is a proper way of doing this that isn’t so verbose or flat or, simply put, amateur. The key is usually, in my experience, simplicity and in how visual it is. Fortunately, there are such lines as this in “Starlight,” to balance it out:
“What? Me? What do you want?” She gripped the strap of her messenger bag at the hollow of her shoulder, tightened her lips shut.
It’s not great, but it’s not “shock swarmed her body” or something… godawful like that. This harkens back to one of the oldest but most useful pieces of writing advice, when employed properly: Show, don’t tell.
Also a cringeworthy delight to encounter in this book is the way I used words to excess. Non-visual descriptions pepper every paragraph, needless nuanced additions and modifiers engorge every sentence. And sometimes, as it is with young, developmental writing, there’s just unexplainably awkward sentence constructions, like this big old winner:
Having forgotten her phone on her bed, Carly had no way of knowing what time it was nor how long she had been out, but it wasn’t long before she turned—hugging herself, constantly wiping tears from her eyes and cheeks—for her house and started walking for it.
The awkwardness of it speaks for itself. I mean… what was I thinking?
Although there is a great deal of potential for character in this story, as in character arcs, the fact that it could be a coming-of-age crossed with a thriller, the story never really grasped that potential. I wasn’t talented enough for that yet. Therefore, as with many of my early work, “Starlight” is a work of great potential and very little meeting of that potential. But that’s how we grow.
The endearing element of this is how I threw myself into writing and, though I didn’t know it at the time, learned a lot from it. Even now, here I am, learning from it.
Recently I’ve discovered that the fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson has entire series of lectures available to watch on YouTube. While I’ve yet to read any Sanderson, I now fully intend to. I’ve learned so much from these lectures on the anatomy of storytelling, you could say, as well as on the business of writing. Whether you read fantasy doesn’t matter; if you’re a writer, I highly recommend seeking out those lectures. I bring this up because of some of the things Sanderson has to say about progressing as a writer, and certain markers and stepping stones that show you are progressing in the right direction.
Not long after completing “Starlight,” and being young and with only a surface-level understanding of the business of publishing—and knowing even less about the importance of editing and the power of the revision process—I sent the book out to publishers and agents. This is something I was always persistent with, happily so. I have a hefty pile of rejection letters both physical and virtual, and a few of those are for “Starlight.”
One of the major things Brandon Sanderson spoke about in one of his lectures was about querying literary agents. He said a good indication that you, as a writer, have gone from amateur to semi-pro, is when you begin to receive personalized notes on rejection letters. When it isn’t merely a generic “This isn’t the right time for us” or something of that sort, but comes with something personal, even if it’s just a tiny note, that’s when you know that you’re approaching a readiness for real publication. I can still remember the first time I got a personal rejection letter—it was on a manuscript I sent to Tor, one of the largest publishers out there. I don’t remember how long ago that was, exactly, but it was long before “Starlight.” To receive a personal note from such a major publisher is still, to me, very cool to think about. In fact, I forgot about that until recently. The note was for a book called “Charlie Louise,” and it was a small note, but said something to the effect of, “This is pretty good. Keep writing.”
“Starlight” was one of those early books that I actually got a couple of requests on. I sent it to a few publishers (and even sent it to Black Rose Writing, the current publisher of my first three books, which means that I proudly have a few rejection letters from them), and sent it to a few agents. If I recall correctly, two agents got back to me wanting to see more pages, which in itself is a stepping stone. One of the personal notes I got back on “Starlight” was this: “While the voice on this is excellent, we had trouble connecting with your main character.” A disappointment? Sure. But in the writing business, and for me, this was such a great thing to hear back. Rejection letters are reason to celebrate; they’ve always made me excited because they’re what I expect. It’s only now, years later, that I look back on this particular rejection letter and realize how big of a stepping stone this was, and how important it is to me now.
Reading through a few pages of “Starlight,” I see exactly what that agent meant. I’d been writing long enough to begin developing a voice. That may be one of my strongest areas as a writer: my voice. Then again, I’m still terrible at objectivity when it comes to my own writing, and am evidently insecure about it in a number of ways, but I think I can say that with confidence: My voice is one of my strong spots. The writing in “Starlight” is permeated by a lack of experience and room for growth, but that’s exactly what was meant to be happening with that book. That’s the age I was, both as a person and a writer. And it’s such fun to look back on now, because yes, I think it’s pretty terrible. But there are elements of it that are strong enough to remain interesting, especially because I can see how I’ve developed those elements—even more so, how I’ve grown through so many of the faults that “Starlight” is riddled with. For an early story, however, it dealt with some interesting themes, blending morality in bold ways, exploring the intricacies of growing up and facing reality.
One thing I didn’t expect from looking back at old unpublished work is how it charts my growth as a writer and storyteller. It’s been a refreshing experience, insightful and enlightening. It’s even helping me gain some perspective, helping me look at myself now in a different way. I can see more clearly how I’ve grown as a writer, how I continue to grow. It’s making me feel proud of myself and more confident than I normally feel going forward in my career. All the more reason that I suggest this to you, any writers or artists reading this. Try taking a look at the stuff that you’re normally embarrassed to look back on. You may just end up feeling proud of yourself.