"I remember a sentence I opened one story with, to show you how bad I was: 'Monsieur Boule inserted a delicate dagger in Mademoiselle's left side and departed with a poised immediacy.' I like to think I didn't take myself seriously then, but I did."
* * *
It was supposed to be so easy. After all, I'd been writing stories for television for, um, thirty years. Chasing criminals, confronting corrupt politicians, racing out to a fire or some other disaster, then racing back to the station, banging out a story, and putting it on the air. As an investigative reporter, the stories got more complicated, more researched, much longer.
As I began thinking about writing a mystery novel,I knew it would be different, of course, but I still figured it was all about story- telling. Words on video, words on a page. I love words. I could do it.
I clicked open a brand new Word file, and, with fingers poised with immediacy over the keyboard in anticipation of my certain-to-be-successful brand new career, typed the title of my first mystery.
TIME CODE. I burst out laughing. My first two words. Stunk.
Did you all keep what you first wrote?
If, as Hemingway supposedly said, "everyone's first draft is sh*t, I am certainly no exception. There is nothing in my past to compare with "poised immediacy" though. I think Eudora gets top honors for that.
No, my writing doesn't generally lean towards purple prose - I'm more likely to write something fabulously exciting like "I saw the body, then called the cops." Lean, to the point of emaciation. With only one book under my belt, I'm still learning to find my place between Elmore Leonard's economical style and Wilkie Collins' heavily descriptive style. Pretty nervy, huh? I defy any of you ladies to drop as many names as I did.
Like you Ro, overwriting isn't generally my problem. The bad writing was generally not in the prose but in my early attempts at storytelling. Especially short stories. I wrote about a dozen of them, and they all start out with potential: strong characters and a unique situation. It's just that not much happens after that. The revelations are all minor or trite. The conclusions appear to be missing.
For example, I wrote a short story about two women in a health club trying to lose weight. One of them is young and really gung ho to change her life, the other one is older, forced there by her husband and really just trying to sell the other woman a ton of overpriced makeup. The interesting thing about the story is it shifts perspectives and you see the underlying agendas and conflicts. The silly thing about the story is that it ends with one of the women writing the other a bad check. A BAD CHECK??? Was that supposed to be metaphorical? Or just kind of mean.
Not sure. But there's an unmistakable sense of "is that all there is?"
Ah, the 'is that all there is' question - my sister Delia, a many times published author, read my early-early essays written when I was just getting up on my pins as a writer. I grew to dread that question, only her version of it was, "So, what's the point?" If someone asks that after reading something you've written, you know you've written it wrong.
My earliest attempts were essays, most of them about why I'd been so reluctant to start writing, most of them boring. But it was stuff I need to put down (and get rid of)--issues around coming from a family of writers and being overwhelmed by the sheer talent everyone else possessed. It wasn't until I was well past 40 that I started writing fiction. By then I'd decided that it was okay to try and fail; it was not okay to fail to try.
My first attempt at writing a crime novel was true crime - the story of the murder of the brother of a dear friend and the impact of his loss on the family. I finished the manuscript and put it in a drawer. I would have felt like a carrion crow, sending it out. I learned that true crime is too hard; for every murder victim there are many surviving "victims." That's why I admire Kate Flora's wonderful book, FINDING AMY, that was just nominated for an Edgar. She managed to pull it off with the support of the murder victim's family.
I've been writing fiction ever since. The psychological suspense novel I'm finishing is inhabited purely by my own nightmares.
I agree. The sister of a friend of mine was murdered, and for the briefest of moments I wondered if I might use something from her story, but I couldn’t. Strangers are different. I'm constantly tearing articles out of the paper.
Since I now have access to this wealth of information (meaning my fellow bloggers) I have a question. I handed in the final version of my manuscript 2 weeks ago and I've been up nights thinking "Oh, I could have done this or that better. " Once you've finished, do you generally think you can go back and make something better?
I think second-guessing yourself--third and fourth and fifth guessing--means your brain is working. I had a reporter pal once, nice guy but mediocre on TV. He was watching a reel of his TV reports, trying to put together a resume tape of his best work. I stopped and looked over his shoulder, and said: "Doesn't it drive you crazy to see your old stuff? Don't you wish you could change a million things in every story?"
And he looked at me, utterly baffled. "Not at all," he said. "In fact, I was just thinking about how good I was." He wasn't.
Me? I can ALWAYS go back. Always. But don't they just say at some point--it's done? Let it go?