When you begin to learn something, you start out with no internal point of reference for judging the quality of your work. The only reference you have is the work of others, and as a new writer, you may be comparing yourself to the work of well-established authors whose work you have admired for years. Indeed, it might be their work that inspired you to pick up the pen in the first place. Good for you!
My very first book was Lord and Master and I was proud when I’d finished. I look back on it now with embarrassment, but I’ll never forget it; it was the beginnings of my writing career where I had no internal point of reference for judging the quality of my work. My second book, Knavesmire, and my third, Charlotte’s Lodge, were better in every conceivable way: dialogue was sharper, plotting much improved. But they still lacked something fundamental to a story’s success. In fact, they lacked two somethings.
They lacked technical refinement. Their points of view were all over the place; I’d packed them with cliché and passive sentences and repetitiveness. It often takes an outsider to spot these annoying traits of the beginner and point them out. Up to you of course whether you agree with them, accept them, and choose to change them. It’s your story, and it’s your pen.
My early stories also lacked a cohesive voice. You know the kind of thing when you’re reading a book and discover that it flows well, that the sentences are kind on the eye and smooth to the ear; that’s the voice, and it’s unique to every writer, it’s their fingerprint, their DNA. And it’s elusive. Actually, let me get a little closer to that subject if I may.
Your unique voice isn’t exactly your own. It’s made up of the voices of those you’ve encountered along the way; it’s the influences you’ve absorbed, but it’s still your own because you have subconsciously selected and blended the best parts of them. Elusive though? Well, yes it is. How many others’ voices must you experience in order to have a voice of your own? I don’t know. Maybe a hundred, maybe none! Perhaps you’ll develop your own voice just by caressing your own sentences until they feel smooth and sound like violins played next to a gentle waterfall. But one thing’s for sure, your voice will come and then it will mature, and then you won’t be able to write any other way without feeling some kind of discomfort.
Anyway, I digress slightly. The purpose of this blog is to share with you how frustrating it can be to have an early book, like A Long Time Dead as your lead book, your ‘dot’ of reference. Let me get this straight: Dead is a good book. But the books that follow it are better – much much better. There, I’ve said it, so shoot me.
I found my voice about half way through the next book, Stealing Elgar (my fifth book), and that’s when I knew I could write (forgive me if I sound big-headed, I don’t mean to). Now, you can go back and look over your early works with your new found voice and your newly acquired box of technical proficiency, and you can try to rework them. I’ve tried and I have found some improvement, but the old works are very stubborn, and you soon become weary of battling against resistance; it was like trying to sculpt a block of rubber. Better to just move on to the next project. I pulled Charlotte’s Lodge from sale because of that very reason. I tried to rework my dinosaur and got nowhere with it. It was riddled with point of view changes that made me sigh as I read it through. I tried to make changes but it was resisting all the way, was making rude finger gestures and calling me names. So I binned it. It was tough.
Dead has sold well over the last two years. On Amazon alone it’s sold about 28000 copies. Part of me rejoices over that news, but part of me wishes I’d either found my silly little voice a book earlier, or I’d begun The Dead Trilogy a book later. It is flawed, is A Long Time Dead, quite heavily in places, but it’s still a reasonable story. My own feelings are that it’s not a good introduction to me as an author. A reader might be disinclined to go onto Stealing Elgar after reading Dead because Dead is not the strongest story out there. And that’s a real shame because they get better – honest!
But you can’t put that in a blurb can you?
I suppose the essence of this blog is that you must be careful at which point you select your dot. Your work will be out there for all to see for a very long time. Make sure you’re well into your stride so far voice and technical ability is concerned. Make sure that its quality is something you can look back on with pride because, especially if you’re beginning a series or a trilogy, it’s your one shot at impressing readers and showing them what they can expect from you in the subsequent books.