It’s not difficult to see a writer’s progress if you read a couple of their books at once. The way their skills and techniques change can be pretty evident, especially in cases where talent sometimes outstrips ability at first. Sometimes it’s just a matter of having breathing space to be creative, or of knowing your characters — Harry Harrison’s “Stainless Steel Rat” series improves drastically over time from his first pulp attempt. It’s my personal opinion that the later Narnia novels are much better than the earlier ones, but that’s more up for debate, I think. At any rate, it’s possible to watch a writer mature — or sometimes, naming no names, regress — if you can get a look at several eras of their work at once.
It’s much, much more difficult for a writer to see their own work change and grow. As immediate as it seems when reading, when writing you’re undergoing a process that takes months to begin with, years and decades to progress. The pace for the writer is glacial, and it’s always more difficult to be objective about your own work.
It’s been an interesting process, reading and re-writing The Dead Isle, because I wrote it going on four years ago, before I’d put Nameless up for mass critique. That process sped up a lot of my skill acquisition so that now, four years on, I am a visibly better writer. I think this would have taken longer without Extribulum, but who knows.
In rewriting Dead Isle these past few months, I often asked myself what the hell I was thinking, writing this or that phrase, or putting a scene where I did. The truth is, at the time, I either had a perfectly rational reason for doing it, or I just wasn’t paying attention. More likely the latter. The more lessons about writing that I internalize, the easier it is to pay attention, so that now I can fix what was broken and add new flourishes to cover the breaks.
But I can also see where I was doing things on instinct that were good, and now I can put a name to why they were good.
Learning to write is a process that takes pretty much your whole life, I think. I believe that writing has a lot to do with connecting to the reader and trying to evoke certain feelings or thoughts, which involves a lot of different identifiable techniques — structure, prose, arc — but also involves understanding the way people think and feel, and why they think and feel that way. It’s almost too big for any one person to grasp, trying to comprehend cultural shifts and motivations, trying to tap into the spirit of the moment. I don’t necessarily need to know what’s going on in order to write a better character; I need to know what’s going on in order to write better for the reader.
I feel like there should be more depth to this whole theory of literature than “It all comes down to the reader”, but so far that’s all I’ve got. Perhaps that’s just a place from which to build, and I just need to fumble in the dark until I find some blueprints. But I feel that it is a basic, fundamental truth: I am writing for a reader, and everything I do, every skill I learn, every technique I perfect, is aimed at forging that link with the reader. I don’t often feel that link anymore when I read a book, but I used to; it seems like something that began and ended in childhood, or perhaps it’s just not that permissible as an adult to allow yourself to be influenced so heavily by something.
Maybe it’s time I learned more about the reader; I’ve learned a lot, but never in any systematic way. Perhaps the next step is to ask why people read books and how, and what kinds of books people have bonded to. The way we read is changing, and the written word has never been more popular — high literacy rates and the necessity of textual communication over the internet have made writing important in a different way than it was before. Perhaps that needs study, too.
These are big, scary things, but then writing a book isn’t as big or scary as it used to be, for me, so a new challenge may be just the thing.