Friday, August 8, 2014

Bad to the Bone

By Art Taylor

This week's question—"What’s the worst thing you ever wrote?"—is an easy one: EVERYTHING I've ever written has struck me, at some point along the way, as the worst thing I've ever done. So right now, the simple answer would be my draft-in-progress of "Provenance," a third outing for Del and Louise, the characters from my 2010 story "Rearview Mirror." Despite some moderately adequate scenes, those characters have suddenly turned into paper masks of themselves, the story is uneventful and unengaging, the plot is equal parts outlandishly unrealistic and sloggishly boring, and most mornings I dread even looking at it.

But even saying all that, I have some small faith that it will eventually get better.... especially since I had some of those exact same concerns about "Rearview Mirror" itself when I was first writing it, and then those concerns doubled, even tripled in the middle of writing the second Del and Louise story, "Commission."

"Rearview Miror" ultimately earned me a Derringer, and Ellery Queen recently accepted "Commission" for publication sometime next spring. That doesn't mean I was wrong about how bad those stories were in various drafts along the way. But maybe faith and work sometimes have their rewards.

I should add that it's not just "along the way" that this feeling sneaks in; even after something is published, I'm always hesitant to reread it, since it's certain that all I'll see are the slips and stumbles. To some degree, that's just the life of the writer, I know—as Debbie Ohi so deftly outlined it here:

4 Stages Of Writing, by Debbie Ridpath Ohi

...and that in mind, maybe my response here doesn't entirely answer the question as it was intended—so just for the heck of it, I'm also going to go with a second, more specific, but not unrelated answer: The worst thing I ever wrote was the first draft of my story "Mrs. Marple and the Hit-and-Run."

How did I know it was one of the worst things I've ever written? Well, I finished it—finished it, done! triumphant!—just in time for a reading I'd been invited to deliver and figured I should test it out on a couple of people ahead of time... and oh, those poor people. I still cringe picturing how their attention wandered, their eyes grew heavy, one of them briefly drifted off... and reading it aloud, even I felt like drifting off. I could hear how awkward and unnecessary so much of it was, and I could see how many pages were still left to suffer through, a story that clocked in two words shy of 10,000, a story that I thought was rich and meaningful and.... And finally I just threw in the towel on reading the whole thing aloud—and threw the manuscript aside as well.

Wanna see for yourself how bloated it is? Here's the original draft, available for the first time ever, and if you click through, all I can say is "Happy napping"!

But—returning to that theme here—several years later (um, 8 to be exact), I went back and did a pretty savage revision of that abominable first draft, cutting away 75% of the original story. The published version, which appeared here in Prick of the Spindle, was less than 2,500 words in its final form, and I'll dare say it not only remains one of my own personal favorites but also stands out for me as a real turning point in my understanding of how to write at all.

So I guess maybe my first answer was really the right answer after all.

IN OTHER NEWS: As Meredith and Alan have pointed out in their posts earlier this week, we all had a great time at the inaugural Washington, DC Noir at the Bar—but unlike them, I'm not posting the YouTube video. As with re-reading my work, one of the last things I want to do is revisit myself standing up at the microphone—especially reading a story so thoroughly abridged that it may have made no sense to anyone in the audience. (I was counting on them all having had a couple of drinks by my spot in the line-up.) The story itself, "The Odds Are Against Us," will be out soon in the November issue of Ellery Queen, so just stay tuned for that instead.


Meredith Cole said...

Awww... No video? Your story was great and I look forward to reading it (the complete version) when it comes out, Art.

Love the cartoon of the 4 stages of writing (terrible... not bad... wonderful!... terrible...). I think that was me this morning...

Susan C Shea said...

You point out one the the most important parts of working on a story - reading it out loud. Since I wrote novels, not short stories, I avoided it for a long time. boy, what a mistake. Now I do that read aloud as an essential pre-submission rule.

RJ Harlick said...

I can so relate to the waxing and waning on a work-in-progress. I'm there right now with my next Meg Harris mystery, thinking nothing is going to work out. I might as well hit the delete button. But I always think this way and am always amazed when everything in the story does come together at the end. Good post.

Catriona McPherson said...

Really brave and bound to be a lot of help to a lot of people. Thanks, Art.

Paul D. Marks said...

I agree, Art. Everything seems like it's the worst thing ever written, but there's always a glimmer of hope that it will get better and it usually does. But it's also hard to read it once it's published 'cause there's always something you find that you want to "fix".

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, y'all, for the nice feedback. To some degree, I felt like I was just stating the obvious, but really thinking about process these days--and that rollercoaster of emotions and reactions to our own work that I think each of us go through.