Thursday, July 8, 2021

Carrot or Stick? From James W. Ziskin

Have you reread any of your books since they were published? How did you feel about them? Did you like them? Do you think you have improved as a writer? If you haven’t read any of them, is there a particular reason? What do you think you would discover if you did?

From time to time, I re-read parts of my books after they’ve been published. Sometimes it’s to find a suitable passage for a public reading, and, other times, it’s to check on details I need for consistency in the series. But I also re-read to see if the books—or the writing—have held up, at least to my own standards.

I’ve found errors—minor—and stylistic issues I wished I’d noticed before publication. Things like repetition of words in the same paragraph, or overuse of adverbs and adjectives. I even discover the odd misused word here and there. “Burr” instead of “bur” in one book. Ouch. All of these make me cringe, of course, even if most readers don’t notice or might not care. I often say that I wouldn’t throw a book against the wall if the author writes “he shrugged his shoulders” or “I blinked my eyes.” I have good editor friends who would… In fact, I found one of those examples in my first book not too long ago. Not much I can do about it now.

But, in my defense, I will point out that the expression “in the blink of an eye” is legitimate and acceptable usage. Why, then, can’t we say, “He blinked his eyes”? One can blink a flashlight or a turn signal, after all. Not just eyes.

My point is that such irregularities inevitably creep into even the best written and edited books and stories. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up if we fall prey to them, too. Yes, I believe it’s better to say “He blinked” than “He blinked his eyes.” But that doesn’t ruin a story for me.

Re-reading my past work is also a good way to sharpen my current style. When I find a passage I think I could have written better, I remember it. It bothers me. It’s a sting that remains with me as I dive into new work. Perhaps that’s why most writers improve their craft as they write more. Repetition should produce better quality over time. And, for the writer, introspection and critical honesty should help. Self-loathing is an excellent tool as well. That’s why, despite the cringes and the regrets, I will surely continue to read my earlier work, for guidance and instruction, not to mention the hard-to-swallow errors I’ve made. Sometimes I’ll smile and think a turn of phrase was well done. Other times, I might slap my own wrist and vow never to write such treacle again. I look at re-reading my own work as offering myself a carrot or a stick. The carrot, in theory, is the reward. Mind you, I don’t much like carrots, but they’re better than sticks.

In my latest book, Bombay Monsoon, coming in December 2022 from Oceanview Publishing, I’ve used a similar attitude toward my writing in the editing of the manuscript. Several beta readers, including my agent and editor, suggested that the action needed to get up and go more quickly at the start of the book. I had taken my time with the development of my characters and location, but clearly at the expense of the pace. So I’ve been slashing repetition and wordiness—two things I fear I’m guilty of in my Ellie Stone books—in favor of more economy and speed. I’m trying not to lose the flavor and style of my narrator’s voice, but the book will still weigh in at about 95,000 words, even with my edits.

If I manage the job well, I won’t have to cringe when I re-read the book years from now. In this case, I’m putting the stick to use now so I can enjoy my carrot down the road. (Blech.)


Jacqueline Vick said...

I related so much to your post. Every word of it. Thanks for letting me know I'm not alone. :)

James Ziskin said...

Thanks, Jacqueline. You’re not alone!