On an entirely unrelated note, I had cause to pull up an old story and read through it. This is a story that has not sold yet, and is pretty much out of pro-paying options. However, it received very nice, personal rejections from some editors at pro markets who complimented my writing and indicated they wanted to see more from me. It was also a finalist in a couple of literary competitions.
You know what? I was stunned at how awful the writing seems to me. My attempts to create tension and hook the reader seem so obvious and hamfisted, my conflict so melodramatic, and I'm embarrassed that I sent this story out to anyone.
I'm also, secretly, a bit thrilled.
Because when I started sending this story out a couple of years ago, I thought it was sooo polished. From a writing standpoint if not a storytelling one, I thought I was at the top of my game. So what I take away from how amateurish it seems to me now is that I've gotten a lot better since then, and that, FSM willing, it won't be long before I break through.
Here is the opening of the old story in question:
Kayla burst through the door and into the night, clutching her prize in her hand. It had worked. It had worked! Now all she needed to do was get back home. Back to her new life.
Her senses seemed to be on high alert as she covered the couple blocks to her parents’ home. On some level, she had been sure something would go wrong, and now everything she saw, from the guy drinking a beer in a paper bag right outside the store to the SUV hurtling past as she jogged along the sidewalk, took on a sinister purpose in her mind. Mostly she looked out for police, or perhaps some dark, unmarked sedan instead. But nothing stopped her, and in less than five minutes she was standing behind the house.
Through the rear window, she could see her mother walking around the kitchen. It looked like she was on the phone. At this hour, her father would be in the living room, watching his CSI: Miami or Criminal Minds or whatever crime drama he was currently obsessing over. They’d be furious if they knew she’d been this close without stopping in to say hello, but there was no time.
She chuckled at the irony in that.
Behind the house, she stood just outside of the faintly glowing edges of the displacement field and eyed it warily as she rested with one hand on her old swing set, catching her breath while the peeling corners of the paint dug into her palm. The field was rotating rather more quickly than it had been twenty minutes ago, and, beyond it, the floor of the laboratory was pitching and yawing—or at least, it seemed to from her vantage point. Clumsy. She could have done better, but then, she was out here.
As she watched, the rotation slowed. The alignment wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t going to be, and she couldn’t wait forever. The floor in her lab was a little more than a foot higher than the grass was, and the wall was in view, setting the course of her landing skew to the path she’d have to take into the displacement field, but she had to move now.
Kayla ran the three steps separating her from the field and jumped. For one blessed second, she was back in the lab. Then the change in gravity hit her. This was still new to her, and she flailed as “back” became “down.” She tottered, and time seemed to slow. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the dirt behind her house coming up to meet her, and, worse, the neon-colored rim of the displacement field. She could not let that touch her.
“Help me!” she cried out, flailing, thrusting her hands in front of her. And then her breath was taken away by a searing pain and the sweet stench of sizzling flesh she barely had time to recognize as her own. The ticket, fluttering leaflike in the chaos where the air of the yard met the air of the lab, was the last thing she saw before the edge of the field sliced from her right armpit to her left ear.
All that past perfect, signaling that I'm giving backstory. I was so desperate to start with action, but so desperate to dump info there just the same. And an intro that ends in the death of the central character, only to have her alive again after the # break. How provocative! And the clumsy bits of foreshadowing: her chuckling at an irony that the reader can't possibly get yet, or the comments about how inexpertly the displacement field is being handled. I use the word "as" six times here, something I've come to regard as a marker of inexpertly trying to weave action together with info. Sixteen uses of the word "was," which I've come to associate with telling rather than showing. I feel like I was trying so hard.
Here is the intro to a short story I'm working on right now, that I'm maybe a fourth of the way through writing. This story doesn't even have a title yet. It's first draft, not the least bit cleaned up:
The Orinoco’s dark surface twitched and undulated, one eddy gradually separating itself from the otherwise languid film. Carolina edged back into the shadows between the bait shop and the boatyard and maintained her vigil, gripping her father’s revolver with both hands like a talisman. From the other end of the alleyway, strains of an old song by Maná drifted down.
Over the debris that had once formed the retaining wall, a shape rose, shimmery and pink and dripping. Carolina’s eyes reported the scene faithfully, but she blinked anyway, scrunching her eyelids together as though demanding her eyes bring back better information next time. Blink. Slick pink-grey skin, a ridged back with water cascading off, and a long snout. Blink. No, not a snout. A nose. A regular old human nose, though maybe larger than average, and a high forehead. Blink. No, not pink. White like a norteamericano. Whiter than her own caramel skin certainly, but not pink. Blink. And not naked, after all, but wearing clothes so white she could hardly make them out in the twilight. He stood up, clearly a man now, and the moonlight practically reflected off his liquiliqui, especially the silver buttons on his high collar. The silvery light made something else clear: he wore nothing beneath his loose linen pants. Blink. What she had taken to be a high forehead now appeared to be the crown of a llanero hat, with a fashionably narrow brim pulled low.
Carolina sucked in a breath. He was still beautiful. Eight years had worn down her girlhood and left her instead with calluses and worry lines, but he was still the achingly perfect boy she remembered, as though not a day had passed. She crouched behind an empty tank, wrinkling her nose at the shrimp and algae scent, and watched him step past, whistling an upbeat tune she’d not heard before as he swam through the night. When his back was to her, she stepped out and pointed the gun at his back.
“Looking for someone, tonino?” she asked.
Now maybe I'm just full of myself—or maybe I'm full of something else—but this reads so much better to me right now. Only three uses of "as," and two of those are in the context of comparisons, and none to show simultaneous action. Only three uses of the word "was."
I feel like this piece is more vibrant because, while the previous one begins with action, it tells the reader about the action while this one shows it more. I show it through Carolina's eyes, but I try not to use words that give the reader a sense of detachment. I don't indicate that she sees this or that—I just show this or that and assume it's obvious that she's doing the seeing.
It still needs some work. I'm not at all sure the blink paragraph works, and I think the cadence of the first paragraph could be better. And maybe someone reading this blog will think it absolutely sucks. But I like it. I think it's a lot better and that excites me.
Maybe in a year or two I'll think it's horribly amateurish and I'll be embarrassed that I ever bragged on these awful paragraphs. I kind of hope so, because that'll mean I'll have continued to grow as a writer.