Thursday, 23 August 2012

I SUCK

Hello, Dear Readers! Thursday again and time for me to ramble on at you for a bit. Again, this is more like a series of random thoughts than a real essay, so apologies in advance.

Lately I've been thinking about the fact that I was published really young. Meeting Karen Mahoney and Lee Weatherly at the Foyles event made me realise how unusual it is for someone to get attention from a mainstream, respected publisher at the age of twenty-one with their very first completed YA novel, and to get a publishing contract at twenty-two with their second completed YA manuscript. I was incredibly lucky to have crossed the desk of my first editor, who encouraged me and offered me so much support, and incredibly lucky that he worked at Walker Books, who have a fine tradition of nurturing new talent and developing close relationships with their authors.

But it wasn't just luck. A lot of it was me; me wanting it so, so badly because the dream of being a published author felt like all I had. It was the only thing that would make everything I had gone through as a bullied outsider worthwhile, the only thing that would show everyone who'd ever picked on or mistreated me that I was a valid person, that they were wrong and I was right the whole time. The full force of my determination went into writing and trying to get published, and it left room for nothing else - not college, not looking for a satisfying job, not even much in the way of a social life. And that single-mindedness did pay off. Even though my first book (The Swan Kingdom) wasn't actually released until I was twenty-four, I had a publishing contract by the age of twenty-two. I had, I felt at the time, WON.

Here's a hint to my past self: You really haven't. Sorry.

I'm proud of The Swan Kingdom. In fact, I'm proud of all the books I've written, in different ways and for different reasons. Each story and each set of characters represents something important to me, challenges that I set for myself, whether I was entirely successful in meeting them or not.

But there's no escaping the fact that being published young - and having spent so much of my life up until that point focusing exclusively on writing - had a huge effect on the quality of my debut and my early work. I'm not like Veronica Roth or Sarah Rees Brennan or Rae Carson. My first book wasn't a storming, ground-breaking piece of fiction that astonished commentors could hardly believe was a debut. It was a quiet, sweet little story that a lot of people liked, but which didn't give much of a hint as to the stories I would be producing in the future.

My courage, my craft, my perspective on humans and their relationships, my awareness of diversity... these things have gotten better with each book I've published. And as a result, each book I've written has been just a bit better than the one before. I know this. I know it in my heart and I know it because everyone tells me so. It's one of the comments that I see all the time - on Goodreads or on review blogs. 'This author just keeps getting better and better'. When reviewers, your editor, even your mum agrees, you get the message. And I'm really happy this is the case.

But developing like this - in public, with every reader as a witness to your progress - is tough. Sometimes looking back at decisions made in previous books makes me cringe. When I see reviewers pointing out the same old problems with my earlier books that I've seen mentioned in a dozen reviews before, sometimes I want to crawl into a hole. How could I have let the book go out like that? Why didn't I see those problems at the time it went out? Am I going to have to regret that for the rest of my career? I'm not going to list all the flaws that I (and everyone) can see in my own work here, but suffice it to say that if I could write The Swan Kingdom and Daughter of the Flames all over again *now* they would be vastly different books.

In fact, they wouldn't be The Swan Kingdom and Daughter of the Flames at all.

Because I couldn't write The Swan Kingdom now. I couldn't write Daughter of the Flames. I'm a different person and a different writer. The books might have the same titles (or maybe not even that!) and be based on the same fairytale or original ideas, but they would not be the same books. Those characters and their choices would be, most probably, unrecognisable. The way I would write them would be unrecognisable.

Would I feel better about them right now if they were in that form? Most probably.

But what about in ten years time?

In ten years time maybe I'd be cringing over them in exactly the same way. Just because they'd be more acceptable to the current me, that doesn't mean that the me five or ten years from now wouldn't find loads of mistakes and flaws there. Just because I'm a better writer now, that doesn't mean I'm the best I'll ever be. What a horrible thought!

And what's more, if The Swan Kingdom - with all its many flaws - hadn't been written, and accepted, and come out when it did back in 2007, would I have ever have written Daughter of the Flames at all? Without the mistakes I made writing Daughter of the Flames (which haunted me, and haunt me still ) would I really have had the courage and maturity to write Shadows on the Moon, the book that ripped me to pieces and left me a totally different writer then I was before? Without the new confidence that came from writing Shadows on the Moon, would I have been able to produce FrostFire, the book which my editor (and my mum!) tells me is my best work to date?

No.

We all suck now in comparison to our future selves. Of course we do. I thought I was pretty hot stuff when I first managed to create a shortcut on my desktop without messing up, or the first time I successfully boiled dried pasta without it sticking to the bottom of the pan. Those achievements were vital at the time. I couldn't get anywhere until I'd managed them. They pushed me onto more ambitious next steps. But looking back NOW, of course they seem simple and small in comparison to making and maintaining my own website, or cooking a five course Christmas dinner for my family.

The trick is to realise that the mistakes you made in the past are equally small in comparison to the things you can achieve right now. That the mistakes you make now are small compared you what you will be able to do in the future.

So yes, I sucked in the past. I suck now. And I will suck in the future. But who cares? Because I also did amazing - really amazing! - things in the past too. I got published before I was twenty-five! And I'm doing exciting, challenging things now; I've only just turned thirty and I already have four books out! And I will carry on doing great things in the future. No matter what mistakes I've made and am making and will make.

No matter what.

Spending time regretting the past? Wishing things had been different? Asking 'What if'? Well, it might be irresistable. But the very best way to make sure that you don't spend your entire life looking back over your shoulder wishing the past had been different is to do the best you can - the most courageous, scary, strange and YOU that you can - right now. None of us will ever be flawless or produce anything flawless, and accepting that is the only way to keep moving forward.

I suck. You suck. Everyone sucks. And that is a wonderful thing.

Carry on.

23 comments:

Jazmin said...

So inspirational zoe!!! To be honest, I've only read Daughter of the Flames and I'm madly in love with it. I do agree we all suck in comparison to our future selves, but for me, that's the fun part. I'm only 15 but I have written manuscripts that have gotten better because of time and knowledge. Also, author's books are like cheese. They get better with age parallel to the author! <3

Tam said...

I feel I should point out that Today-You is the best You you have ever been. And that's worth celebrating too :)

Rebecca Lindsay said...

What a really inspirational post! And you're right, we all suck! :)
I still love Daughter of the Flames, exactly the way it is :)

Zoë Marriott said...

Jazmin: Exactly! Although hopefully authors are slightly less stinky ;p

Tam: Yes, exactly. So long as you're working hard you're moving in the right direction, and there's nothing to feel regretful about in that.

Rebecca: Isn't it strange how an insult like 'You suck!' can suddenly become something to celebrate when you look at it the right way? And thank you. I am proud of DotF, and I set a lot of my worries about it to rest when I explored the themes I wanted to in FrostFire.

Liz said...

Well now, I was ready to get all feisty here because I loved DotF and TSK but then I read the rest of the blogpost and I know where you're coming from.

I also whole heartedly agree with Tamsyn:

I feel I should point out that Today-You is the best You you have ever been.

I've told you this before Zolah, you are wise beyond your years and I for one celebrate the fact that I can read books by a writer from the get go and literally see them grow in scope in confidence. It gives me hope for the future.

Zoë Marriott said...

Liz: Aw, thanks hun. *Hugs* The fact that there are people out there who really do love those early books makes me realise that obsessing about the (inevitable) flaws is pointless. So thanks again :)

Artax said...

(You know, you *could* write them again. Robin McKinley did it. I love love love The Swan Kingdom and I would love reading your new vision for that story, from where you are now. Not that you don't have other important things to do and all....)

Zoë Marriott said...

Artax: Well, thank you very much :) I suppose I could try to recycle the story like RM did with Rose Daughter, but unless this amaaaaazing new idea about it appeared in my head I'd be reluctant to go back, because I've got so many other fairytales that I'd love to retell and so many other stories queueing up in my head ready to be told. I'm waiting for the muse on that one, basically!

Lesley said...

There are authors out there I like whose work makes me go "Wow!" Sometimes I read their past works, and they're simply just not as good as the books they write these days. In fact there's one author (I've read twelve of her books, and there's a movie about one of them) whose first book is probably one of the worst things I've ever read, so don't stress.

Lesley said...

There are authors out there I like whose work makes me go "Wow!" Sometimes I read their past works, and they're simply just not as good as the books they write these days. In fact there's one author (I've read twelve of her books, and there's a movie about one of them) whose first book is probably one of the worst things I've ever read, so don't stress.

Emma Pass said...

When I wrote my first YA novel (which didn't make it through the querying stage), I was really proud of it and excited to have written it. Today, if it *had* been published, I'd die of embarrassment to see my name on the cover. But it was a start – the start I needed after coming very close to giving up on writing altogether – and I learned so much from it that I will never regret the time I spent on it (even if now, I do regret inflicting it on publishers and agents!).

I've always thought that the moment you assume you have nothing left to learn – that you think you're the best at what you do – is moment you need to stop, because you're never going to get any better. My insecurities are what keep me going, because I know with each book that I CAN do better and push myself a little bit harder.

Thanks for such a great post!

Megha said...

Really inspirational post, Zoe :) And the person you are today is the best, awesomest person you've been so far in your life, and awesomeest writer too, so I guess that's something to celebrate before the future kicks in :P

Isabel said...

SO TRUE. Thanks for this! :)

Suzanne said...

This is an amazing post! These are wise words, Zoe. Very wise. A lot of truth was said here. Reminded me of a vlog Maureen Johnson once did called 'Dare to Suck'.

When I was 16, I read a published book which was written by a 16 year old girl when she was 14 ('Mirror Dreams' by Catherine Webb). I was horribly jealous and wanted that.

Thankfully, I never chased the dream at 16 'cause my first novel attempt was horrific. My 9th attempt (at age 25) is now being editted and it much MUCH better. Sorry, 16 year old me.

Zoë Marriott said...

Lesley: Well, I hope things aren't quite as bad as that - there are still a lot of people who sincerely seem to love TSK and DotF and I hope they will continue to do so. But yeah, when you look at a whole career, I suppose changes to skill and style are inevitable no matter how great the debut is.

Emma: That's so right - when I start getting ideas for a new story I actually sit there and ask myself 'What's different about this? What's challenging? Is this scary' and if it's a no then my enthusiasm dies. I always want to be writing something that stretches me, even if that means I fail sometimes. Otherwise what's the point?

Isabel: Thank you :)

Megha: LOL. Very true!

Suzanne: Damn! I should have realised that Maureen Johnson would have gotten there before me! Oh, well. There's no such thing as true originality either, I suppose...

Isabel said...

Btw Zoe I started FrostFire a couple of days ago and I stayed up till midnight last night because I didn't want to put it down! Loving it so far!

Lesley said...

Don't worry. Things aren't that bad. There are people who also genuiinely enjoy that novel I didn't like so much either--just wasn't really my taste.

A Backwards Story said...

This is part of what has me so anxious over the WIP I've mentioned I'm working on. I know the story and writing aren't as "solid" as other ideas I want to work on. I know it won't make people step back and take notice. And I feel like that's something that's important for a first novel. I like what I'm doing, don't get me wrong, but it's not...special. Or maybe it's just that to a girl like me with a fantasy brain, I can't see contemporary clearly. IDK!

Zoë Marriott said...

Isabel: Eeee! That's really great, thanks so much :)

Bonnie: Trust me, you are the last one to see your own work clearly. I usually hate everything I write from 1st revision right through to final pass pages! Let others judge. You're too close to know if it's special or not.

Isabel said...

Zoe: I finished it and it was amazing, hopefully I'll write a review for it soon :)

Zoë Marriott said...

Isabel: Yay! Thanks :)

Alex Mullarky said...

You are very wise. I do feel the quality of your work has improved overall... but, no first sentence has ever struck me as being as beautiful as the first line of the Swan Kingdom. I don't think anything will ever change that. :)

Zoë Marriott said...

Thank you, Alex. It's still my favourite first line, actually - although I'm very fond of the first line of FrostFire, too.

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