When you read something you wrote years ago, do you cringe?

shelf life of digital books

One of the major differences between the old world of publishing and the new digital one is infinite shelf life.

That’s a great blessing for writers because it means digital retailers don’t return their books after a few weeks. Rather the author’s work remains for sale indefinitely and readers can find his whole body of work if they get interested in him.

This also means that an author whose style has evolved over the years sees his old work next to his new.

This is a two-edged sword.

When I look at the first books I wrote, I see things I would do differently now. I don’t know if the end result would be better or worse than the original product, but I know it would be different.

Some authors refuse to read their work after they send it out in to the cold cruel world, preferring to turn their faces toward the future rather than looking behind them.

For the most part, I am like that, too.

However, my recent experiment with narration has forced me not only to read things I wrote a while ago, but also to relive them in audio.  I can tell you that if you spend hours reading your own work aloud into a microphone, you see things you have never noticed before.  There is a tendency in those moments to ad lib a variation on a sentence.

That’s a no-no.

The book is what it is.

Right now I am working on the narration of Last One Chosen, the first book I ever wrote, and a book that sells month in and month out.

Reading it takes me back to the time it was born, a time when all I knew was that it had to come out of me.

Fast forward to the present.

I am two-thirds of the way through a book with the working title  The Compost Pile.

I can see in it how my writing has morphed.  In some ways it remains similar to my early work, in others it is much different.  I started to use the word refined, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.  For instance, here’s the description of a woman on the way to a furtive meeting with a man who holds a grip on her soul from years passed.

The road before her dwindled as she drove, first a freeway, then a four lane, then a two lane, then a winding asphalt leash that dragged her to a time forgotten by everyone but her and the man who awaited her.
Around three o’clock in the morning her headlights flashed on the peeling white clapboard of a country church, and she turned past the building onto a red clay scattered with gravel pebbles and washed out potholes. When she reached the gate that fortified a sagging chain link fence, she stopped her car, killed the engine, got out of the driver’s seat and opened the back door. She lay down in the back seat, pulled a wool blanket over her and slept.
She woke at first light, raised high enough to look out the rear passenger window and saw him sitting on a wooden picnic table beneath a low-hanging limb of a century old oak, his feet propped on the board that formed the seat of the table. She neither waved nor smiled as she slid out of her car, wrapped the blanket around her shoulders and approached the man, his fedora pulled forward on his forehead, his hands folded as if in prayer.
She sat down next to him and looked into the cemetery on the far side of the chain link fence.
“Shot Glass Reynolds is closing in on us, Tobias,” she said.

I doubt I would have written that scene that way five years ago.  But who’s to say whether its form back then would have been better or worse?

I suppose all we can do is send our babies out to fend for themselves while we keep writing.


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  • Caleb Pirtle

    I’ve read about writing getting better. I’ve read about writing getting worse. This is the first time I’ve read about writing morphing. Was it painful? When I read something a wrote a long time ago, I see somebody searching for the right word. Ten million words later, they just come naturally.

  • Elyse Salpeter

    I know what you mean. I’ve read novels I started years ago and said to myself, “what was I thinking?” I don’t look at back at books that I’ve published. As you say, “the book is what it is”.” Great post.

    • Thanks, Elyse. Those early children just have to make their own way in the world.

  • I keep finding errors in my old work that is for sure
    I think its goes full circle tho – there are things I wrote when I was younger that I wouldn’t write now – I was gutsier

  • Usually my reaction is something like, “Damn! That was good! Did I write that? I haven’t written anything that good in years!”

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