When you change but the writing doesn’t

In June I’m supposed to talk with the publishers of Seven Archangels: Annihilation and discuss the future of Seven Archangels: An Arrow In Flight and Seven Archangels: Sacred Cups.

In prep for that, I rewrote one of the sections of “An Arrow In Flight” and then began browsing the rest of the manuscript.

The last time the file was updated was in 2007. Since then, I’ve finished one novel and written all of ♥My Book♥

I guess “shocked” is my best word to encapsulate how I feel as I re-read the manuscript. Because in the intervening two years, I’ve learned something I didn’t realize I needed to learn. Namely, how to keep tight management over the mood of the piece. 

I wrote Arrow first in 1991, around the same time as The Guardian, and set it aside. Five years later I revised it. In 2006, I revised it again, with final revisions in 2007. I thought it was done. DONE. Finis. It had been put through the literary food processor. Ivy and Wendy had read it and given it a passing grade. 

Only now I read it and see the banter as annoying, the mood as completely out of control, and the scenes unfocused. ♥My Book♥ is tight-tight-tight and Arrow is ranging all over the place.

I feel like a contractor looking over a project and scrawling on the estimate, “This no be cheap.”

It’s worst because I pass from scenes that had their first start in 1991 into scenes written for the first time in 2007, because there you can see the difference in control. The 2007 scenes are bang-on, focused, and even when the  mood temporarily lifts from intense to humorous, it’s still a dry, focused humor. 

I’m going to need to play german shepherd to this flock of words, obviously. Culling out huge sections (I’ve already earmarked one to go) and rolling up my sleeves to get in the depths of this story with a shovel and a chain-saw.

I had three side-stories I was planning to use as “bonus material” on the book’s website, but one of them may fit in now if I pull enough other material out. Because ironically, the side-stories were written in 2006 and therefore show at least the beginnings of competency. 

I hate that moment of “Criminy, this is garbage.”

I love the moment of “Oh my goodness, this is the best fix ever!”  But you can’t get to that if you don’t go through the “criminy” moment first.

Do other artists experience this as well? Do visual artists feel the urge to re-draw old pieces in light of new skill levels? Cricket, do you have the same experience with story-telling? I’d love to ask my favorite violinist if he listens to old recordings of himself and flinches, wanting to re-record with whatever technical skills he’s improved since then. I know Yehudi Menuhin looked at a recording of himself, 40 years earlier, playing “Air on the G String” and said, “I’m surprised I played so well when I was so young.” Does the opposite happen too? Surely it can’t be only writers who have this experience.

Editing is both a blessing and a curse. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a scythe to sharpen.


  1. Rachel

    Oh yes. I’m (hopefully considered) a writer, musician, and artist, so I know–at least for me–what that’s like.

    I remember thinking “Oh my, this is amazing!” when I drew something last year. I found it while cleaning my room over Christmas vacation and didn’t recognize it as mine. All of my stuff was better than THAT… now. I was appalled that THAT had been *my* drawing. Shocked, horrified, aghast even. So I crumpled it up and tossed it, and redrew it. Now it looks less like a melon-head person who’s been around a Van deGraph machine and looks more like a realistic ballerina.

    Just last weekend I’d been looking through my Old Writing folder and…deleted every single piece of work. After saving the bits and pieces I could use in other stories, of course: And that actually saved one of my stories I was working on. Yay!

    I remember listening to a ensemble piece I did on clarinet with my buddy back in Beginning Band in 4th grade… Nails-on-chalkboard! I look at what I play now, and it’s so much better, and I want to go back and replace myself back then so I don’t break so many eardrums.

    So yes. It happens.

    Happy reaping!

  2. Wendy

    Depends on the day. I can look at stuff (art and writing) I did long ago and think, “Not bad for the year I did it,” or, “This aged really well,” or “I bet I could patch this up and it would look cool finished,” or “This is the worst piece of drek I’ve ever seen. What ever made me think I was a writer/artist of any merit whatsoever?”

    My mother found this piece of correspondence I sent to my grandmother (with self-important text and self-important cartoons) when I was in my teens, and it was EXCRUCIATING. I wanted to burn it.

    DeviantArt is both inspiring and incredibly discouraging. On one hand, there are some neat ideas there. On the other, I look at the pages of pompous, whiny fourteen-year-olds who can draw/paint/sculpt better than I ever have any hope to, and I wonder why I even bother.

    1. philangelus

      I love your artwork, and I hope you keep continuing to “bother.” 🙂

      For those new to this blog, my avatar was drawn by Wendy.

  3. Scott

    I’m sure you’re just replacing the words and not the essence of the book. As long as that’s still there you’ll be fine.

    You wrote that back in ’91? When did you first write Annihilation?

    1. philangelus

      Thanksgiving 1991 to December 8th, 1991. Ten days, 60K words, absolute crap. I wrote it in response to feeling like my creative writing professor was killing my creativity. I dug it up in 2005 and realized there was good stuff buried under all the crap, rewrote it from scratch, added drama and depth, and voila.

      I’m not replacing words, though. I’m going to have to scythe out huge tracts of stupidity. :-b

      1. blue

        It’s not stupidity. It’s just where you were at the time, and what you liked. You have moved on now.

        I look at some old paintings and think “Bleh. Those colours are odd. And why did I draw so many dogs??” but I know at the time I thought those paintings were ‘teh kewlest’!! And I had great fun doing them. I wouldn’t take away the fun and the experience, even for better paintings.

  4. Promise

    I haven’t gone back to reread anything I wrote in the past in a while. Since graduating college (gulp!) nine years ago, I honestly haven’t done that much writing. Part of this was burn-out from all the papers I wrote in college (English major with a Cultural Anthro. minor — almost all I did in college was write papers) and part of this was due to having new creative outlets (shortly after college I started to seriously get into cooking and baking, including cake decorating, took up embroidery and just a couple of years ago I started teaching myself to use a sewing machine in addition to various and sundry craft projects I’ve taken on). A large part of the reason I’d stopped writing as well was that I’d finally gotten diagnosed with depression and generalized anxiety disorder and been placed on medication. So I no longer needed to pour my angst out onto paper in the form of some (really awful) poetry.

    So as I begin this adventure of writing a novel (my first since the laughably bad thing I wrote in high school), I’m finding my writing skills rather rusty. I’m hoping as I complete the research necessary and other prep work that I want to do (one of my goals this summer is to complete full character outlines for all of the main characters) that some of that rust will begin to sand off. We’ll see. I anticipate that any first draft I complete will most likely go through a dozen or so revisions at the very least before it’s anywhere near publishable. But, then, I’m doing this more for myself than for any other reason and I honestly view publication as a bonus.

  5. Lane in PA

    It wouldn’t be art/literature/poetry/music if your heart wasn’t in it. And if our hearts were not in it, then we would just be robots programmed to repeat the same thing over and over.

    My father was a very successful artist. I was devastated when, before he died, he saw fit for some insane reason to burn his earliest paintings because he thought they were “crap”. These paintings had won awards at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta where he graduated. Those works were actually his best because it was my father at his most honest moments of creation.

    I am writing about this because I felt like I have been robbed of memories of my father, and I think it is important to leave behind human and personal legacies to one’s children. Whether or not it gets published or hung on museum walls.

  6. Ken Rolph

    It depends on the distance you get from your old work. I actually can’t read anything I’ve finished writing this year. But recently I had to file away material I found in a box that I had written in the early 1970s. It wasn’t on disk, so there was no temptation to tinker with it.

    I could read it with a strange detachment. It was like reading the early writings of one of your children. You think, how cute he was to write that at such an age. At a certain distance it is like you are really someone else. You don’t actually have the moral authority to tinker with the old stuff, even though you sincerely believe you could do so much better now.

    This is not the same as wanting to revise something written within the past few years, I suspect. I do understand the urge to edit your own past, destroying that which does not represent the best of you. But I’m not sure I would ever be able to pick which was the best and which not. That’s a judgement others make.

    Besides, being not-quite-dead my energies go into what I’m about to write next. That’s going to be so much more skillful. No, really!

  7. cricketB

    I like, “Not bad for the year I did it.” You’re mentoring yourself, and good mentors encourage. It also celebrates that you got better.

    What the world considers good changes. “Awesome dress, but the hemline is too high / low.”

    Yes, I see it in storytelling. This year, I’m revisiting some of my old repertoire. (Aka too lazy to prep new stuff.) I remember how I told them — planned emotions and emphasis, and where I changed it from the text — and realize I can do better this time around. “Get rid of the perfect part” holds true here, too. In Maurice Sendak’s Pierre I was proud of my menacing teenage lion, ready to pounce, and how I changed Pierre’s attitude each time he spoke. Now the lion’s voice is more subtle (alpha female observing and evaluating), and Pierre’s attitude changes more gradually. Fewer laughs, but easier on my throat and the audience is pulled along steadily rather than jerked around.