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Learning From Your Previous Work


It's hard for me to go back and look at my old work.

Like, really hard.

Sometimes, I try to block it out of my mind. It's not bad work, but I know I can do so much better now. I look back and think, "I'd change this. The prose could be better there. This description is a bit too much cliche. This bit of structure could have been more elegant."

Then I ask myself why I didn't see it all then. All the flaws seem so obvious. I understand that time helps you see those things. I make sure I put distance between myself and a book I've drafted and need to revise. But looking back at this old work it's somehow worse.

And I keep thinking about why it seems so much worse.

The only answer that I can come up with is because I'm learning more. I don't think the writer I am today would have made any of the mistakes that the writer I was then made so easily. And I got to thinking about Aaron Allston again. He was my mentor for a time before he passed away. We would have these annual writing critique sessions and at our last one, just a few months before he passed away, he said, "Bryan, I'm so excited to read your stories to see what new mistakes you've made this time."

I was a little aghast at this, but he explained further that he was excited because it meant I was learning. He'd help me identify a mistake and I wouldn't make it again. I feel like I've taken the advice he and others have given me over the years to heart and incorporated it into my writing. And I think this is the root of the reason I have such a hard time going back to the work I did in the past.

I've worked really hard to try to push myself with every new book I've written, to push me into learning how to do something new or to try out something weird or unconventional. I'm constantly learning. I'm taking classes and attending seminars. I'm seeking notes and edits on every manuscript. I'm reading about the craft constantly. I'm reading books in and outside of my wheelhouse to learn how other writers do things.

When I go back and read my stuff with that critical eye, all I can see are the things I've learned in the intervening years. I just didn't have the tools to craft things the way I wanted to. Looking back, I had the right ideas and I executed them to the best of my abilities then. Because I've set out to learn and remain always a student, they just don't sit as well with me.

And maybe that's not a bad thing.

I'm really proud of the work I'm doing now, but I hope that I continue my lifelong learning so that ten years from now when I look back on it I know enough to see problems that I don't even know to look for at the moment.

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Also! here's the full list of "rules and guidelines" I've been collecting over my years of studying writing advice and process. 

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