The Ghost of Fiction Past

May 21st, 2009

I have been keyboarding old stories of mine to put up on (you all remember, right? fiction, free or for a nominal charge, from some of the best writers around. And me, too). I have to keyboard the stories, all of them published elsewhere, because 1) some of them were published before I had a computer, and no electronic file ever existed, or 2) I lost the electronic file when my hard disk was unexpectedly replaced last year*.

It’s been interesting.  After I get a work in print form I generally read it once, then don’t read it again unless I have to do so for some reason.  And re-typing is not just re-reading: the act triggers all the editorial impulses that are generally in play when I’m working on a final edit of a story.  Do I change stuff?  Leave it alone because it’s now an Historical Document?  Six of one and eight of the other? Generally I don’t change what I’ve already written, except when I do.  But retyping has been necessary, and I’ve learned a number of useful things during that process.  

First: I wasn’t a terrible writer when I started out doing this stuff.  There are some sentences (curiously, they’re often sentences I remembered being very proud of at the time they were written) which now strike me as forced, arty, too cute.  But over all the word-work is solid, and the stories genuinely affect me.  This is as it should be: if I don’t pull my own chains, how am I going to pull anyone else’s?

Second: I wish I had pulled out all those too cute, forced, arty sentences that I loved so well then.  I still have sentences I love when I’m writing, but I tend to love them, now because they say exactly what I want, simply, or they capture the character clearly, not because I was showing off with words.

Third: I look at some of the stories and wonder where they came from.  I remember writing them all, and the genesis of some of them is very clear.  “Willie,” a story about a mad scientist who raises the monster as his own son, was a direct result of seeing the Kenneth Branagh Frankenstein at a point in my life when I had a toddler in the house.  Others–“Papa’s Gone A-Hunting”, for example–appear to have come from the everywhere into the here.  I didn’t have kids when I wrote it, but the story is about an astronaut’s wife who is having a hard time adjusting after a miscarriage.  And it’s about friendship, too.  Also pottery.  But why I wrote this story, what its source was in my own head, is now a mystery to me.  “Cuckoo,” grew out of a workshop where a stray comment about something else–“The gargoyle speaks!”–sparked the story about a woman who adopts a foundling child who turns out to be not quite human.

Fourth: some basic themes emerge.  I doubt anyone will ever write scholarly papers about my work, so it’s left to me to note that, even before I was a parent, parenthood seemed to loom in my writing.  So does loneliness.  So does making your own family.  So does the different forms that love takes.  Given that I got my start writing romances, it’s perhaps natural that some of the stories–“Somewhere in Dreamland Tonight,” for example, have a strong romantic undertone.  Others don’t.  Don’t ask me: I only write here.

I’m going to keep keyboarding and adding stuff to my bookshelf at BVC until I have all my old stories there.  Partly, yes, I want them to be written.  Partly, also, because they’re pretty good, and I’m pleased about that.  And partly because I’m discovering some real pleasures in retyping and closely re-examining work that is–some of it, anyway–now old enough to vote.

It’s a useful process; I recommend it to you.



*Doesn’t that sound like invaders swarmed into my home, tied me up, replaced my hard drive, and left? Nah: I brought my laptop in for a keyboard issue, didn’t back up anything but my most recent work files, and…they replaced the hard drive. Still not sure why it needed to be done, but, O well.

10 Responses to “The Ghost of Fiction Past”

  1. Kameronon 21 May 2009 at 4:16 pm

    “First: I wasn’t a terrible writer when I started out doing this stuff.”

    That’s refreshing to hear. The more common refrain from authors is that they’re embarrassed by their first works. I have the same reaction as you when I look back at my first novel. Sure, there are tweaks I’d make here and there, but still think the story and craft are good.

  2. Brendan podgeron 21 May 2009 at 6:49 pm

    Please don’t edit your old works. You know you were proud of them then and I am sure your readers will be interested to follow the growth of your writing as you progressed.

  3. Madeleine Robinson 22 May 2009 at 12:37 am

    I’m not doing heavy editing; changing the occasional preposition that displeases me, or (in the case of “Nimüe’s Tale) changing some of the italicisation which may have made sense to me when I wrote the story but totally doesn’t now. But the fundamental things are still here. And I carefully haven’t taken out those sentences that pleased me so when I was younger but disgruntle me now.

  4. Tom Marcinkoon 22 May 2009 at 3:32 am

    Phil Klass (William Tenn), who I studied with at Penn State sometime during the Carter Administration (!), said he felt ike rewriting some of his old stories.

    But, he decided, it wouldn’t be fair to the person and writer he used to be.

    An interesting thing to say, I thought, for a person who wrote so many time-travel stories.

    Very interesting post — thanks. (I am so totally tweeting it, too.:)

  5. Carol Bergon 27 May 2009 at 11:57 am

    I so totally understand the “cute, forced, arty sentences.” I still find them cropping up as I write, and it’s still hard to excise them, but I think I do… We’ll see in five years if/when I reread.

    Enjoy the traveling.

  6. Madeleine Robinson 27 May 2009 at 4:14 pm

    I’ve become a lot more brutal with my tendency to want to be smart and original on a phrase by phrase basis. “Just say what happened,” as my younger daughter demanded once, is not a bad rule to keep in mind.

  7. Ira Naymanon 29 May 2009 at 1:31 am

    Wow. I had almost the exact same experience.

    When I decided to start a Web site of my writing in 2002, I had roughly 400 pieces that I had written going back to 1984, none of which were in electronic form. To get them in shape to put on the Web, I had to retype all of them.

    At first, I was afraid I was going to hate my earlier work. Clearly, I had to be a much more sophisticated writer now than I was then. And, truth be told, my writing has changed a lot with time and experience. However, having had years away from it, I found that I could see the older writing almost as if it was new, and I found that I enjoyed it.

    The worst I will say about older writing is that I may not write that way now, but it was the best I could write at that time in my artistic development. I like to think that that’s a healthy attitude.

  8. Madeleine Robinson 29 May 2009 at 9:54 am

    The worst I will say about older writing is that I may not write that way now, but it was the best I could write at that time in my artistic development. I like to think that that’s a healthy attitude.

    That’s it exactly. It isn’t that I haven’t improved over the years, but that there’s really nothing to be ashamed of in my work. Now, go back to the fiction I wrote in high school (none of which, as far as I know, survives at this point) and I’d argue: Ick. But by the time I was being published? It’s all, um, publishable.

  9. Steve Gilletton 09 Jun 2009 at 6:39 pm

    Late to the party here, but– why are you retyping, and not just scanning in the old pages and running them thru an OCR (optical character recognition) program? Sure, there are still glitches and you have to proof (but you have to do that in any case!), but modern OCR programs are extremely good, particularly if all you need is ASCII. Clean typewritten pages are particularly foolproof. I’ve entered lots of old text into the digital world in this way. I’ve mostly used OmniPage Pro 12.0 (there are much newer versions now), but ABBYY Finereader is also good.

  10. Madeleine Robinson 11 Jun 2009 at 9:00 pm

    A combination of parsimony and technical lack; we don’t have a scanner in house, and I don’t feel like paying to scan it elsewhere. When I get around to scanning in the pages of my first five books (all looooong out of print) I will go for OCR; I’m crazy but not a glutton for punishment.

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