I love it when people comment on posts because it leads me down new avenues of thought and discussion that I hadn’t considered before. When I shared my post entitled “When Canon & Commentary Collide” about the retroactive changes made to preexisting work by J.K. Rowling and George Lucas, my friend David Greenshell had this to say:
I think it’s important to consider that it’s not JUST about the visual effects. As writers, we know that you can’t write the same story at 20 that you can at 30. As you change, your sensibilities change… so 1997 George Lucas actually isn’t fully able to reproduce what 1977 George Lucas would have wanted. By modifying the movies, he inevitably makes them a product of 1997 — not just technologically, but creatively.
And David is absolutely right. The stories that you can and do tell change depending on your age. You shift focus as you gain experience. The stories you are drawn to or are interested in telling change. The characters you relate to and want to write about evolve. And whenever there is a large gap between installments of work, especially if they are in a series, you can usually tell the difference.
This was very evident to me when I read the fourth book in the Pit Dragon Chronicles by Jane Yolen. For over 20 years, it was simply the Pit Dragon Trilogy. The first three books were published in 1982 (Dragon’s Blood), 1984 (Heart’s Blood), and 1987 (A Sending of Dragons). But then, in 2009, a fourth book called Dragon’s Heart was released. Unfortunately, although it isn’t a bad book, it does not feel like it belongs with the other three. There isn’t a 20-year time jump to account for the shift in tone or to allow for changes in the characters. Everything feels stilted, awkward, and there are some “revelations” in the text that come out of nowhere and don’t feel like they belong. It goes from being a relatively simple story about the love of dragons, protecting them, and surviving in the wild to some kind of bizarre waltz through politics and other things that have little to no direct contact with the dragons. In my opinion, A Sending of Dragons completed the story. It was open-ended in a way, but I didn’t feel like I was missing anything. Dragon’s Heart tries to explore repercussions of events in the third book, but feels like an unnecessary tacked-on epilogue. And I don’t think this is due to a failing of Jane Yolen as a writer because she has a long list of excellent books to her credit. Rather, I think it’s the result of the very natural process of growing older and trying to return to a universe that she hadn’t written for in years. Getting back into that headspace and matching the tone, both thematically and emotionally, is difficult even for the very best writers.
More alarmingly, this is something that I’m noticing in my own writing. I have several stories that have been languishing on Fanfiction.net for literally years. I like the characters and keep meaning to get back to them, but I worry that the amount of time spent away means that I won’t be able to pick up where I left off and still have it be coherent. The characters and stories I was crafting in my early 20s are a lot more Mary-Sue-ish and uber-anime-dramatic, going for dramatic emotions rather than plot coherency. Rereading some of these older fics is a lesson in humility because, even if the concepts and characters are fine, the execution can range from halfway decent to cartoonish to cringe-worthy. Eventually, I’ll have to decide if I should scrap these works in progress, continue them as they are, or redo them from the beginning.
Worst of all is when I look at my original manuscripts. I’ve been saying for a long time that Ravens and Roses was the closest to completion. But I recently started to reread the draft I said was nearly complete… and I realize that it’s even close to being done. The chapters I claimed were done being edited have sat for so long that now I look at them and find all sorts of things that need to be tweaked. The story holds together, I think, and the characters are fine. It’s just that I’ve matured and gotten better as a writer, so all kinds of small flaws are now jumping out at me, demanding they be fixed. On the one hand, it’s good to see that I’ve grown and my skills and eye have improved. But on the other hand, it reveals how immature or incomplete my understanding was. Work that I considered the height of my skill, the work I considered “done,” is far from it. Which means… I have a lot more work to do and the process looks more and more daunting, which only worsens my procrastination. (I have not been spending my weeks in quarantine wisely.)
I also worry about the story concepts I’ve created over the years that are just collections of notes and scraps of scenes. Some began during high school while others popped up just last year. Will any of them still be viable when I finally get to them? How many stories are lost because I didn’t write them during a certain period in my life? There are probably several that will need to be gently set aside or heavily revamped and updated if I want to salvage them. But I suppose the flip-side to that is how many new stories are now available to me because I’ve unlocked the skills and experience to actually write them, or even conceive of them in the first place. We are constantly evolving and the stories we tell and how we tell them will evolve along with us. It’s hard to avoid putting a value judgment on this state of affairs; part of me wants to lament missed opportunities and mourn for stories that may never be told. But I also have to remember that you can’t keep a good story down. One way or another, it will come to life, given the chance. It just may go through many different iterations before arriving at its final form.