When I picked up a novel I wrote in 2016, I expected it to be bad. A worse version of the writer I am now. In fact, I was wrong on all counts. It was very good, but it was written by someone else. Or certainly, it felt like it.
That writer worked obsessively to build a complex world and a sense of place based on a mountain of small details. They conlanged. They’d spent over a year polishing every scene, every sentence, desperate to attract the attention of an agent. Their stories were heavier, sadder; more intense. There was very little laughter.
And all of that hard work showed in their writing. It was good. It was genuinely good.
But it wasn’t me.
I’m aware of how painfully, desperately repressed that writer was.
I think the most shocking thing wasn’t the quality (which was far better than I expected and made me feel kind of sad for Past Me and how hard they worked on it). It was the voice. It didn’t sound at all like me. It sounded like a different person. A person who was trying very hard to imitate their favourite writers. To write something serious, and be taken seriously. It was less casual in style. The characters never had snappy, silly interactions. There were absolutely no goofy zombie companions. In fact, that writer would have been disgusted at the mere suggestion they would one day write Wandering Larry.
Sometimes while I read it, I think ‘I’d forgotten I could write like this. I wish I could write something as serious as this now.’ But mostly, I’m aware of how painfully, desperately repressed that writer was. It drips from the words, from the characters, from the plot. That there’s a writer who is drowning in so many ways. They don’t know who they are. They are waiting for someone to tell them.
It had felt, somewhere deep inside, like I was being told that I was too awkward.
Nobody ever did, but they found it out anyway. Between that novel, The Heartbite Fear, and my first clumsy attempt at what would become Books & Bone, I came to terms with being asexual and biromantic. I began to encounter the term non-binary more and more, unlocking the door that had slammed shut on me when I first tried to write an agender character and felt … euphoric, somehow. Only to be told it was ‘too awkward’ and ‘hard to read’ and ‘just make them a boy or a girl’ and it had felt, somewhere deep inside, like I was being told that I was too awkward. I was too hard to read. I should just try harder to be a girl, even though at that stage I had not yet dared to even think of anything else.
That writer didn’t know they were autistic. They thought they were broken. They knew they were far more anxious than anyone they’d ever met but they didn’t yet have the skillset and the support to thrive in spite of it. They were constantly bouncing between jobs they could not hold because they were not built for employment, their self-esteem shrinking even as their despair loomed large. They were being absolutely crushed emotionally, financially, practically.
They didn’t believe they could be fun, or funny. They struggled to believe they were a person at all. They felt like an empty husk. Like other people had been born with a personality, with a soul, and theirs had just been skipped.
I can’t get over the sense that I was supposed to read this old novel and laugh over the clumsy turns of phrase, the awkward characterisation, and pat myself on the back and think ‘I’m better now.’
I wish I could tell them that we did it. We did it ourselves, and waited for nobody’s permission.
I am better now. I was good enough then, I think. If I met that writer, I would tell them to self-publish. It’s a good book. It’s not rough around the edges at all; it’s utterly smooth. That writer worked hard to erase all but the most palatable things about themselves from it. It is a polished gem where now I write rocks with a hint of geode, and the works are better for it.
But I wouldn’t publish it now. It’s someone else’s book. Someone more hurt and vulnerable than I am now. So hurt, I think, that they could not dare to exist too loudly on the page.
I wish I could tell them that we did it. We did it ourselves, and waited for nobody’s permission. We wrote things that are weird and funny and kind of sad, and people read them. Some of those people even love them. They aren’t ‘important’ in the way that we wanted then, but then that’s no longer the goal. Now I only want to write something that makes people feel. And hopefully smile, once or twice.
I am happy with where I am now. But I hope that when I look back at the books I’ve written now, I think ‘Those are good. I’m glad I published them. But I’m so much better now. I exist so much louder on the page.’
That would be good, I think.