Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Monday Musing: Fresh Eyes

While every writer has their own particular process they follow, one finds almost universal* agreement on one thing: It’s good to put your manuscript aside after finishing that first draft, let it stew for a bit, and come back to it 6 or 8 weeks or so later and read it again with ‘fresh eyes.’
Yet even with a long break, I find the very act of re-reading one of my manuscripts triggers my memory, and while I occasionally surprise myself (“Wow, that scene worked even better than I thought!”), more often than not, I don’t. I anticipate the words, recognize the sentences, and find myself reading something on page 38 that I know I have almost word for word somewhere later in the story—and I almost always know exactly where to find it. This makes it harder to properly edit the story, because I know what I meant to say and thus I’m not always the best judge of whether I’ve said it right.
Interestingly enough, it doesn’t work quite the same way when I re-read someone else’s work. Last week, a friend handed me a copy of Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, thinking I might like to read it. She’s right–I read it about two years ago and liked it quite a bit. As I found myself between books with nothing new handy, I picked it up and started reading it over. While it’s familiar, and I know how it will end, and pretty much everything that comes in between, it’s not stale for me. More interestingly, I’m not anticipating sentences or words, or skimming over bits or plugging things in ahead of time.
Even books I’ve read a lot—Salem‘s Lot, The Lord of the Rings, A Prayer for Owen Meany—don’t ‘burn in’ the same way. These are three books I pull off the shelf every few years and read over again, and they’re familiar, yes, but they don’t trigger the same anticipation of something I’ve written. I suspect it’s because I’ve only ever read the book. On the other hand, something I’ve written, even if I haven’t looked at it or thought about it in five years, is not something I’ve merely read, it’s also something I functionally lived with for a period of time. It was in my head, front room and back, was part of my life for a while in a way that something I’ve ‘just’ read can not be. It’s burned in my memory banks, the way you can burn in an image on your computer monitor or TV screen if you leave it on too long to the same thing.

Do you find you can ever read your work with truly ‘fresh eyes’?

*almost universal. While there are those who don’t do this, they seem far outnumbered.

11 Responses

  1. I think it was Steinbeck who lost the draft of one of his novels. He rewrote it from scratch, and then found the original again. When compared, there were only six or seven words that were different. Yeah, you can wear a groove in your brain when you write novels. 🙂

  2. I'm apparently ALWAYS looking at my MS with fresh eyes. I've read stuff I wrote and then ask myself "Damn, this is good. When did I write this?" Old age maybe? Or are the leprechans messing with my MS. Hmmm…

  3. We can never be as objective as someone coming to the story fresh, but we can improve our objectivity.

    Maybe you need to set your story aside longer. As you say, everyone is different. Another thing that helps is to limit the editing passes–the re-reading–you do while you're drafting.

    I found I used to get into editing loops (often mostly re-reading loops) whenever I'd scroll through my WIP to get to the place I was the day before.

    I now type *** at the point where I'm working and let it ride the document ahead of where I'm writing. When I open the doc, I do a search for *** and jump right to the exact location. This has tremendously helped me keep from re-reading too much. I do read through a scene once or twice initially, after writing it, to make sure it flows well, but then I move on.

    HTH 🙂

  4. Only a select few. My Normal (unfinished draft) from Nano 2010/11 was partially reread and I couldn't believe all that I had done. I really want to get back to it again one day. Whether you need to put the book aside longer or not, you need to edit at some point. Good luck Jeff.

  5. Not with truly fresh eyes. Though I may need to hold back on my statement. When I finish this next to last edit of Torn Canvas, I'm going to pick up up a duology that I wrote a couple of years ago. I wonder if I'll even recognize it. O_O

  6. Luckily (?) I have a pretty bad memory, so I used to re-read books often and don't have too much trouble approaching my writing with fresh eyes. lol

  7. I'm the same way, unless it happens to be one of those middle of the night scenes. I rarely remember much from those writing sessions! lol

  8. It's one of the editing processes that I enjoy the most.

    I am a big fan of rereading other works too. Some books, like Tolkien, get pulled out every year.

  9. I definitely find re-reading with fresh eyes useful in my own manuscripts. When I'm reading another book for the nth time, while I might remember certain things, favourite scenes and lines and moments, I love that I always pick up on something knew that I hadn't noticed in the first or other previous reads. Thanks for sharing this, JeffO, and I agree that the people who don't come back with fresh eyes are far outnumbered. Enjoy your day!

  10. L.G.–I've sometimes wondered how different something of mine would look if I completely rewrote it instead of using previous drafts as a template.
    -Stacy–at least you're looking at it and saying "this is good!"
    Melissa–I don't usually get stuck in that loop in the same way, I know where I left off the day before, but that's a good tip. Thanks for sharing!
    Sheena-kay–Sounds like you had a pleasant surprise on re-reading it–that's a good thing!
    Donna–I hope you are excited by this piece!
    Lexa–I guess that's one good thing about a bad memory!
    Carrie–do you do that often?
    Donna–I'm not quite every year on most books, but I find I get an urge to re-read some things once in a while.
    Bonnee–It's great to be able to find something new in familiar ground, isn't it?

    As always, thank you all for stopping in and sharing.

  11. I did some acting when I was younger and most of the other people that acted with could remember all their lines from every production they were ever in, some of them remembered all the lines from those productions. I wasn't like that. Basically, as soon as I was through with a play, my brain tossed out all of the lines. A few weeks later, I couldn't remember any of them.
    That's kind of how I am with stuff I've written, so it makes the editing process easier for me, I guess. I don't have that issue of knowing what I meant so missing what I actually said.

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