A few days ago I posted an excerpt from my first novel as part of another blog post. As I was reading the post over, I found myself cringing a bit. The prose struck me as rather plodding and uninspired, while the dialogue struck me as stiff and unrealistic. Did I really want to expose this snippet to the world?
It's true that the content of the excerpt was highly arousing (the blog topic was sex and food), but the presentation seemed so pedestrian! In the end, I did include the segment, but the experience made me realize how much I've learned in the dozen years since I wrote Raw Silk.
Grammar, punctuation and vocabulary have never been a problem for me. However, when I read my early novels, I recognize that I had a tendency to write long sentences that would be appropriate for an academic article, but are not usually right for fiction. Over time, I've learned that sometimes short, direct sentences are what's needed, especially to keep the action moving.
I've also learned, mostly by reading other authors and focusing on their strategies, how to create more natural conversations among my characters. One funny thing about the dialogue in Raw Silk: the characters almost never use contractions! Now, one of the heroes is not a native speaker of English, so his stilted and formal mode of speech was deliberate. However, the other characters are American or British. For the most part, people don't say "I cannot" or "I will not" unless they're going for emphasis.
My early dialogue also tends to use full sentences. People don't, in general.
One reviewer of my second novel, Incognito, wrote: "This author can't write natural dialogue to save her life." Although I cringed at the comment, the reviewer was justified in making the point. (She could have been a bit less snarky, but overall she liked the book, so I can't complain!)
The difference in style between my second and third novels seems huge. Ruby's Rules is not as popular as my first two novels (probably because of the content, which includes heavy BDSM and F/F interactions) but I think it is far better written. One reason may be that I switched to using first person. When my characters are speaking their thoughts, it's easier for me to hear their voices in my mind and transcribe them onto the page.
It's slightly discouraging to read my early work, but on the other hand, I know that I am learning as I go along. I expect that when I look back at what I'm writing, ten years from now, I'll shake my head and grin ruefully at my mistakes.
At least, I hope that I will!