Tag Archives: revision

To Rewrite, or not to Rewrite, That is the Question

With apologies to Shakespeare:

To rewrite, or not to rewrite: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous reviews,
Or to take arms against a sea of typos,
And by opposing end them?

Of course, rewriting is much more than correcting typos. As Dean Wesley Smith defines it in his post, “Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Rewriting,” rewriting is “when you go into a manuscript after it is finished in critical voice and start changing things, usually major things like plot points, character actions, style of sentences, and so on.”

Smith is in the camp of “Not to.”   His advice is to just write, spellcheck, touch up, and throw your story up on Amazon. “You have to write new material to learn. No one ever learned how to be a creative writer by rewriting. Only by writing.”

Here is where understanding the terms is really important.  As I understand what Smith is saying, by “rewrite” he means making major structural changes to a story. By his definition, any story that needs that much work is broken. You’re better off taking the important idea you started with and redrafting the story from the beginning. He relates a conversation with Algis Budrys:  “So I asked him if he ever thought rewriting could fix a flawed story. His answer was clear and I remember it word-for-word to this day: ‘No matter how many times you stir up a steaming pile of crap, it’s still just a steaming pile of crap.’”

Unfortunately, I think some writers will fail to understand that Smith isn’t saying you shouldn’t do any more than the barest clean-up on your manuscript.  I missed this point on the first read through.  He does recommend doing “touch-up” drafts, sometimes more than one. And for new writers these “touch-ups” may be extensive.  They might even be considered rewrites by some. Whether this would be considered “stirring a steaming pile of crap” might only be discernible after you’ve stirred it a while. Nevertheless, I think that new writers can learn from rewriting. I have.

When I first starting to write, I’d read a lot of stories.  That means that story structure was deeply embedded in my subconscious. That’s a good place for it to be, since that’s where a writer’s creativity resides. When you’re writing that first draft, you want to let your subconscious take control. This doesn’t necessarily eliminate having an outline. You can use an outline and still fill in around it with wild creativity. But during the first draft you must not let your internal editor rule. Lock her in a box if you have to.

Once your first draft is done, however, let your editor out of the box. (Here’s a good resource for self-editing.) As Joanna Pen did with her draft of Pentecost, you have to ask yourself if what’s on the page matches what you set out to create. Her process was quite involved, and not every manuscript will need this level of revision. What I’ve found is that by examining my work and recognizing areas that fail to accomplish what I tried to do (either by my own perception or with the help of other readers) and then fixing them, I have learned how to avoid making the same mistakes in the next story.  I learned from rewriting (or touching-up, if you will).

What you don’t want to do is get stuck reworking one manuscript over and over and over. That way madness lies (and a lack of publication).  Smith makes a valuable point about learning from writing. Sometimes it’s better to redraft, write something new, or several somethings.  You can always bring back what you’ve learned to that earlier manuscript.

Or not.  There’s a lot to be said for just moving forward. As the Italian driver said in Gumball Rally, “What is behind you is unimportant.”


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Bigger Isn’t Always Better

Whenever I talk to aspiring fiction writers who are just starting out, I always recommend that they begin by writing short stories.  There are several reasons for this.

Short stories allow a writer to experiment within a small package.  First person, or third? Past tense, or present? Ratio of dialog to narrative to description. High fantasy or science fiction or urban fantasy or romance or mystery?  Character or plot driven? Vignette or full story arc?  Short stories let you test yourself, practice, and improve in a shorter period of time. You can write a short story in a week, a day if you’re a fast writer. It takes most of us at least a few months to write a novel. During the same time you could try out a dozen ideas in short stories.

Writing short encourages you to make every word count. To know what the essence of the story is and not to wander.  It’s a great challenge to accept a very tight word limit, say 500 words, and tell a story within it.  When you do “graduate” to writing novels, you won’t be as profligate with your words.

You can hold the whole story in your mind.  With a novel you have plots and subplots, secondary characters and red herrings.  When you’re just beginning that’s a lot to juggle.  Make it easy on yourself. Start small.  Learn to juggle just a couple of balls before you try to keep half a dozen flaming torches in the air.

It’s easier to get good feedback on short stories.  You’re critique partners don’t have to wonder if you’re wandering off on a tangent or setting up something for later in the book as they might with a novel fragment — it’s all there.  They can tell you if you pulled it all together or if the story fell apart in act three.  And once you’ve got that feedback, it’s quicker to revise a short story.

You can learn most of this from writing novel chunks, but using the short story format encourages you to complete a whole thing, with a beginning, middle, and an end, not just a piece.  Storytellers need to know how to start, sustain, and finish their tales. It’s easier to start learning that with a single plot line instead of a sprawling epic.

For a while, the market for short stories was shrinking; only a few print magazines still bought them, and only in a few genres.  Now with people turning more and more to the internet for entertainment, there are an increasing number of markets online for short stories, some of which pay quite well.  You can even sell your stories yourself on Kindle and Smashwords if you’re so inclined.

On this last point, I’d like to digress a little.  There are some authors who suggest that you not spend too much time revising. Give it a light once over, then out the door it goes.  They publish their shorts on Smashwords and Kindle and feel that reader reviews are good teachers.  That’s true as far as it goes, but I can’t agree that this is the best start for beginning writers.

Every piece that goes out the door with your name on it is your ambassador.  It may be the first thing of yours that someone reads — and it could be the last. Every story should be the best you can make it right now,  within a reasonable amount of time. And that understanding comes with experience.  And that experience is something you can get from writing multiple short stories.

Yes, if you foul your name by self-publishing work that’s really not ready, you can always continue your career under a pen name. It’s not a fatal mistake. But I think waiting a bit to publish while you learn your craft will be time well spent.

Start by writing several short stories and see how your work improves.  Then you can decide if you want to go back and fix your first efforts, or trash ’em. Then push whatever survives out the door, and start another story.



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Tricks of the Trade: Beating Fear

One of the books I took on vacation recently was by an author whose work I’ve read and enjoyed before. (Two different books from two different story lines:  one fantasy romance, one paranormal romance.)  So I had good expectations of this futuristic romance.  Unfortunately, I was disappointed. Not only was this book not as spicy as her other works (a problem of my expectations) but I felt the author fell down not only in her pacing, but in her understanding of how the military operates.  Since this “Interplanetary Militia” is central to the story, this is a serious flaw, in my opinion. Though I did finish the book, I thought about putting it down on several occasions.  I wondered if a tight deadline had pushed this book out the door before it was ready, and whether the author knew as she hit the send button that this book wasn’t as good as her other work.

I also have been reading the blogs of Dean Wesley Smith (highly recommended), one of which is, “Dare to be Bad.” Smith was writing primarily about the need for authors to give themselves permission to not be perfect, to get that first draft down without revision, and how doing that can short-circuit writer’s block and improve productivity. Daring to be bad is something even much published authors have to do. Writing fiction is inherently risky. A certain amount of fear sits on a writer’s shoulder even when the work is going well.  We all know we can’t please all the people all the time, but that doesn’t keep us from wanting to. Usually, the “bad” is revised out, but not always.  Even great writers trip at times, or create a work that disappoints their readers.  Knowing that takes some of the pressure off.

I find the idea of daring to be bad very comforting and liberating.  Perfection isn’t possible, so don’t aim for it.  Regardless of whether you’ve written the equivalent of a home-run or dog poop, the best thing to do is to write the next story.  A “bad” book will eventually only be one work among a larger body of (hopefully) better books — just not on the first draft.  (Nora Roberts has been quoted as saying, “Just get it down.  You can’t revise a blank page.”)

I’m thinking of cross-stitching a set of pillows (or at least putting a couple of sticky notes on my monitor).  One will say, “Dare to be bad” and the other, “Just get it down.”


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Wednesday Review: Revising Fiction

Revising Fiction by Kirt Hickman bills itself as a comprehensive guide to self-editing.  IMO, it lives up to this claim.  Of greatest value to the beginning writer, Revising Fiction still has a lot to offer to more experienced authors.

Hickman offers answers to nearly every question I’ve heard asked at conferences.  Theme, plot, character development, dialogue, emotion, prose, it’s all in there.  He cites other sources of info throughout the text and in a bibliography. Hickman draws heavily on his own revision experience and from the classes he’s taught.

A few of Hickman’s recommendations strike me as tedious and overly detail oriented, especially for more experienced writers.  Still, my only real complaint is that at times the book comes across as an advertisement for his novel Worlds Asunder since he draws heavily upon it for his examples.  That’s somewhat understandable since as the author he has access to earlier, pre-revision copy of his own work, but I would have liked a little more variety.

Nevertheless, I highlighted an number of passages and put this book on my keeper shelf.

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Writer’s Block

I don’t think I’ve ever suffered from the dread WB, but maybe I’m just not clear on the definition.  There have been times that I’ve felt stuck, or the progress was VERY slow.  Both times I resisted my critique partners’ suggestions that I work on something else for a while.  This was probably foolish on my part.  If the same principle holds true as when you’re trying to remember something just out of reach, it would have been better to think about something else for a while.  My subconscious might have figured out the problems more quickly if I had.

The times when I’ve stumbled were when 1) I was unclear on who’s story I was telling, and 2) when I was trying to be “commercial.”  I’ve heard from more than one writer that the latter can kill your desire to write faster than anything.

I fixed number 1 by revising the first 12 chapters of Forbidden Talents and excising an interesting but unnecessary character.  (Don’t worry Matt, someday you’ll get your story told!) It was a painful decision, but once made the story began to flow almost effortlessly.

In the second instance, I just plowed slowly forward on Lightbringer.  I didn’t want to take a break from it because I didn’t want to lose the thread, but I was sure glad to write THE END.

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