Okay, for the second time in this book, I’m going to dive into the rewriting myth. But please, before you go any farther, please go read the first chapter on rewriting. Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Rewriting.
This chapter will follow that chapter in the book, so what I am saying here will build on that. Please go read it first.
Okay, this chapter came about because of an exchange in the comments on the last chapter about not worrying about writing what is hot, just write your own stuff. It suddenly became clear to me that when Heinlein and others, including me, tell writers to not rewrite, there is an assumption that without rewriting, the manuscript is sloppy and full of errors.
Or flipped over, new writers and many professional writers and I’m sure most non-writers think that to make a clean manuscript, it must be rewritten a number of times.
This is, of course, just silly because no writer is the same. All of us work differently. (I’m going to be saying that a great deal in this chapter.)
If a so-called professional writer turns in a sloppy manuscript full of errors, they are not being professional. But that does not mean they must rewrite beyond a fix-typos draft. Let me try to explain how that works.
First some background about the very, very general types of professional selling writers.
1) Rewriters. This type of professional writer usually does a fast first draft, usually thin, then goes back in second and third and more drafts layering in more and more and more story and detail and everything. This type of writer is called an adder-inner and the drafts are done with creative voice in control, not critical voice. This is a learned skill and from my observation almost always fails with new writers because they don’t know what they are fixing.
2) Three-drafters. This type of writer fires hard all the way through the manuscript, putting everything they can think of at the moment. Then in a second run-through, they take out what is repeated, often shift chapters around like a puzzle. Then a first reader reads it and they fix problems and mail. This method only works for professionals also because that second draft must be done in creative mind-set as well, and that’s flat hard to do. These folks are often called taker-outers.
3) Cyclers. This is often a one draft writer, but the draft is cycled through a number of times. I fit right here. I start and go for a ways until I bog down, then cycle back and run at the place I stopped, often tweaking and fixing as I go until I get up to speed and keep typing new until I bog down again. When I get to the end I have a first reader read it, fix the mistakes they catch, and mail. This method is a little easier for newer writers because they naturally stay in creative voice more often. The difficulty they have with this method is not touching it after they are done. Trust in your own craft and voice comes from a lot of years of writing and success.
4) Pure One-Drafters. This is where Harlan Ellison and others working on manual typewriters fit. This type of writer is a master of storytelling and craft and sentence structure and everything else. They make few mistakes because when they type, they are clear on what they want to put down. Computers have killed this type of writer for the most part, and replaced it with the Cycler types like me.
SO WHAT IS REWRITING?
What have I been talking about anyway when I say follow Heinlein’s Rules, including #3? What is the definition of rewriting in fiction, because it sure seems that the examples above are mostly of professionals rewriting in one form or another. Well, sort of.
Notice a couple of details in my above examples:
1) I am talking about professional writers.
2) All are working solidly in creative voice.
Creative voice is the white-hot heat you feel when creating. Sometimes, granted, it burns like an ember and it doesn’t feel so hot, other times it is a rushing fire of words. But the words always come out of the creative side of your brain. That is the key, learning how to stay completely, no matter what method you use, in the creative side of your brain.
Long-term professional writers like me can turn the creative voice on instantly. I call it a “switch on my butt.” When I sit down in front of my writing computer (different from my e-mail computer) I automatically just drop into creative mindset. It takes time to train that switch, but after millions and millions of words, it becomes automatic.
The critical side of your brain is where you English teacher lives, where that awful book by Strunk and White lives, where your workshop and all their voices lives. The critical side of your brain wants you to write safe stuff, wants it to not offend anyone or go outside of any rule. The critical side of your head thinks your own voice is dull and will always work to take it out.
No professional writer I have ever met writes quality fiction out of their critical side. No matter how many drafts they do. All drafts are done in creative voice except for the last draft of fixing mistakes found by a first reader.
Stages of Writers:
Stage One: A beginning writer is only concerned about proper grammar and pretty words and wouldn’t understand storytelling if it bit them. They think perfect grammar and spelling makes good writing and are just confused when their attempts at stories get rejected. This writer will polish and polish and polish to make sure every sentence is perfect with no regard at all for story.
In Stage One if a story is written in white hot creative voice, the writer instantly gets worried about it because it seemed “too easy” and it was written “too fast” so it must be garbage and therefore the writer polishes all the good stuff out of it to make it “perfect” sentence-by-sentence writing.
(Yeah, I know, that hit home. We all did it in the beginning. I was no exception.)
Stage Two: A second stage writer is still concerned more with sentences than with story, but slowly the idea that character development must come in, that pacing might be important, that storytelling is what sells stories starts to dawn on this stage of writer. But the focus is still on polishing those words to a shining examples of “perfect” writing.
More stories in this stage are written in creative voice than in stage one, but the writer has yet to learn to trust that voice, so they polish all the good stuff out in critical voice. Also the writer still doesn’t understand enough about story to not take out the good stuff. Rewriting is a learned skill and at this level a writer doesn’t know how to do it. And in this stage any attempt at rewriting comes out of the critical side.
Stage Three: This is where most early professionals live, selling professionals with under a dozen novels published. Here the writer has made the jump from not worrying so much about sentences, but more about storytelling and character and setting and emotion and pacing so much more. This jump is made somewhere around a million words, different for every pro, but it takes some sort of awakening to make this jump.
By this point most stories are written in creative voice, and the writer is learning what method works for them. At this point the different styles of professional writers start to separate out as each writer finds what works and sells.
Also at this stage the focus on story and other pacing and such by the writer causes rewrites to remain mostly in creative voice. However, when a newer professional in this area, such as the ones we teach here in workshops, get worried, they drop back to stage two critical polish and hurt their own stories. They have the skills, but they don’t yet trust them under pressure and drop into critical voice rewrite, which always dulls down a story.
Critical voice rewriting, called “polishing” by beginning writers, always kills or dulls a story.
Stage Four: This stage includes me and Laura and Kris and other pros who drop by here. This stage is full of the longer-term professionals. We know how to write stories that sell. We know how to rewrite in creative voice if we need to or want to. We are focused only on story.
I takes almost no attention for writers in this stage to produce clean manuscripts because we have our methods down and we have worked for decades learning how to create clean manuscripts. I cycle, Laura does many drafts working story into shape and cleaning, my wife Kristine Kathryn Rusch is an taker-outer, powering first draft and then putting things together and cleaning. We all do “fix-mistake” drafts, even the pure “one draft” writers. I saw one of Harlan’s manuscripts that actually had three corrections in ten pages. He read it, found three mistakes and corrected them. He had done a basic “fix-mistake” draft.
So, when Heinlein was talking to new writers in his article and came up with the five business rules of writing, he wasn’t talking to long-term established professionals of his day. Those writers already were set and knew what they were doing. He was talking to stage one and stage two writers.
2) Finish what you write.
3) Never rewrite unless to editorial demand.
4) Mail what you write to someone who can buy it.
5) Keep it in the mail until someone buys it.
Five very simple, yet very tough business rules of writing. They work.
But #3 is where everyone in this myth-heavy world has the most problems.
To a Stage One and Stage Two writer, who has no skills at rewriting, my way of looking at Heinlein’s Rule #3 is this:
In the early stages you are better off just trusting your natural instincts, your natural voice, write on the creative side, and then just let it go to an editor. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Sure, make it as clean as you can with a first reader catching mistakes. I had Nina Kiriki Hoffman catching my mistakes early on, and then Kris over the last twenty-five years.
But trust your voice. Stage One and Stage Two writers and many in Stage Three don’t know how to rewrite a manuscript and stay in creative voice. To those writers, rewrite means a hard, critical eye on the manuscript to “fix” it. Worst thing you can do.
Some reasons why rewriting in critical voice is so bad.
1) Your voice is dull to your ears and your eye. But it is there when you write from the creative side. It is what makes your story unique. But then in critical voice rewrite, your conscious brain takes out all the dullness to make the story better, and thus takes out your voice. In reality, what you are doing by taking what you think is dull out is making your story same and very dull.
2) When you write creatively, you know story because you have read millions of words of story. So you automatically write in story. But then when you switch to critical brain, you drop down to the word and sentence level. You ignore story and start fixing things that take the story, the pacing, the character out of your story.
3) Fiction is not written in perfect Oxford English. When writing creative side, your brain knows this. But when you switch to critical side, your English teacher pops in and puts fiction into perfect English and thus makes it dull and stilted.
4) When in the early stages of learning how to create story, you don’t understand story or character or setting or anything on a conscious level.
In one workshop last year someone asked a question about how to get setting into an example we were looking at. I turned to the board and wrote “Opinion.” All setting is opinion. Can’t be anything else, because all story is told through the eyes of a character, therefore all setting must be opinion. Seemed obvious to me, but it floored a large number of the younger professionals in the room.
When you are early in the learning, you don’t know story or setting or character or character voice or how most everything works. You might understand you need it, but you don’t know how to put it in purposefully from the critical side of your brain.
However, your creative side knows how to layer it in. The key is that you have to learn how to trust it. Of course, no new writer does. The rewriting myth is too strong.
5) A writer is the worst judge of their own work. This is the biggest killer and the biggest argument for not rewriting anything (besides fixing mistakes a first reader finds).
Why can’t a writer see their own work? Because the story is in the writer’s head. It’s clear to the writer because the writer put those little black code marks on the page to tell a reader the story. But to a reader those little black code marks might mean something very different. However, when the writer picks up the page covered in black marks the writer sees the full blown story in his mind.
It takes a lot of writing and feedback to understand how certain words, certain ways of putting words on a page, certain patterns in the black code marks effect readers. A top writer knows how to code these black marks on a page so that a retired woman in Florida reads the EXACT same story as a dock worker in Chicago or a teenager in LA. If the writer did his job correctly, they all read the same story and have the same reaction to the story.
You can not do that kind of work out of critical voice. It has to come from the subconscious and then after years of practice.
But remember, as a writer, when you look at your own writing, the story just appears back in your head. You have no way of knowing if those marks actually convey the story you want to thousands or millions of people. You are the worst judge of your own work.
6) A writer’s experience in writing a story has nothing at all to do with the quality of the final product.
This kills most first and second stage writers, and hurts third level pros as well. The best way to see this is sit down and as fast as you can write a story, not looking back until you get to the end. Then print it out and have a first reader find the typos and such without giving feedback on the story, fix those mistakes and then get ready to mail it. At that moment your experience of writing the story will overwhelm you. The myths will flood in and you will be convinced that because you wrote the story fast and didn’t rewrite it, it will be crap.
On the flip side, you are in a section of a story or book and you struggle like crazy over it and it feels like writing it was like going to the dentist. You found yourself avoiding it and standing in front of the sink doing dishes to avoid writing the scene. When it is done, you are convinced it is crap.
But alas, it might be in both cases, or it might not be in both cases. Your experience writing the words have nothing to do with the final quality of the writing. As Neil Gaiman said, “It should matter, but it doesn’t.” If you start letting the experience of the writing influence you on what you do with your fiction, you are doomed.
No two writers work the same.
Laura Resnick and I are both long-term stage-four professionals. We know how to do this stuff and we know our own methods. Laura knows how to rewrite in a number of drafts holding creativity at the same time. I know how to cycle and finish in one draft. We both produce clean manuscripts. And we both do “fix-mistake” final drafts.
If you talk to a hundred other long term professional fiction writers, you will find there is no one “right way” of doing anything. We are all different.
Where Laura and I have a difference is in what to tell newer writers, the writers who don’t know how to rewrite. That’s just opinion and both of us are valid. Not the same opinion, but both come from our experiences.
So, that said, here is my take (my opinion) on what I think new writers should do to advance their craft and find their own way.
1) Do not rewrite at all past a fix draft. If a new writer doesn’t rewrite will they produce a sellable story after a “fix-mistake” draft? Maybe, but not likely. Will a new writer produce a sellable story with five rewrites? Never. For the reasons I stated above. They don’t know how to rewrite in creative voice, don’t know story, and will take what little is original out of the story. So I suggest that in the early years new writers follow Heinlein’s suggestion and not rewrite. It’s why he wrote them down and why they have worked for many writers over the years.
2) I am NOT saying turn in a flawed manuscript. Fix the typos a trusted first reader finds. But let the story you wrote in a creative white heat stand. It will show your real voice, your real talent, and then after you get a bunch of words and experience and learning under your belt, you will find which method works best for you in the long run.
3) This trusting the voice will take extreme courage and very few writers can do it. From 1975 until 1982 I bought into all these myths solidly. I thought writing slow was writing well, I thought rewriting a dozen times had to be done. Of course I was a stage two writer and had no idea what I was doing. Then I started reading how long term professionals did it. Not what they said in public, but how they actually did it. And besides a clean-up fix-typos draft, I stopped rewriting and I started selling within one year. I learned to trust my own creative voice because my critical voice didn’t know crap about writing anything that would sell.
So check in with yourself. If you are not selling and you are rewriting, try sending out your stories with only the typos fixed. It will take a vast amount of courage. To do that you will have to overcome decades of English teachers and myths.
In the early years of writing trust Heinlein and his five simple rules of writing. He knew what he was talking about.
Besides, you can always start rewriting later if you really want.
When you know what you are doing.
Copyright 2010 Dean Wesley Smith
Because of the new world and technology, my magic bakery got a lot more valuable lately. This is now part of my inventory in my bakery. (Confused on that, read the Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about making money with writing.) I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.
If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.
And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated. Once this book is done, I will send you a copy. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!
If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it. Every week or so I will be adding a new chapter on the myths and sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned. Upcoming are chapters on bestsellers, losing control of your writing, having it made, speed equals making money, more on agents, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.