Challenge,  On Writing,  publishing

Being Clear On Rewriting and Other Stuff

Got Some Interesting Questions This Week…

So I figured for fun here on this fine evening I would just lay out in very quick points exactly what I believe about writing and how I write. Clear up some confusion (or make more, we shall see. (grin))

1… I do not rewrite. I cycle back and forward through the manuscript as I write, thus ending up with a clean first (and final) draft.

2… I do not use ideas and haven’t for decades. I use triggers to get me typing with a character and I just entertain myself from there. (You guys have all followed that here through some of my challenges.)

3… I never know where a story is going or the ending. If I did know, chances are I would get bored and quit writing the story. I have the attention span of a flea and write to entertain myself only.

4… I never write to market or even care. I never much think about the final product or what it will be. I know I will figure that out later after I am finished. My focus is on the fun of the process of telling a story.

5… I try to practice something every story or novel, one area, one detail.

6… I think anyone who uses an editor of any sort (besides a copyeditor to find typos) needs to take some classes on self confidence. Then grow a backbone and trust their own work. Same goes for more than one first reader. (Go ahead, give me the excuses for having three beta-readers on a story and why you don’t trust your own work enough to leave it alone.)

7… I follow Heinlein’s Rules.

That’s a pretty basic summary of my writing method from word one to having the story published.

Now I must admit, to get to those seven points, a person has to climb over a lot of myths and beliefs about how writing fiction “should be done.” Not easy to do.

But the upside of my process is that I waste very little time, if any, turned around and looking at a completed story. Maybe for a few minutes to put in corrections from my first reader, some publishing details to get the story or book out, but past that, nope. No time on anything but writing new fiction.

Forward, always forward.

Fear is nasty and most of you who read those seven things, or at least the first six, rebelled against a few of them, if not all of them. That rebellion is fear. And I understand it. But not sure why anyone lives in fear, especially with something that is so much fun like writing fiction.

So anyhow, glad to take more questions. Some of the ones this week have been great, both in the comments and in private.



  • Linda Maye Adams

    Absolutely true about how many connecting myths there are to this. Make it very hard, and worse, they get reinforced by other writers, editors, and even the writing magazines that most writers start out with. To get past the rewriting myth, you have to get past the book is perfect myth and the book as an event myth. Except that can land you in the rewriting myth again, because everyone translates “Give yourself permission to write crap” (not write perfect) as “My first drafts are crap and need to be revised.” And then you are sending it to the agent again and you hear that the first five pages is what hooks the agents, so you revise those first pages to be perfect, and then you get on the merry-go-round of the first sentence being perfect. So that gets revised twenty times. Off to the agent finally, and he rejects in email in two hours. It must be that typo on page 10!

    So now beginning writer neighbor says, “You need developmental editing to get it ready for agents! It’s the best for your book.” So writer trots off to developmental editor, who points out all the flaws. Writer is amazed at how much more they’ve learned from the DE–and has no idea that it’s still barely scraping the surface of skills. Meanwhile, they are focusing all their efforts on sending that book out to agents, or, if indie, marketing it, and not on writing anything else. The form rejects still come in, or a bad review, and the writer becomes bitter, thinking that the industry is conspiring against him, keeping him down. Or if a review–and I was actually told this by a writer–that if someone gave a book a less than five star review, they did it by intent to hurt the writer’s sales.

    All this is why it’s so important to enjoy writing the stories. Even if the skills aren’t in the right place for anyone to pick them, you can still look at the story and remember the fun of writing it. You get none of that if it’s a tortured process to just create the story, spend a fortune getting it revised, and then everyone rejects it.

    • dwsmith

      Linda, agreed and isn’t it amazing how simple is might be to stop reading and listening to all that crap form people who have never written a book and just say no to it all and trust your own voice and your own skill at that moment. But all that need to listen and do all that stuff you describe is based out of fear. And thinking one book is special.

      Thanks for detailing all that out. Made me shudder as I read it. (grin)

    • Chong Go

      I think it was an assignment for one of Dean’s courses that had me looking up “developmental Editors” and checking out their qualifications and costs. None of them were published writers!!!

      Okay, some had a book or two, but not more than two or three, and certainly no bestsellers. “I have a MFA” “Been teaching MFA courses at local college for X years.” So I’m supposed to pay them thousands of dollars, to take my story and write it the way they, eternally working on the Great American Novel, would want to write it?! They, who haven’t been able to connect with audiences in a big way?! It made me realise just how nuts the whole book doctor thing is.

      • Janine

        Relying on developmental editors also does a number to your self confidence. It tells you that you can’t tell good stories and you’re not “good enough” to be published without begging for help. Have this happen enough times, and self doubt will creep in that everything you write is garbage and getting little, if any writing done. Critical voice will become much stronger and creative voice will dwindle.

        The sad fact is that developmental editors are encouraged by most authors, saying that it’s the only way to have your story properly edited. It takes a lot of courage and self confidence to cut through the nonsense and say “no”. A lot of the writing community seems to be based on growing that self doubt, not casting it aside, and it’s hurting a lot of writers.

        • dwsmith

          Holy smokes, Janie, are you in the wrong “writing community.” Run from all that crap, don’t walk, run.

          And why have to say “No” as you said. Just don’t do it is a much easier way of looking at it. If you are in a bunch of “writers” who push you to say yes, again RUN, DO NOT WALK AWAY.

          I think this needs a blog post. (grin) You know, not one person pushes me to take my book to an editor, developmental editor, or book doctor. Why? I don’t let such idiots exist around me, that’s why. And frighteningly enough, it really is that simple.

          • Anon

            “Why? I don’t let such idiots exist around me, that’s why. And frighteningly enough, it really is that simple.”

            My goodness, this is so true and applicable to so many parts of life.

  • Anthony

    Dean, Can you explain :”I try to practice something every story or novel, one area, one detail.” please ?

    • dwsmith

      Just that. Say I fire up a novel and want to work on some technique I just found on cliffhangers, I tell my creative voice to work it in somewhere if possible, to pay attention, and usually at some point along the way here comes the technique. So I have one of those practice focuses planted for every novel. Not critical voice, just a suggestion at the start to my creative voice to try it. In other words, I give my creative voice permission to use a new technique in the book if it is right. And that is pretty much all the thought I give it.

      • Kevin McLaughlin

        I *love* doing this. Focusing on one particular thing I want to learn to do better. Every book, I’m generally trying to do that.

        I dunno why I started doing that kind of “intentional learning” at first, but I’ve stuck with it for years now. I can’t tell you how much more fun writing is when I’m doing that. It means that *every* new book is a learning experience. Which means even if the book flops and nobody reads it, I’ve still learned a bunch of new things by writing it.

        I figure the day I stop learning new things about writing is the day it’s time to hang up the keyboard.

    • Linda Maye Adams

      When I first started practicing one skill, it was setting and the five senses. At the time, it was a skill I was very weak at. If I simply wrote, I would leave it out entirely, so I had to really make myself pay attention to doing it in the beginning. Every story I wrote in the next two years focused on practicing that one skill, at which point, creative brain was ready for another one, and another. In short story, I played around with style. In another, it was pacing.

      My current skill focus, which is probably going to be long term like the setting is to write longer works and not focus on word counts. I have such a bad history with word count that I now need to break myself out of fearing the word count (it gets me either when the book runs what I think is too short or how many words I write). So it’s been no short stories this year. I’m working on three projects at once is Scrivener to fool the lizard brain on the word count.

  • Philip

    I’ll tell you how bad my critical voice is: Despite taking your advice and having success, I’ve always self-sabotaged and abandoned your tips in favor of the Myths (for brief periods of time).

    I go on these wasteful diversions where I decide I’m going to outline or study the Amazon bestseller list or read another craft book or issue of Writer’s Digest… It always–and I mean always–fails. In fact, I recently decided to quit writing. I had a short story rejected a few times by different magazines and decided I was wasting my time. What brought me back was dropping back in here and reading your wisdom.

    Why write if it isn’t fun?

    Another big thing I like about your views is a complete lack of concern for genre. Joe Lansdale said some similar things. You write the story you want and figure out where it fits later, if at all. You wouldn’t believe how many times I froze at the keyboard because my critical voice would say, “Man, don’t write that hard-boiled mystery because then you’ll HAVE TO stay in that genre forever because it’ll be your ‘brand’ forever.” Total nonsense.

    • dwsmith

      Philip, the first step on getting out of the myths is being able to see them. You are clearly there with that. Now don’t expect the fight to go away. Keep learning and then release the learning, trust that the information you need is now in the creative voice, and go have fun with the writing.

  • Leah Cutter

    Dean, over the years I’ve found myself streamlining my process until it closely resembles yours. I differ in only a couple of ways.

    I do use ideas, sort of. For some novels, I have a vague idea of the theme of the novel, for want of a better term. For example, this novel I knew the plot involved collecting things. The next novel I know involves getting the band back together, as it were. But that’s about it. No idea how or what exactly that means, not until I write it.

    In addition for some novels, once I get close to the end, I know where it’s going. If I figure it out too early, like you, I get bored. Others, I don’t figure out the end until either I reach it, or I write past it.

    Other than that, yeah. Cycling, never letting the marketing troll into the writing office, single reader, always practicing, finish what I start and then publish it.

    BTW, killing the rewriting myth was one of your best gifts to me, along with teaching me how to cycle. I am much, much happier producing a single clean draft. That has freed me to do so much more. Thank you again.

    • dwsmith

      Thanks, Leah, but I didn’t give it to you, it is out there with a thousand writers as examples. You just pushed the myths aside and saw it. Well done!

  • JM

    Regarding #5:

    How does one practice making the plot of a story a coherent whole instead of “and then this happened and then that happened and then this other thing happened and then….”? In other words, how does one internalize the structure of plots so that writing into the dark produces a *story* instead of a series of disjointed vignettes going in the same general direction?

    (If the answer is “read more”, please suggest F&SF authors who are really good about tying their plots together in a single book, as opposed to those who do more fix-ups of short stories or long series which never seem to end. Also, aside from Algis Budrys’ book “Writing to the Point”, what writing how-to books would you suggest as being strong on how to construct coherent plots?)

    • dwsmith

      Actually, get out of your own way, stop thinking about it, and write more stories and books. Your question is all critical voice thinking and something your critical voice has you focused on and making you believe you don’t know story. (Great way to stop you, huh?) You get out of your own way, kill that silly fear, and just write, your creative voice knows more about plotting than you will ever learn. And in the process, have fun.

      Not kidding on any of that. Deadly serious advice.

      • Cathy

        I have the same problem JM has. I’m 42 and have been writing stories for as long as I can remember. I have some short stuff I did as a kid that I was able to finish. But, since high school I’ve approached so many stories with enthusiam and I’ve now got a hard drive full of unfinished writing that I kept writing on and on, but got nowhere. Then, about a month ago a story started in my head and I couldn’t get it out. But this one I really, really want to finish. So, this time I free wrote a summary of the entire thing. And now it’s flowing like gangbusters. I left a lot of room for my creative self to run wild, but knowing the road map has given me confidence that I can finally finish a novel I start.

        I’m sincerely not trying to be arguementative, but my experience feels like the old advice/trope of pansters vs. plotters. Writing from beginning to end just never worked for me, though I’ve tried over and over. Only doing some actual plotting has finally set me free.

        If there is something I’m missing, I would love to see it. It of course takes time to do the summary outline that I could be using to write the actual novel. Any ideas on what I’m overlooking?

        • dwsmith

          Cathy, your summary, if you wrote it clean, took your time, and filled in some details, would be your finished book. You are just creating more work for yourself is all. And you don’t write from word one to the end. That is your mistake. You write to say word 300, then cycle back to word one and fix and touch and write to word 700 and then cycle back to word 300 and touch and fix and add and keep going until you get to word 1100 or so. And repeat. That is called cycling. If I had to write exactly like a reader would read it, I would have stopped decades ago.

    • Linda Maye Adams

      Seconding Dean’s comment. The writing community generally starts out with “You’re doing it wrong,” and if you’re a pantser, you’re definitely in the wrong no matter how you do it. Everyone will say pantsers don’t plot, or having plotting problems, or their stories don’t have any structure. It’s all designed not to help pantsers, but drive them to outlining (and, I think, make the outliners feel more comfortable. Pantsing scares them).

      I was having problems with my stories, and I couldn’t figure out the reason why. So I succumbed to trying out plot points (which is commonly recommended to pantsers; it’s actually outlining and everyone conveniently leaves that off.). My messed up story went from a car accident on the freeway to a UFO takes out an entire city. It was so bad that I was on the verge of saying I incapable of writing novels and could only do short stories. What I didn’t know was that it was all the writing advice I was getting that was the problem. The plot was always there, but all those things like plot points was imposing an additional layer on top of it, and twisting it into a tangled mess. It was when I did the productivity workshop and shocked Dean with a list of 70 items of writing advice I’d picked up over the years that I realized how much it was all hurting my writing. I dropped off the writing message boards that day, so that those things wouldn’t keep getting reinforced. I also unfollowed a lot of writing blogs that were repeating the same thing. And did what I could to do a brain dump of those things.

      My stories started coming out better once I did that. A lot of the writing advice is designed to get the beginner on the road to writing a novel. It doesn’t mean it’s actually good advice.

    • Kevin McLaughlin

      On plot focused books, a few worth checking out (IMHO) are “The Story Grid” by Coyne, “Story” by McKee, “The Writer’s Journey” by Vogler, and “Screenplay” by Fields (not directly about novels, but a lot works for both).

      But beyond that… We’ve all been absorbing stories our entire lives. We know when a book or movie or TV show just *worked*…or didn’t. We know this intuitively. When we’re about to get the hell out of our own way and just let that intuitive sense of story flow, it usually turns out OK. Studying form can be good, but don’t let the critical mind turn that into formula.

      I’m not there yet, but I’m working on it. Only written a few dozen books, so I figure another hundred or so and I’ll have a solid handle on it. 😉

  • DS Butler

    Dean, I wondered what your thoughts are on the old pulp writers “writing to market”? I remember some advice I read once, which was to research and read the imprint/magazine to see the type of stories they liked. I always imagined that was what they did.

    Then again, I guess they were really writing for editors (which was their market). Makes me realise how much easier we have it with indie publishing these days.

    • dwsmith

      Just as I did for more than a decade, we wrote for the checks and the editors, to keep our editor friends happy. Why I quit writing after 106 novels because I was burnt out and tired of the grind. I only came back to writing when I didn’t have to write to any market and had no editor yapping at me. The last editorial meeting I had was with a 24 year-old Vassar grad who tried to explain to me (after I had been selling novels longer than she had been alive) how to write a book.

      I kept my cool and was nice to the human, but as Kris and I walked down the sidewalk after that meeting, I remember my only words were “I’m done with this shit.”

      Someone may not like my opinions or my books. I’m fine with that. But now after over 200 books and who knows how many short stories, I at least deserve the respect that offers. Trust me, you go to traditional publishing and even with 400 books, you won’t get it.

  • Cathy

    I’ve read your posts on the rewriting myth over the past few days and have been thinking about the topic. My question is this: what should it be called when you take a series of short sentences and make a paragraph that flows?

    For example, a typical writing frenzy would produce the following: “He looked at her and picked up his drink. He got up from the couch and walked to the kitchen. He opened the cabinet and pulled out the bottle of Scotch and refilled his glass. Then, he walked back to the couch.”

    On a read through, I would make it more like: “He gave her a look, then picked up his glass and went back to the kitchen. She waited for his response while he took his time getting a refill and then returned the couch.”

    That seems to fall under the heading of revision. To me, the second version is much smoother and sounds better. Does doing this with my writing mean I’m buying into a myth? I haven’t found that more practice leads to the first draft reading like the second paragraph above. If I do write like the second paragraph the first time it’s because I’m letting the inner critic write and I make very little progress.

    • Linda Maye Adams

      The difference with cycling and revision is that cycling is like sculpting. You go to this piece of marble and look at the overall piece and then reshape one area to make it fit with the bigger sculpture.

      Revision tends to be more like, “That sentence is terrible! What was I thinking! I must fix it!”

      When I cycle, I leave most sentences as is. The exceptions:

      1. It has me scratching my head and wondering what the heck I was trying to say.

      2. It’s something that no longer fits in with the big picture of the story.

      3. It’s something that no longer fits in with the characterization of that character.

      Really, if the sentence is serviceable as is, why do you need to fix it at all?

      • dwsmith

        Sorry, but I don’t much agree with anything Linda said if talking about cycling.

        I would hesitate completely on taking anything out that you think doesn’t fit the bigger picture of the story because you don’t know the bigger picture until you are finished and that detail you think is silly or that doesn’t fit your creative voice might have put in for a reason later on. Same with character details. Critical to leave in for later even if you think they don’t fit your critical voice image of that character. Don’t get in the way of your creative voice by taking stuff out it put in for a reason.

        And I just automatically make sentences clear as I cycle. In essence, what Linda was describing was how to REWRITE and is all negative critical voice think. So avoid all of that at all costs if you have the courage. Just write it, make it clear in cycling, and leave it alone.

        Again, remember, when I get to the end, I NEVER LOOK AT THE STORY AGAIN other than to fix typos my spellchecker spots or my first reader spots.

        • Lnda Maye Adams

          No, I wasn’t describing rewriting, Dean. I’m not sure how you got that from what I described. It’s just simply how my cycling evolved. I’m a big picture thinker, and it is natural for me to connect with all parts of the story at once (and made it incredibly difficult learning to put setting details in). But I tend to put in typos that the spell checker cannot catch, like tree for train. Or created instead of creating. I also think really fast, so sometimes my fingers don’t catch up with my brain. Imagine putting tree instead of another word in and leaving out a couple of words. If I don’t catch those on early cycling, I have no way of figuring out what I was trying to say.

          I only take over (out) elements that don’t fit in the big picture on a final pass when I’m about to finish the story. Sort of a housekeeping to clean things up. There will be a point when I’m near the end that creative brain feels an urgent need to do a cycling pass over the entire story. Creative brain is like that video of the Golden Retriever sampling all the food and running and forth (back and forth). It puts it (in) all kinds of things. A lot of of gets uses (A lot of it gets used), but there’s always something that simply evolved itself out of the story. It’s like there are toys scattering (scattered) all over the floor, and now creative brain is done playing around and wants to clean up.

          I usually try to go back and correct all the mistakes, but all the typos in the paragraph above are what comes out when I write. I was so glad for computers!

          • dwsmith

            Whatever works, Linda. But everything you said felt like a long ways from writing into the dark and not knowing what was coming next. So it sounded like rewriting to me. Sorry, just how I read it. But if it works for you, leave it alone is always my advice.

        • DS Butler

          You know, I could see this being an awesome teaching workshop. A screen recording of you actually writing a whole book, cycling back etc. I wonder if anyone has done that before.

          But I know that wouldn’t be great for your writing. You would be allowing readers into your office for real and that would be stress you don’t need.

    • Kristine Kathryn Rusch

      I would leave the part produced in the writing frenzy. You have no idea if the subconscious planted something about that bottle of Scotch or the fact he had to walk over to get it. If you’re writing a mystery, that might be important misdirection that you just edited out. If you’re writing a romance, you might have edited out some important character detail. Just write it. Don’t stress over the words.

      • Jeremy M

        “Don’t stress over the words”
        —I love that. Wonderful advice. It should go on a poster, or a coffee cup. Maybe a T-shirt. : )
        By the way, that popping sound you’re hearing is writers’ heads exploding all across the internet.

      • Maree

        I have done this. My character was given back all her clothes and gear from the previous book and decided to put it on. It felt like filler but I was working on trusting myself and let it ride.
        My beta/first reader told me that it was amazing misdirection because ‘I thought she was going to use the tech but then she pulled those climbing gloves out of her pocket!’
        the lol was that I forgot she even had those until she needed them to slide down a rope to escape a multistory building. (and yes, well aware that this sort of detail shows how anal I am)

      • Anon

        “I would leave the part produced in the writing frenzy. You have no idea if the subconscious planted something about that bottle of Scotch or the fact he had to walk over to get it. If you’re writing a mystery, that might be important misdirection that you just edited out. If you’re writing a romance, you might have edited out some important character detail. Just write it. Don’t stress over the words.”

        I’ve learned over time that this is a critical part of my own writing. In one crazy-long novel I wrote, I introduced something early on, thinking at the time that it was probably just a red herring, but it ended up being incredibly central to the core story. In another story, a scene I wrote early on as a fun character moment ended up being a big part of how a big secret got revealed at the end of the book. Bringing back those seemingly meaningless things (or doing call-backs later on to early, seemingly unimportant events) is one of my favorite parts of the writing process.

        • Edward M. Grant

          I’m constantly amazed by the number of times I get stuck trying to figure out where to go from here, then realize I put in some seemingly random detail ten chapters ago which now provides a perfect means of solving my plot problem and moving the story onward.

          ‘So that’s why I put that rusty old bear trap on the wall!’

  • Rikki Mongoose

    Talking about #4, there’s a fact I’ve got from my own expirience.

    I have a friend who has Ph.D. in history. So he keeps criticizing my works founding mistakes in social concepts (even if it’s explained in text if read carefully). Also he keeps dreaming about creating a perfect fantasy book with fully developed and explained world using magic and middle age socium.

    Alas! He didn’t write even a prologue in 10 years.

    For some time I guessed, he just missed genre. Full-developed “what-if” wolds are better for hard nerdish sci-fi.

    Today I finally got it. His critical voice criticized details just because they are easiest to find. Only erratas are easier.

    But… sometimes you have to exaggerate to tell truth. Research-focused authors don’t like this fact.

    Take “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. The idea premise of this story is even more mad then it’s characters – no sane prosecutor will put a criminal shammel to an ordinary mental asylum that has no guards and allows patients go fishing. Also, Randle McMurphy does the dumbest thing a shammel can do – he acts like sane person. In real asylum doctor would consider him sane and send back to the farm.

    But Ken Kesey (who worked in an asylum and knew it much better then critics) didn’t write a realitic book about asylum. He wrote a book about passion to freedom, about a hero who sacrifices his life for others. So, he wrote as promised – a trues, even if it never happens

    • Anon

      “I have a friend who has Ph.D. in history. So he keeps criticizing my works founding mistakes in social concepts (even if it’s explained in text if read carefully).”

      I have a relative who’s a lawyer. Despite how she’ll vaguely say she likes my stories, when she gives specific feedback, it’s nothing but criticism. And since she skims/speed-reads instead of reading every word, often her criticism is because she simply didn’t read carefully enough. Once, after she read something of mine and gave her feedback, I was so depressed about my writing I couldn’t write for months. I’ve learned that no matter how nicely she asks or how much she pouts, I can’t let her read my work until it’s been published–and even then, I shouldn’t ever ask her what she thought about it. She’s a super nice person and I love her, but she’s so deep in lawyer-think (i.e. she analyzes everything as if she’s trying to build a case against it) that I don’t believe she realizes how toxic she is to a creative person.

  • jaran

    Regarding #3 are there any tips on doing this? My problem, beyond the idea problem (or maybe it’s the same), is once I start writing a story my mind races to the end and starts trying to figure everything in between out. Then i get overwhelmed and say oh well writing is too damn hard. I’ll have to solve all these problems and it’s impossible.

    Even when I read books I think things like I could never come up with this stuff. I was just reading John D Macdonald book and I’m thinking the whole time how the hell does he put so many details in and it just works flawlessly throughout the whole story.

    • dwsmith

      Read the blog posts on writing into the dark, jaran. And pay attention to the cycling part. As a critical front-brain writer, no one can put in all the details of even a slightly complex book. Complex books are written from creative voice and then you let English teachers fifty years later tell you what you really meant. Your job is to just tell a story and have fun in the process.

  • allynh

    I have an odd question.

    – What’s a “Story Idea”

    I’ve been reading the past few posts where people keep talking about “Story Ideas” where if you have the right one you have a Best Seller. I thought I understood what people meant by “Ideas” but the more people commented, the less I understood. I’ve done a Google Search on the phrase and found some odd links where there are one sentence “Ideas”. Is that what you guys mean, some vague sentence like this:

    – Tell the story of a scar, whether a physical scar or emotional one.

    I don’t see how that is useful by itself. I can see taking a bunch of them to start teasing out parts of a story. I look at it like a Google search.

    Search on “Telephone” then start narrowing that down to a black rotary dial telephone, then you have “Dial M for Murder”.

    Dial M for Murder (1954) – Dialing “M” for Murder Scene (4/10) | Movieclips

    The video is an example of what I call an Image/Seed. I bounce around playing with variations until I can actually see something like the video.

    I have big, thick, 3-ring notebooks filled with Image/Seeds like this. They are one or more handwritten pages, about 250 words like a classic manuscript page, describing in as much detail what I see. Each page is labeled, dated, and as the Image/Seeds keep coming up, or is clearly related to another Image/Seed, I’ll put the pages together. When I have enough of these Image/Seeds I start letting them grow into a finished story.

    In the Long Ago and the Far Away, I used to carry a small black notebook in my pocket, and I would write a sentence or two of something I saw. When I would look back at those brief sentences I had no Idea(there’s that word again. HA!) what I was writing about.

    Now, when I start to see something I make sure that I describe in detail where I was, what I was doing, and fill in as much detail of what I saw so that there is context, and it makes sense.

    One example:

    I was at Furrs Cafeteria for lunch. I was sitting at a booth in the back room along the South wall. Out of the corner of my left eye I could see the row of booths along the East wall. I saw an old woman sit in a booth starting to eat, and an old man stood beside the booth watching her. I was thinking my thoughts and wasn’t paying attention, other than that seemed odd, why didn’t he sit down. The refill lady rolled her cart around the room, and I froze in taking a bite, as the cart rolled through the man.

    I turned my head to look at the man, and he wasn’t there. I looked around the room, and he was nowhere to be seen. I turned back to my meal, and I saw him out of the corner of my left eye again.

    I don’t have much more than that, other than I filled the rest of the page with a discussion of what I saw may mean. I had questions, possible answers, etc… I always try to fill the page even if that’s all I have. One day I will have more, know who she is, who he was, what they meant to each other. Then I will write that story. But then again, the story may not be about them, it may be about the guy eating lunch. HA!

    BTW, I ordered the Koontz books you mentioned, the first two in the Jane Hawk series. They are the odd mass market books that are taller than normal. The pages hold about 250 words each, so they are about a manuscript page. It takes me a minute reading each page, so I know that each book will take about ten hours for me to read.

    Thanks for mentioning the Koontz.

  • Janine

    I’ve been reading a lot of fiction books this past week and realize that a lot of writing advice is garbage essentially. A bunch of published books that I like and apparently a lot of people like break these so called “writing rules” all the time. “Don’t name emotions”, “you must write your prose this way”, “people only want perfect books”, “your first sentence/page/chapter must be super hooky or else”. Writing fiction is a subjective art, and I ended up not liking a book that had a high rating and loving a book that had a bit of a lower rating. Knowing that, I think the most important thing is that you like your story and enjoy writing it, and if others like it, it’s a bonus. And I feel free that I don’t have to rewrite it to be any good, since my first drafts were actually good before I fell full on for the myths of rewriting a bunch and it turned bland.

    On the book doctors: almost all of my writing friends have recommended me to get one to “improve” my novel, and I realized something. The more voices I have in my works, the more muddled the story gets with other voices, and it becomes “our” novel, as many writers seem to really praise the power of teamwork in writing a book nowadays. It’s a way to make an interesting story very rote. It sends a message that you’re not good enough and that you know nothing and that you should rely on “experts” and feeds into self doubt, and eventually, you hate writing because you think it’s all bad no matter what. And “improving” the novel a lot of times can turn into “here’s how I would tell this story, implement these changes or else”. This is encouraged too, that if you think your first draft is great and will defend it, you’re too arrogant to listen to others that want to make it “better” and that you should listen to make it better. I’ve seen where that goes, a spiraling cycle of self doubt.

    As a side note, I’ve been reading a few betas lately and each of them are interesting and clean and probably ready to publish. And they all say they need several more rounds of betas to make the story polished so it can be ready for an agent (and rewrite again) and I’m afraid it might turn into something they despise. Last year, I did a dozen betas for the start of a story I really liked (I was stuck in myth land), and all their conflicting and nitpick advice, and changing it to fit their tastes because I had little confidence to stand by my vision and my story that I felt it had to say yes to all suggestions. I ended up having to toss it since I couldn’t stand it anymore and it felt like someone else’s story. But for some reason it was always not good enough.

    • emmiD

      Janine: I tried hard not comment (then deleted half of my post), but here goes.

      Whenever people tell you what’s wrong with your book, that’s *their* vision of the story. Following their vision will never give you *your* story.

      Maybe, as you write, your original vision changes, but it’s still *your* vision.

      What I discovered last fall, after moving to a new city and trying to connect with local writing groups, *some* will talk and discuss and criticize, but you will never get a valid critique (different from criticism) from people who don’t accept your vision of story.

      Basically, critiques should tell you when things aren’t clear, when things are slow or illogical, when characters are muddled, when logical steps through the plot or character behavior are missing. If someone tells you to add in a specific scene or a specific “idea”, run, run as fast as you can.

      Besides, how do they and you know their suggestion is any good? It’s just different from what you have. The grass is not always better on the other side of the fence; sometimes that grass is growing over the septic tank (I believe Erma Bombeck made that phrase famous).

      “No one seeing your draft” is an old superstition for writers, but I think it developed to keep other people’s vision from interfering with the writer’s vision.

      Stand up for your vision. If they want to see that scene, tell them to write it.

    • Rikki Mongoose

      There’s a huge problem with book doctors.

      They have to show how important they are. They begin go change style, cut phrases, remove vulgar words… without making text better

      There’s an article I ve read today about author’s translation of “Lolita” (Nabokov had written it in English, then translated to Russian). One of experts, a typical intellectual yet idiot, said that current Russian language with vulgar abbreviations and street slang like “он такой по жизни” (“he always act like this”, literally “he is such during his life”) doesn’t suit high culture.

      So I rofled. A lot of abbreviations appeared with introduction of electric telegraph, and Russian language of 18 century was already full of abbreviated terms borrowed from German language. Forms with “during his life” were used by Leo Tolstoy and Alexander Herzen back in 19 th century.

      So, would you allow such a “doctor” to cure your texts?

  • Annemarie

    A couple of weeks ago, for the first time I read a successful GERMAN writer say that the best advice for novices is: Do not rewrite. if you edit and polish, you are not writing, but stuttering. And he finished asking whether someone wants to be a writer or a tinkerer. (I hope that’s the term in English for a DIY-dabbler)

    • dwsmith

      Editing and polishing described as stuttering. Wonderful and very exact. And I love the distinction between a writer and a tinkerer. Wow, that’s great! Thanks!

  • Chris L Robinson

    So here’s where I’m having trouble: I understand cycling back and doing your research as you go, but it seems to me that is really going to interrupt the flow of the writing. Say I decide to put my character in a hotel in Prague, and to write the scene I want to know a street or hotel name or a particular feature that you might find on a similar street. So I stop writing and do the research right then? Because for someone like me, that popping off to the Internet to do some “research” is a rabbit hole that I get lost down often.

    • dwsmith

      Chris, the key is to make the writing the most important thing, thus you find the bit of information and go right back. I call it being a ten minute expert on something. But going down a rabbit hole is your critical voice stopping you from writing. Got to fight that, get the bit of information and go right back. Yes, it takes control. (grin)

  • Anon

    I’m curious, how often do you go back and read something you’ve written, just as entertainment? You say you write to entertain yourself, but do you ever go back and read your own stories years later just to enjoy them? (I do that, and part of the reason it works is because my memory is pretty bad. I’ve even had short stories that I’ve utterly forgotten about only to rediscover them later.)

    I’m always a little annoyed at how prevalent the “paying for an editor is an absolute must for an indie author” advice is on various writers’ forums. I see that ALL THE TIME on kboards. While the overall tone there isn’t militant about it, it definitely seems to be the prevailing belief. And sometimes when one of us says something like, “I don’t actually hire an editor and I don’t think I need to,” you get people who either say your work can’t be professional then, or who immediately try to backpedal what you said like, “Well, sure, not everyone needs a developmental editor, but obviously you don’t mean you don’t hire a line editor, right?” I’ve actually had one editor and one beta reader look at my work before, and neither was in the least bit helpful. Thankfully, I didn’t spend much money there, but it was certainly enough to convince me not to pay any more money to such people.

    I’ve actually grown tired of the idea of editors/first-readers to the point that, going forward, I’ll probably only have one person (my mom) read the book before I publish, and purely as a second set of eyes to catch any typos I might miss. (My writing’s pretty clean by the time I’m done with it, but if she can catch even one typo, it’s worth having her look at it.)

      • allynh

        Dean said: Anon, I never reread my old stuff (meaning anything finished). Just can’t see the point.

        That’s interesting.

        When you reread books by Cussler, etc…, are you doing it to reload the pattern, see how they did stuff, but with your own books they are all too familiar and thus you can’t learn from them?

        I do the same with some books. I don’t know how many times I’ve reread Duma Key. I even started writing sequels to the story. That let me learn a great deal that I will use in many future books.

        BTW, I finally finished reading The Magicians Trilogy by Grossman, watched the TV series three times as well. I’ll go sit and read the first Koontz, Jane Hawk book, now. Thanks…

        • dwsmith

          I’m reading other pros better than I am to study, allynh. Why would I study something I wrote?? As I said, I study and learn a lot from those ahead of me.

    • Lynn

      I don’t use editors of any kind or first readers, and yes that includes copy editors and proofreaders. I know some people, maybe even Dean, will call me crazy or stupid for it, but I just don’t care. I write what I write and it stays that way when I publish. I read through and do a pretty good job of self-editing for typos and continuity and if there’s anything else there that someone’s going to pitch a fit about, they can just spend their money elsewhere. I don’t give a fudge. THAT is why I self-publish.

      I can tell you now, if someone read my stuff before I published and said one thing that made me start second-guessing myself, I would never publish that book. So I short-circuit that by not letting even one other soul read my book before I publish.

      I’ve published 18 novels this way and that’s how I like it. Frankly, that’s how it has to be done for it to be done at all. I’ve made enough from those books to live on these last 6 years and that is all the validation I need from anyone that this process works for me.

      Whether he appreciates the acknowledgement or not, Dean’s advice on rewriting and Heinlein’s rules kept me from falling into the trap of believing I had to have other people in on the process. For a long time, I had a note in my files to “trust the process” and “be an artist” and to have a backbone and stand up for my art. So I do.

      So thanks, Dean. Much appreciated. 🙂

      • dwsmith

        Lynn, I like your method, actually. Protects your art and your work and lets the story be yours. Wonderful.

      • Martin Wernicke

        Wonderfully explained Lynn, thank you. I also self-publish my work just like this. Self editing and deciding by myself on anything story-wise. And being surprised by whatever my subconscious puts into the story. This whole conversation about cycling and writing into the dark and all those numerous blog posts by Dean actually saved me time and again. They taught me so much about how to have fun with my art and still work on techniques that make my art better (like hooks, sensory details, setting, etc.) Its kinda counterintuitive to most writing advice out there but improvement and fun really only comes from getting the inner critic out of the way-not the other way round. This actually is the hardest part for a beginning writing I think- it sure was for me and Im still not completely over it.

        So, thank you to all those good people here. I feel like this is a beautiful place where people talk about writing advice that, if I said that in one of my facebook writers groups, people would skin me alive.

  • Janine

    I did something last summer that looking back was really stupid. I had about a dozen people (almost all unpublished writers) pick apart two incomplete stories I was working on as “beta readers” and “critique partners”. They nitpicked the entire piece, talking about how I should rewrite just about everything. They mention that they are trying to “improve” the story, but instead, it’s more like changing the story to fit their tastes, and may not improve it. It almost broke my writing spirit and made me abandon one of them and I ended up making major changes to the other (it’s practically a different story outside the characters and setting).

    Now, I decided to do something new to check for first readers: no critiquing to “improve” the story, only comments on story breaking stuff (continuity, plot holes, errors, typos), anything else I don’t consider. I also will no longer let unpublished writers look at it as their way to endlessly critique. Readers or published writers only.

    • dwsmith

      Dozen????!!!!! Might want to start believing in your own work and having only one first reader look for typos. Wow.

      • Janine

        Yeah, I only posted it mostly as a cautionary tale to not do what I did. This is when I was deep in myths. Now I know better and will only fix legit errors (stuff a copy editor will catch) and off it goes into the world. The worst part is that many writers continue to make the mistake I did and lose faith in their work and desperately rewrite it.