I Never Look Back…
But At Times I Am Forced To By Circumstances…
I write stories, one draft, cycling, and finished. For fiction, I have a person go over it to find typos. Kris reads it to help with the typos. I never look at a story again.
Now I have published well over 400 short stories (a number of them from my early years and because they were horror, they no longer fit what I am doing, so I have never republished them.) But most I have put through Smith’s Monthly and then indie published. A bunch have been in anthologies I have never republished in Smith’s Monthly as well. Someday I will.
No chance on the planet that I can remember even a slight number of those. And this week I have been putting the next issue of Smith’s Monthly together and picking out four original stories to put in it that I wrote last spring. So forced to look back at the unpublished original stories and weirdly enough, I find them better than my memory remembers, and that is just from the hundred or so I wrote last spring. I find that interesting, that my mind and memory automatically downgrades a story when I finish it. Luckily I know I am the worst judge of my own work and just ignore that downgrading.
For some reason this week, I have been asked five different times, in different ways, if a person should go back and fix a story because of something I said or some editor feedback or in one case a workshop feedback. I just shuddered on all five.
Shows two things: Writer does not trust their own art.
Two… The story is “important.” (Mostly because of the time spent writing it.)
Both are deadly.
You never learn by turning around and going backwards. Learning in writing is practice, working on the next new story and applying the knowledge your creative voice has gained from the last stories. You never learn anything by letting your critical voice win and go back. In fact, it trains the creative voice that you don’t trust it and if you do that enough, the creative voice doesn’t show up anymore.
So four original stories will be in the next issue of Smith’s Monthly, just as in most issues. (Sometimes there is five.) And I had to look at them again (not read them, just look at enough to remember them) and my mind has now upgraded them to “not bad.” And that’s as good for me that any of my stories ever get. But again, what do I know? I am the worst judge of my own work.
And I would never, ever rewrite any of them or even bother to read them again. Why? I trust my own art and voice and skills. And second, why would I waste the time to touch a story and make it worse? I could write a new story in the same amount of time.
I also downgrade work right after I finish it, but I too find that if I look back on a story months or years later, it’s much better than I recalled. When I was a little kid, a family friend was a journalist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. I asked him for writing advice and he said what you say here. He advised me to forget about a story once it’s finished and that it will be better than I remember it. He explained how reporters didn’t have the luxury of worrying about every word for months because they had deadlines to meet.
On a related note, I recommend to anyone reading this that they take Kris’s short story lecture on Teachable. I have re-watched it over a dozen times. Not only does she provide a simple approach to writing shorts, but her enthusiasm for the form is like a pep talk.
I’m finding your “no rewriting” is a truth to live by, as well as your “draft, cycle, and finish”.
Early on I wrote and rewrote and overwrote and killed a few stories absolutely dead. In the past few years, after I read *Writing into the Dark*, that first draft became the only draft, with finishing through a round of proofreading.
That sped up the writing, and more ideas are flowing out, almost too fast to deal with. When I was still rewriting, I wondered what I would do when I finished the three projects I was working on. Now, I will not say it’s too many but I’m looking far ahead with story ideas and in-story twists and turns … letting the creative brain play.
Trusting that 3 part process–draft, cycle, finish–is extremely hard to do. It’s letting go of so many myths, of tons of “helpful advice”. Trust is hard to develop … yet so extremely rewarding.
You know the old phrase, “when the student is ready the teacher will appear”? I’ve had some trip this past weekend; a trip which also included a full on anxiety attack. Not long ago, I had finished my first original feature length screenplay after years of stalling, worry, panic, dead-ends etc. I outlined. Heavily. The experience sucked all the joy and most of the love out of the project. Now, this doesn’t mean what I had written was done so without any emotional warmth at all, on the contrary, once the ball was rolling I looked at the outline very little and things did grow and change. However, after years of absorbing the hideous practices of the gatekeepers and peddlers of the bullshit put forth by “screenwriting gurus” (all of whom have absolutely no actual credentials in their purported field of expertise) my mind was fit to burst with doubt and half useful knowledge.
I, like you, never revisit work and I also cycle naturally as I go (it suits my adhd mind, it really does). Even with two trusted readers giving me positive feedback, doubt crept up on me and I resolved to redraft. Long story short I reached out to some in that community and received deconstructive feedback. Then came the resolve to move on and I felt terrible, at first. Then free.
Just two days ago, I find your lectures and your technique and heavily respect your advice.
I don’t pretend that I will try and make a sell on my screenplays for I fear the dreaded wall of readers fresh out of college telling me I’m not sitting on any of John Truby’s 22 steps, or deep enough in Joseph Campbell’s Belly of the Whale or not even playing in Sid Field’s field (and to be honest my ultimate goal is to get to directing and launch myself as a filmmaker).
Long story short, I think people have a very skewed idea of what it is to be a success (in the world of motion pictures at least), it’s overrun with toxic thoughts and if “success” means I have to delete myself from the page to do it, then I don’t want it. I just wanted to offer the perspective from the point of view of screenwriting and say thank you!
You are welcome, and my best advice to people about screenwriting is don’t. Write novels, let others convert your work into screenplays. Now granted, this is from a person who wrote maybe fifty and had one full-length movie script produced by Paramount. But that world is far, far too crazy for me.
I hear ya! It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world hahaha. My belief is that the best course of action for a screenplay isn’t so much passing it around to be read by other screenwriters (who not operating at a high level), but by sitting with actors, a cinematographer etc.and saying, “this going to be made and these are your roles and do you have any questions on the material which will improve your contribution?” and that’s where some valid points could be made and as it transitions into it’s new medium (i.e. motion picture) it should evolve. That’s where I, as the writer and as director, would learn the first wave of valuable lessons. So many moving parts.
Keep on being awesome, Dean.
Just finished 6 new stories for a Halloween bundle and needed to “hear” this today. Been doubting the quality the whole day while formatting the book.
Yes, your wonderful advice have reached some of us al the way down here in South Africa.
Shorts are such an interesting part of the publishing field. I love reading them (Fiction River is great!) and am ramping up my own production next year to take advantage of the opportunities coming down the pike, especially re: AI narration, which you discussed in your master class short stories strategies video. Very exciting!
With the final Sherlock Holmes stories entering public domain next year, it would be fun to enter that world and do some Sherlock-argues-with-Watson-in-IKEA type of modern stories in that universe.
Brad D. Sibbersen
Wouldn’t mind reading that DWS horror output, even if it is radically removed from your current style….
A Gary Raison edited major horror anthology called OBSESSIONS from 1991. King, Koontz, Simmons, and a bunch of us. My story in it is brutal and pretty much the top of my horror years. After that I left the horror field and moved on into sf and mystery and thriller.
Brad D. Sibbersen
More on point, I recently read a Harry Harrison novella and LOVED it. Found a newer edition for sale but he (or an editor) had gone back and “updated” it, ruining (for me) one scene I particularly liked. So another good reason to leave old stories alone: You’re cheesing off the people who loved it in the first place!
I hate going back over anything. It just kills it for me, the joy of writing, the joy of telling a story. Back in the stone age, when I was teaching myself to write, I was a one and done drafter. Fix typos (though I seldom made any, I was an awesome typist — also self -taught), maybe a word didn’t fit. That’s it.
I got to a spell where I was outlining and rewriting and hating every minute of it. Stopped me cold. I can’t write like that. So, I’m back to writing one and done, small corrections. Then I publish it. Works great for Vella, since I’m always behind on getting stories done beforehand. I like to just publish, if I wait around, I’ll start thinking it’s crap and then won’t do anything with it. 🙂
Any plans for or any chance of For Dead Eyes Only (Shadow Warrior, No. 1) being republished?
LOL… first off, I don’t own it, and second, this is 2022 and that book might be the most inappropriate book possible in 2022. It was on the edge in 1995.
“a number of them from my early years and because they were horror, they no longer fit what I am doing, so I have never republished them.”
Now I’m confused, doesn’t that contradict Heinlein’s rule #5?
Not really. They are still in print where they were all first published, books and magazines and such. People can find them. I just decided to not reprint them in other places.