Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Rewriting

You MUST rewrite to make something good.

That’s one of the great myths of publishing and is this chapter’s topic. So hang on, this could get interesting.

First off, I want to repeat clearly what I said in the previous chapter:

No writer is the same.

Let me repeat that with a few more words.

No writer works or thinks the same way, and there is no right way to work. Just your way.

That includes speed of writing, style of writing, and most importantly, how you handle rewrites of what you have written.

So, to make sure we are all speaking the same language, let me define a few terms that Kristine Kathryn Rusch and I have used for a long time now, and I will try to use in this discussion.

REDRAFT: That’s when you take the typing you have done and toss it away, then write the story again from your memory of the idea. When you are redrafting, you are working from the creative side of your brain.

REWRITE: That 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. When you rewrite like this, you are working from the critical side of your mind.

TOUCH-UP DRAFT: When you run through a manuscript fixing small things, things you wrote in notes while writing, things your trusted first reader found. Often very small things or typos. This draft takes almost no time, often less than a day for a full novel, sometimes only a few hours.

SPELL-CHECKING DRAFT: Since so many of us work with our grammar-checkers and spell-checkers off, we need a spell-check draft, often done before given to a first reader. This often takes a an hour or so for a full novel.

Now, let me say right up front here that I am a three-draft writer. Most long-term pros are that I have talked to in private. Not all, since we all work differently, but a vast majority of the ones I have talked to use a process very near mine.

My process: First draft I do as quickly as I can, staying solidly as much as possible in my creative side, adding in things I think about as I go along, until I get to the end of the draft. Again, I try to write as fast as the project will allow since I have discovered a long time ago that the faster I type, the less chance I have to get in my own way and screw things up.

Second draft I spellcheck and then give to my trusted first reader.

Third draft I touch up all the things my first reader has found and then I mail the novel or story. If my first reader hates the story, I toss the draft away and redraft completely.

That’s my process. I am a three-draft writer. (Unless I need to redraft, then I am a six-draft writer.)

Some more basic information about writers before I go any farther. There is a way of describing and dividing writers into two major camps. Taker-outers and putter-inners. In other words, a taker-outer is a writer who over-writes the first time through, then goes back and takes things out.

As a putter-inner, I write thin (my poetry background still not leaving me alone) and then as I go along, I cycle back and add in more and then cycle again and add in more, staying in creative voice, just floating around in the manuscript as I go along. Some people of this type make notes as they go along and then go back in a touch-up draft and put stuff in.

Okay, so terms down, on to the major topic.

So, what’s the great myth about rewriting?

Put simply, our colleges and our training and New York editors and agents all think that rewriting can make something better. Most of the time this is just wrong, flat wrong when it comes to fiction. It might be right with poetry, or non-fiction or essays, but with fiction, it can hurt you if you believe this completely and let it govern your process.

But again, all writers are different, so sometimes a writer just works with a ton of rewrites. Or at least that’s their public face.

As Algis Budrys once said to me about rewriting, “No matter how many times you stir up a steaming pile of crap, it’s still just a steaming pile of crap.”

So, let’s take some new writer hoping to write a book that will sell at some point. This writer does the near impossible for most new writers and actually finishes the book. That’s a huge success, but instead of just sending the book off and starting on a second book, this poor new writer has bought into the myth that everything must be rewritten before it can be good.

All beginning fiction writers believe this, and you hear it in comments like “Oh, it’s not very good yet. Oh, it needs to be polished. Oh, it was JUST a first draft and can’t be any good.” I even hear that come out of some newer professional writer’s mouths. I never hear it from long-term pros (over 20 plus years making a living).

Of course, for the beginning writer, the first book just isn’t very good most of the time. Duh, it’s a first novel. Let me refer you back to Algis Budrys’ comment. More than likely the book is flawed beyond rescue, but the writer won’t know that, and the first reader won’t be able to help “fix” anything besides typos and grammar.

So, what is the new writer to do at this point with a finished novel? Simple. Mail it to editors who could buy it. (I’ll deal with the “Need an Agent to Sell a Book” myth in a future chapter.)

That’s right, I said mail it. To a New York EDITOR. (I can just hear the voices screaming now. “But, it’s no good! It needs a rewrite! I can’t mail something that’s flawed to an editor!!!” And thus the myth has a stranglehold on you.)

The great thing about editors is that we can’t remember bad stories. We just reject them and move on. Most of us, over the years and decades, have bought so much, we have a hard time remembering everything and everyone we bought. So you have nothing to lose by mailing it and everything to gain, just in case it happens to be good enough to sell.

Just because the book is bad doesn’t mean someone will come to your house and arrest you. Editors do not talk about manuscripts that don’t work, and no one can shoot you. So get past the fear and just mail it. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

One true thing about writing that is a firm rule: There is no perfect book. (No matter what some reviewer wants to think.)

Also, there is a very true saying about writers that I will deal with in another chapter. Writers are the worst judges of their own work. Why is that? Because, simply, we wrote it and we know what was supposed to be on the page. It might not be, but we think it is. We just can’t tell.

So, after the book is in the mail to a number of editors, start writing the next book, go to workshops and writer’s conferences to learn storytelling skills, learn business, and meet people. But keep writing that second book. Trust me, it will be a lot better than the first one, especially if you just trust yourself and write it.

When it is done, go celebrate again, then fix the typos and such and mail it to an editor who might buy it, and then start writing again. A writer is a person who writes.

Rewriting is not writing. Yeah, I know what your English professor tried to tell you. Putting new and original words on a page is writing. Nothing more, and nothing less.

And what is amazing is that the more you write, the better your skills become, and with each story, each novel, you are telling better and better stories. It’s called “practice” but again, no writer likes to think about that evil word.

Robert Heinlein’s business rules have worked for many, many of us for decades and decades, and his rules go simply:

1) You must write.
2) You must finish what you write.
3) You must not rewrite unless to editorial demand.
4) You must mail your work to someone who can buy it.
5) You must keep the work in the mail until someone buys it.

Those rules do seem so simple, and yet are so hard to follow at times. They set out a simple practice schedule and a clear process of what to do with your practice sessions when finished. But for this chapter, note rule #3. Harlan Ellison added to rule #3. “You must not rewrite unless to editorial demand.” Harlan: And then only if you agree.

Let me be clear here. Trust a New York editor if they ask you to rewrite. Not an agent, not your workshop, not your spouse, no matter how loving. But if a New York editor, who can pay you money for your book, asks for a rewrite and sends you a rewrite letter, you do EXACTLY as they say, fixing the things you agree with and telling them clearly why you didn’t agree with other things. Do not add in more stuff, do not rewrite to your workshop. Just do what the editor asked and send it back. New York editors are super readers, they know their book lines, they know their markets. It’s their day job, so if you have a project that comes close and they want a rewrite to get it on house target, do it. Nothing more. And only what you agree with, as Harlan Ellison said.

An agent can not write a check for you, has no book line, and wants everything to be an easy sell. Do not rewrite to agent suggestion. (More on that in a future chapter on Agent Myths.)

Speaking of Harlan, many of you know that over the decades he has tried to prove this point (and many others) to people. He would go into a bookstore, have someone give him a title or idea, then on a manual typewriter, he would sit in the bookstore window and write a short story, taping the finished pages on the window for everyone to read. He never rewrote any of those stories. He fixed a typo or two, but that’s it. And many of those stories won major awards in both science fiction and mystery. All first draft, written fast, in a window while people watched every word.

I know, I was going to publish a three-volume set of these award-winning stories written in public back when I was doing Pulphouse Publishing, but alas, he was still writing them, a new one almost every other week at that point, and the book never got out before we shut down. He’s done enough since then to fill two more books at least.

Every writer is different. I would have a tough time doing what Harlan does, but alas, it does prove the point that rewriting does not necessarily make a story better. And when you win as many awards in science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and mainstream fiction as Harlan has, you can argue with him. But trust me, if you are rewriting everything to death, that will never happen.

So how come rewriting makes stories worse instead of better?

Back to understanding how the brain works. The creative side, the deep part of our brain, has been taking in story, story structure, sentence structure, character voice, and everything else for a very long time, since each of us read our first book. It’s that place where our author voice comes from, where the really unique ideas come from.

The critical side of the brain is full of all the crap you learned in high school, everything your college teachers said, what your workshop said, and the myths you have bought into. It is also full of the fear that comes out in “I can’t show this to friends.” Or, “What would my mother think?” That is all critical side thinking that makes you take a great story and dumb it down.

In pure skill level, the critical side is far, far behind the creative side of your brain.

So, on a scale of one-to-ten, with ten being the top, the creative skills of a new writer with very few stories under his belt, if left alone, will produce early on a story about six or seven. However, at that point the writer’s critical skills are lagging far behind, so if written critically, a new writer would create a story about four on the scale. So take a well-written story that first draft was a seven on the scale, then let a new writer rewrite it and down the level comes to five or so.

I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a great story ruined by a number of things associated with this myth.

For example, take a great story, run it through a workshop, then try to rewrite it to group think. Yow, does it become dull, just as anything done by committee is dull.

Or worse yet, take a first chapter or two of a novel to a workshop and watch them ruin a good work in progress. Rule here is never let anyone see a work in progress. Ever. Run from workshops like that, and read-aloud workshops. All worthless, even for audience reaction. (More in a future chapter about the myth of writing workshops.)

I helped start and run a beginners workshop when I was first starting out. None of us had a clue, but we were all learning fast. I would write a story a week (all I could manage with three jobs at the time) and mail it, then turn it into my workshop for audience reaction.

That’s right, I mailed it before I gave it to my workshop.

And I sold a few stories that the workshop said failed completely, which taught me a lot, actually. If I had listened to them, I never would have made some of those early sales.

If you would like to see a first draft of one of my early stories, pick up Volume #1 of Writers of the Future. I was in the middle of moving from Portland to the Oregon Coast , actually packing the truck, when my then-wife, Denie, asked me if I had the story done for Writers of the Future that Algis Budrys had told me was starting up. I said no, the mailing deadline was the next day and I didn’t have time.

Thankfully, Denie insisted I go finish it while she packed. I didn’t tell her that I hadn’t even started it yet and had no idea what to write. I put the typewriter on a partially dismantled desk, sat on the edge of the bed, and wrote the story from start to finish having no idea what I was writing or where the story was going. Three hours later I finished the story called “One Last Dance” and mailed it on a dinner break.

That’s right, it was a first draft on a typewriter. No spell-checker, no first reader, nothing. Algis Budrys and Jack Williamson loved it and put it into the first volume, and because of that story, I ended up meeting Kris a couple of years later after Denie and I had broken up. I also got lots of wonderful trips and money and a great workshop from that three hour draft.

All because I had the courage to write and mail first draft. I trusted my creative skills, I trusted my voice, and I was lucky enough to have someone who gave me support at that point in the writing.

Another point: Every year, editor Denise Little and I prove the same point again to early career writers. We force them to write a short story overnight to an anthology idea and deadline, and those quickly written stories are always better than the ones the same writers wrote before the workshop.

Even though I believed this in theory and with my own writing, I was shocked when this happened at the first Denise Little workshop. It has happened every year since. Only one writer, who loves rewriting, was better rewriting than not. Only one out of almost 60 writers now. Again, all writers are different, but for the most part, the human brain works the same for most of us.

The creative side is just a better writer than the critical side, no matter what the critical side tries to tell you. Remember, the critical side has a voice, usually a voice of restraint and worry, but the creative side, as Kris likes to say, is your two-year-old child. It has no voice of reason and no way to fight. But if you let the child just play and get out of its way and stop trying to put your mother’s or father’s voice on everything it does, you will be amazed at what you create.

One more point.

Every writer is different, granted, but I have only met a few writers who really, really love to rewrite. Most find it horrid and a ton of work, but we all, with almost no exception, love to write original stuff.

If you can get past the myth of rewriting, writing becomes a lot more fun. Following Heinlein’s Rules is a ton of fun, actually. And you end up selling a lot of stuff as well.

However, this myth is so deep, I imagine many of you are angry at me at this moment, and trust me, even if you get past this myth in private, out in public you will need to lie.

That’s right, I just told a bunch of fiction writers to lie. Go figure. Maybe you don’t need to go as far as Hemingway and tell people that you write standing up. But you need to hide your process. I know one writer who at writer’s conferences tells people with a straight face he does upwards of ten drafts. I knew better and one day, in private, I asked him why he said that.

He just shrugged. “I like making my audience happy, so I tell them what they want to believe about me. It makes them believe my books and stories are worth more if I tell them I rewrote them ten times.”

So, out in public, you will hear me say simply that I am a three-draft writer. It’s the truth. I write a first draft, I spell-check the manuscript as a second draft, and I fix the typos and small details my first reader finds as a third draft.

And after 90 novel sales and a hundred plus short story sales, it seems to be working just fine. For me, anyway. Every writer is different.

But if you are rewriting and not selling, try to stop rewriting and just mail your work. You might be stunned at what happens.

Just remember, the writing process has nothing to do with the finished work. Never tell anyone you “cranked that off” or that it’s a “first draft.” Let them believe you worked like a ditch digger on the story, rewrote it 50 times, workshopped it a dozen times, and struggled over every word. Won’t hurt.

And getting rid of this myth for yourself sure might help your writing. And make writing a ton more fun.


Notice below that I have added onto this series of chapters a donate button where you can donate if you feel these chapters of this upcoming book helped you in some way and you want to keep me writing them and putting them up here. And if you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this article along to others who might get some help from it. Every week I will be adding a new chapter on the myths and sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned. Upcoming are chapters on agents, bestsellers, workshops, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.

Thanks, Dean

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