Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing,  On Writing,  publishing

Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Publishing: #3…Rewriting

This series of posts will turn into a book called Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Publishing later this fall with an introduction. And then it will be followed by a book called Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Indie Publishing.

But first I wanted to put each myth or “Sacred Cow” up here again as I promised.

This third Sacred Cow article was published here in 2010 and I redid it once in 2011, but now it is slightly redone for the world of 2013/2014. However, this third incarnation hasn’t changed that much.

On many of these posts it is amazing to me as I redo them how far my beliefs have changed in a few short years. And how far publishing has changed as well.

That’s the problem so many new fiction writers have these days. Who to listen to, who to agree with? These myths are in all of us. Some myths are very, very deep and based in old publishing and what your teachers in school believed decades ago.

The key is to just step back and think it through, decide what path, what method, is right for you. Very easy for me to say, very hard for all of us to do.

The Myth, simply put:

You Must Rewrite to Make Something Good

That’s one of the great myths of publishing. And one of the worst and most destructive to fiction writers.

First off, I want to repeat clearly what I said in the previous two chapters in different ways:

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’s 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. This often comes from fear or from workshop advice.

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 half a day for a full novel, sometimes only an hour or so.

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 the manuscript is 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 “three draft” writers 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 if I just keep typing, 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.)

More Basic Information About Writers

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 done, on to the major topic.

So, what’s the great myth about rewriting?

First, our colleges and our training and New York editors and agents all think that rewriting can make something better.

Most of the time that 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.

Secondly, it makes writers think there is only one “right” way of writing.

And that if you don’t fit into that way and rewrite everything, you are doing something wrong. That kind of thinking kills more good writers’s careers than I can imagine, and I can imagine a great deal. And I have watched first hand it kill more writer’s dreams than I want to remember.

All writers are different, so sometimes a writer works with a ton of rewrites. Sometimes a writer just does one draft.

A Wonderful Conversation with a Master

One fine evening I was having a conversation with Algis Budrys about rewriting and why so many new writers believed the myth. He shrugged and said, “They don’t know any better and no one has the courage to tell them.”  So I asked him if he ever thought rewriting could fix a flawed story. His answer was clear and I remember it word-for-word to this day: “No matter how many times you stir up a steaming pile of crap, it’s still just a steaming pile of crap.”

If you ever worry about not “fixing” a story because you didn’t rewrite it, just put that quote on your wall.

So, as an example, let’s take some new writer hoping to write a book that will sell at some point. This new 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. (It makes the new writer feel like a “real writer” if they rewrite because all “real writers” rewrite.)

All beginning fiction writers believe this myth, and you hear it in comments about their novel 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. It might be great, but it also might be crap. (Let me refer you back to Algis Budrys’ comment.) More than likely the first 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 or indie publish it yourself.

That’s right, I said, “Mail it or publish it.”

Awkkk!!!   Has Dean lost it?

I can just hear the voices in your heads screaming now…

“But, it’s no good! It needs a rewrite! It might be a steaming pile of crap. I can’t mail something that’s flawed to an editor!!!”

Or you indie published writers are thinking…

“I can’t publish a book that’s flawed or readers will hate me!!!!”

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.

And if it isn’t, WE WON’T REMEMBER. Why? Because we didn’t read it. Duh.

And readers of indie published books have a wonderful thing called “sampling.” And taste. If the book sucks, oh, trust me, no reader but your family will buy it. And at that point you don’t have a “career” to kill anyway. (Future chapter on that myth.)

Just because the book is bad doesn’t mean someone will come to your house and arrest you if you mail it or publish it. Editors do not talk about manuscripts that don’t work and readers never buy or read them.

Honestly, no one can shoot you for publishing it.

So get past the fear and just mail it. Or publish it. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. (What happens if it is wonderful and will make you a million?)

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. A future myth chapter.)

If You Don’t Rewrite, How Can You Learn?

You have to write new material to learn. No one ever learned how to be a creative writer by rewriting. Only by writing.

So, after the story or book is in the mail or published, start writing the next story or book, go to workshops and writer’s conferences to learn storytelling skills, learn business, and meet people.

Study how other writers do things.

But keep writing that second story or book.

And then repeat.

Trust me, the second one will be a lot better than the first one, especially if you just trust yourself and write it and don’t fall into the myth of rewriting.

When the second one is done, go celebrate again, then fix the typos and such and mail it to an editor who might buy it or publish it yourself, 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. But if your English Professor could make a living writing fiction, they would have been doing it.

Putting new and original words on a page is writing. Nothing more, and nothing less.

— Research is not writing.

— Rewriting is not writing.

— Talking to other writers is not writing.

And what you will discover that is amazing is that the more you write, the better your skills become. 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).

Well, if you want to be a professional fiction writer, it’s time to bring the word “practice” into your speaking. On your next novel, make it a practice session for cliffhangers. Mail the novel and then work on practicing something different on the next story or novel. And so on.

Follow Heinlein’s Business Rules

I believe that a writer is a person who writes. An author is a person who has written.

I want to always be a writer, so I have, since 1982, followed Robert Heinlein’s business rules. And those rules have worked for many, many of us for decades and decades.

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 addition: And then only if you agree.

And, of course, if you indie publish, substitute “publish” in #4  for “mail” and let reader’s buy it. And then for #5 just keep it for sale.

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 and many are now in college text books being studied by professors who tell their students they must rewrite. But Harlan wrote all first draft, written fast, sometimes in a window while people watched him type 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.

If you want more on Heinlein’s Rules, I did an almost two hour lecture (15 videos) on how and why Heinlein’s Rules work and how they worked for me over the decades. It’s under the lecture series tab if interested.

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 or had a book read to us. 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 like a fish biting on a yummy worm. Your critical voice 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 storytelling skill level, the critical side is far, far behind the creative side of your brain. And always will be.

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 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. (Workshop myth coming in a future chapter.)

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. Why? Because I had no intention of ever rewriting it. I followed Heinlein’s Rules.

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 (electric) on a partially dismantled desk on top of a large box, 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 gone our own ways. I also got lots of wonderful trips and money and a great workshop from that three hour draft. And now, twenty-nine years later the story is still in print and I’m still proud of it.

All because I had the courage to write and mail first draft. Because I followed Heinlein’s Rules.

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 Example: Every year for years, editor Denise Little and I would prove that same point again to early career writers. We forced them to write a short story overnight to an anthology idea and deadline, and those quickly-written stories were always better than the ones the same writers wrote over weeks before the workshop. And many of those stories, first drafts, have been in published anthologies out of New York.

The problem was that even though Denise and I harped on that lesson for years, most of those writers would then just go home and write back to rewriting, making their stories worse. That’s how powerful this myth is.

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 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 or teacher’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 writing and 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 must write standing up because writing comes from the groin or some such nonsense. (He loved screwing with new writers minds.) But you do 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.”

In other words, even though the reality of professional fiction writing is often few drafts, readers still believe we must rewrite because they went to the same English classes we did. Duh.

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 100 plus novel sales and hundreds of short story sales, it seems to be working just fine.

For me, anyway.

Every writer is different.

If you are rewriting and not selling, try to stop rewriting for a year and just mail or publish 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 for seven years. Won’t hurt your readers.

But getting rid of this myth for yourself sure might help your writing.

And make writing a ton more fun.


Copyright © 2013 Dean Wesley Smith

Cover art copyright Dennis Crow/Dreamstime

This chapter is now part of my inventory in my Magic Bakery.  I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie. 

I make my living with my writing. Sometimes I write these for fun, to entertain myself, sometimes I write them to help others.

Either way, if you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated over this last year. I don’t always get a chance to respond, but the donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!

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  • Samuel Stevens

    I’m sure this comes with practice and experience, but do you find there are times when using (some) critical voice helps a story? Thanks for this great series, I make sure to re-read every so often. It also convinced me to self publish, rather than gamble with a literary agent and big publishing.

  • Brad Laue

    Your take on rewriting? So True. I believe that the rewrite happens as you type. The spinning matrix of possible sentences quickly settles on the best one and you move on. After sixty-three years of considering myself a writer and not writing anything, I started writing last March. By October 15th, I have finished two detective novels. I have read almost all your ‘myths’ and find them all to be true after just two months of trying the traditional route. I have come to the conclusion they do me a great favor by ignoring my query letters.

  • Frank

    A friend linked this and I was procrastinating so I clicked.

    I cannot tell you how much I needed to read this. I have always thought rewriting ruined what I had written and just thought it was something that I had to get over and learn to do to write. I need a spelling rewrite. I need minor changes to wording because I have a rather odd speech pattern and sometimes that makes it onto the page and the wording is a bit clumsy. But otherwise, I have liked what I wrote. I never share though because I can’t bring myself to rewrite and if I can’t rewrite something is obviously wrong with me, right?

    Thank you.

  • Catherine L Byrne

    I don’t agree with this whatsoever. I write my first draft, then leave it for weeks. When I come back to it I inevitably find things like time jumps which don’t make sense, characters popping into scenes who physically shouldn’t be there, no description of people or places, little detail, dull conversations etc. I have to go over it and correct or deepen all those or the story just doesn’t make sense. Then after a few re-reads and re-writes, it makes sense at last. Maybe I’m not rewriting in the same way as you?

    • Brian Jarrett

      The more books I write, the less rework they need because I get better with each book. That only happens with writing lots of new books, not writing the same book over and over again. Limit to one first draft pass, one revision, and then ship it off to the editor. That’s the way I do it, and I write six books a year while also working as a full-time computer programmer with a wife and two kids.

  • Sean Crawford

    I am in a weekly free fall group where most of us don’t write daily, and almost none of us are published. (We write freely and fast, then we go around the table reading aloud) But it’s great fun, and I think it could lead individuals to daily writing and being published. In my case, I only write non-fiction at home so I cherish free fall (invented by W.O. Mitchell) as a chance to do fiction.

    The last I saw of a lady called “Alice” was as I was leaving free fall once, and she was telling our chairman that writers have to re-write and Alice was almost in tears saying this. I didn’t know that day that she would never return. If I see her again I will tell her about this posting.

    Also I will quote Asimov writing that Heinlein said to him, “Isaac, Isaac, why do you do two drafts? I only do one.” But poor Asimov wrote that he was now stuck in his habit of two drafts—I think he meant re-typing a second time.

    For the sake of Alice and I,
    thank you.