The Rewriting Myth
Got a Letter Today…
A very real private letter from a very, very frustrated person who had just seen the Sacred Cow posts I did all those years ago. (Some are dated but they are all still here.) The writer was thanking me for talking sanity.
The letter was heartbreaking, described how it had taken a year-and-a-half to write the novel and two-and-a-half more years rewriting and the writer still wasn’t happy with it, but wanted to move on.
The writer was clearly having a long-held dream crushed by the myths that range from writing slow and sloppy to rewriting and needing editors and agents and so on.
Once again, reading that letter, I came to hate these myths that kill people’s dreams. And the myths are illogical and like cockroaches scuttle for shelter when a real-life light is shined on them.
Seems I was the light for this poor writer for a short moment. But I take no credit since most of you here know about trying to talk with someone who is buried in the myths. They will not listen and get angry at you. And wow have I had my share of people angry at me over the decades. I just shrug and keep doing what I do.
This writer today was open and willing to hear simply because the other way was about to crush the dream completely.
So folks, the lesson here is to never, ever let a myth in at any point of your career. They will kill you eventually. Crush them the moment you discover one impacting your life and writing. And unlike this writer who wrote me today, you might not know you are even being killed.
What myths am I talking about? How about just the four the writer who sent me the letter talked about.
— Writing slowly equals writing better and writing quickly equals writing poorly.
Stupid beyond words. All of us type about the same pace. Writing quickly means we spend more time writing, thus we get better. Duh. Called practice. The poor writer above spent 1.5 years writing a book first draft. Say the book is 100,000 words long. Divide that by say 500 days and you get the blazing speed of 200 words per day. Most people type longer emails or Facebook posts than that.
— Rewriting makes stories better.
The most deadly of all myths. This one not only kills productivity because instead of writing new books, you are screwing around with the old one. But mostly it tells your creative voice over time that it is valueless because you will fix it later. Thus your creative voice eventually refuses to show up and you are finished, the dream dead. Write and cycle and fix anything the first time through in creative voice only so when you are finished you are done. Then fix typos a first reader finds and typos a copyeditor finds, get the story in print, and move on to the next story.
— Agents will help you.
Head-shaking stupid. They help you in this new world sell all rights to your work and will rip you off. They had their place last century, but time to move into the new world.
— Traditional publishers will help you.
Nope. They will help you lose all your rights to your work and years and years of your time when you could be building an audience and writing more books and practicing and becoming a better storyteller.
I hope in my letter back I gave the writer the help needed to try to change the path and find the fun and the dream again. I kind of doubt it because any person that far down into the myths seldom recovers.
But I can hope.
Linda Maye Adams
When you first published the original myths, they were posted up on a writing message board at the time. The writers there were scandalized and shocked. How can you write without revising?! I looked at it at the time and couldn’t conceive of doing this myself. I spent far too long on one novel and probably should have walked away from it. What happened was that I would hit the one-third point, get stuck, figure that the problem was in the beginning, so I would go back and revise to fix it. Then get stuck again. I’d write short stories for a while, circle back to the novel, and repeat the revision. I should have abandoned the novel and started a new one, except that I didn’t have any other ideas except that one. It was very scary!
Enter the message boards. It was exciting to find other writers like me, except that they weren’t and it took me a long time to figure that out. The message boards can be fun, and it can be fun to help people…and it becomes this hotbed of passing around the myths. Every time you hear about revising from another writer, it looks more and more like that’s the correct route. I naturally cycled when I wrote (though I called it revising as I wrote. Bad move). I kept hearing “write straight through and don’t look back” and eventually I tried it, with horrible results. It took me a long time to get a clue that the problem was coming from all the other writers and what they were telling me and not from how I was writing.
If anyone reading this is still on message boards, get off them now. Some of the writers don’t know what they’re talking about, there are others who actively sabotage others who are trying to be successful. One writer who was bitter about not getting published anywhere would zoom in on a writer trying to get better by studying best sellers. He would tell that writer, “Big name writer can get away with that. You can’t, so don’t even try.” And it’s very hard to spot this kind of thing when you’re in a group like that because many people are saying the same thing that it starts to sound like the truth.
Never have understood the thinking of people who want to pull others down to their level, Ran into them all the time over the decades. Some were friends that I had to get away from, sadly.
There will always be critics. The key is to not put yourself in their way or open yourself up to them in any fashion. So Linda, great advice on the boards. Learn a detail here or there but never put yourself or your methods out on them. Don’t read reviewers or reviews for any reason, good or bad. Avoid those at all costs. They can become mind worms.
In other words, believe in your own writing and keep learning and having fun.
Great new take on the subject, Dean. I saw only yesterday in a comment on FB a writer said she wrote a novel in 3 months but found some errors. So she rewrote it over the next THREE YEARS. Then spent a good while chasing agents before finally giving up completely. The stories abound. Those who are fortunate enough learn, and those who don’t, don’t.
Many of us have spent 20+ years having these myths hammered into our heads. Mountains of Writer’s Digest articles, books about “how to get published,” conferences, query letters… Then we find ONE voice — yours — saying the complete opposite. At first, we hesitate. Then, we realize what the writer in your post realized: the “traditional” way didn’t work! If something doesn’t work, then why not try something new and different?
Ever since I started taking your workshops and reading your books, I’ve become more productive and writing has become fun again just like when I started at age 11 or so. Not only that, but I noticed all my favorite big time authors break the “rules” constantly.
Example: show don’t tell. You know how many times an author TELLS me something in a book? Guess what? I LIKE the story he’s telling. As long as the hook is set with depth, I’ll follow his prose anywhere.
Like you, I also read a ton of hardboiled mysteries and pulp from the old days, and those guys did NOTHING BUT focus on crafting a great story. One of my favorites, fellow Philadelphian David Goodis, broke so, so many rules and nowadays even snobbish experts consider him a classic noir writer.
Before I discovered the books, lectures, and workshops from you (and Kris), I was ready to quit writing. Now, I can’t wait to write.
Thanks, Philip. And really the key is to toss out all the rules we all learned and tell good stories, learn storytelling craft, which is different from rules, and keep having fun.
I really believe that the secret to becoming a professional fiction writer is clearing out all the rules.
“But mostly it tells your creative voice over time that it is valueless because you will fix it later.”
Something clicked when I saw this sentence. For a few years, I had a lot of self doubt about my creative brain, and I think this is a big reason why. I told myself I had to revise and rewrite with my inner critic and beta readers told me my work wasn’t good enough, so I started to doubt my story telling abilities, and almost killed my passion for writing. I don’t know what brought it back, maybe that fire that I had to get my stories told.
Also, a problem I’ve been seeing with the writing community. They are convinced that they are not “rewriting” anything, but they are instead “revising” their work, and if you say it’s rewriting, they will say no, it’s not because you’re just giving your work a new vision to make it better, and rewriting is “starting over and throwing it away”. I’m starting to roll my eyes at this expression, especially when they tell you that the best way to write is to “outline, then write a sloppy first draft, ‘revise’ a bunch of time to make it perfect”, and that if you aren’t good at “revising” or live with the fact that you will have to revise a few times, you’re going to be a bad writer. I have to admit, I cannot rewrite well at all, my first attempts tend to be my best ones, and my rewrites tend to be more wooden and mechanical since my critical brain is such an over thinker. At times, when I think about the great rewriters, I think I’m doing it wrong, but I have to fight back every day.
Janine, there were no great rewriters. That is part of the myth. All writers tell their reading public that we work hard and rewrite, because remember the reading public expects that and for some reason will find less value in a book if they know it was first draft. So when out in public, all writers make up stories about how they really write when asked. Smart ones avoid or dodge the question, leaving the impression with readers they worked hard. But rewriters are doomed to just a few books and then burn out. So unless they rewrote and hit the lottery on their first book, there are no great rewriters. Just great fibbers.
My big question is about writers telling each other (and stubborn people that refuse to rewrite) that they are not “rewriting” anything, but instead “revising” their work, saying the two things are way different. Is revising usually just another word for rewriting nowadays?
Janine, more than likely they are the same. When you toss an entire draft out and start over without looking at the previous draft Kris and I call “redrafting.”
But revising and rewriting all seem like the same thing to me. Add in words like polishing and you have the same death trap no matter what it is called.
Quick question for you on the redrafting process, Dean. How often do you and Kris find yourself doing that? It seems like your creative brain would be tired of the story at the point and want to move on to something else. At least that’s been my experience whenever I’ve thought about restarting a story from scratch.
Rarely redraft anymore. If a story isn’t what we want it to be, it still usually works and gets put out. We are the worst judges of our own work, so we don’t try to judge our stuff anymore. Too much danger of critical voice getting into that process.
Answer to Phillip: I redraft all the time. The only difference is now I know when I’m headed the wrong way, so I abandon stories about 1/3 in, and start the new draft the “right” way. A lot of those story starts become something else, or if I’m writing a novel in a series, actually belong to a later book. So I never throw anything away…
Linda Maye Adams
Editing is also used interchangeably with revision. I’ve had an editing class, so it boggles my mind that writers–who are supposed to be in control of their words–don’t know what editing, revision, and rewriting actually are.
Yeah, that always gives me a chuckle as well.
Ugh. Whenever I meet new people I send them straight to your myths and Heinlein’s rules.
Ashley R Pollard
No argument from me. I missed the fate of getting an agent by dumb luck.
Ditto a traditional publishing house contract, because if they don’t want the first book in a trilogy they ain’t going to want the other two. Dumb luck again saved me from that fate.
Rewriting: I was a bit dumb. In my defense my rewriting was more about the learning the craft of story telling.
Writing slowly: I write at my best speed. Some days that’s pretty good, some days I’m crippled by self-doubt over whether I’ve done enough research. It sucks to be me.
Ashley, the myth is that you learn storytelling by rewriting. Part of the myth. Nope, you learn storytelling by telling new stories.
Ashley R Pollard
Yep, Two novel published this year, third being copy edited ready for release, and I’ve got three new novels and a series on the go.
The only thing slowing me down is Real Life health issues. Gotta take care of that before I can throttle up.
I spent somewhere around a decade picking at the same novel, adding and subtracting plot points, tweaking sentences, reinventing characters. I finally wound up self-publishing it after over a hundred rejections from agents. I’m happy with the end result, but I’m also happy to have that whole process behind me. Just a few weeks ago I finished a new novel draft; I started cycling about a third of the way through, and I’ve found the process a lot more satisfying. I’ve also been writing more short stories, and having more fun writing them.
I came to realize most of what other writers were telling me was bullshite when they simply couldn’t *read* the blasted story! (Am on Wattpad) They can’t see past they story mechanics grammar (mine is fine) or incomplete sentences (I have a few here and there done for effect. They can’t see that either. It’s exhausting. And, what’s with the hate of semicolons? I like them if they don’t too bad! They are great for a nice flowy passage or dialogue where a character doesn’t take a breath. Jez.
It ticks me off when basically they want me to write like them and squash my characters voices!
Let them live!
I had to waste two more years (am a mom so writing time is hard to find.) carefully undo the damage I did listening to them.
Forget it I don’t want anyone’s poison advice any longer. The only reason I’m fixing this story is because I still think its fun as heck, my readers like it too. Other writers so obsessed with the rules they miss out on the joy of writing. I give up tryingto wake people up their … ‘text-book’ shades are on too tight. I’ve been looking for writers like you all for years now. I’ll come back soon.
Simular thing happened to me. I had a bunch of unpublished writers look at my work and while some of it was good advice and helped me in the redraft, there was a lot of nitpick comments about the smallest things. Like the grammar should be this, or writing it a certain way to conform to some rule or to the way they think it should be written. I noticed that most readers don’t really nitpick on such things, and published authors nitpick a bit less than the unpublished ones. When I look for first readers again, I’ll make sure the only things they want me to fix is story breaking stuff.
Honestly, it’s only my drive to want to tell this story my way (with changes that I want to implement, not driven by others), and it’s really helped me.
I remember when I first heard you speak about rewriting. I thought you were batshit crazy … but not crazy enough to ignore. I stayed with you, read what you had to say, but wasn’t 100% convinced. But I am now. What made me get on the no-rewriting wagon?
To be honest, it was something I heard Orson Scott Card say. He said there is only one “living draft” (his words), and that’s the first draft. You might have to throw away three or four or five incomplete first attempts to arrive at the one and only living draft, but arrive you must. (He said he once — and only once — threw away 400 pages of a 500 page novel because he thougth of a better ending which required him to re-vision the first 4/5ths of the story!!!!!) There can be no rewriting, he added, because rewriting is the death of the living draft. The first draft is the only living draft because the first draft is the purest expression of your voice and your story. When you start tinkering with a first draft (beyond basic edits), you start killing what makes the story yours.
So far, he sounded like you. But then he added the magic words: he explained why this was true.
When you write a story, he said, you are putting the vision in your head on paper. But when you rewrite, you are trying to put a new vision on paper. The problem is that the words you used to create the first vision cannot be reused to create the second vision. To create the second vision — which is a NEW vision of your story — you need NEW words. Therefore, he said, true “revision” — that is, seeing your story anew, re-visioning it — necessitates new words. So you throw away the old vision with the old words — get rid of it entirely, and never look at it again — and you start over, on page one, with new words, because the goal is to capture the new vision. If you get a new vision for your story, you MUST get new words, too. He said that until you accept this, you can never become a professional writer.
WOW, I thought. That makes a hullava lot of sense. And it reminded me not only of all your talk about the rewriting myth, but about something else I heard you say — that professional writers aren’t afraid to throwaway their words.
Since then, I haven’t looked back.
Yup, Scott was one of my instructors at Clarion. I had just six months before found and climbed onto Heinlein’s Rules and Scott (in hindsight was new as well, just a few years ahead of me) and he not only talked this, but showed it.
Sort of a surprise for some to hear that Scott is a one draft writer, huh? (grin) Glad his words helped you understand this. Fantastic!
Folks, read a few times what Rich put there. Important second way of looking at the same thing.
Ok, this has surprised me enough to bring me out of lurking. I’ve been following you for years, read both Heinlein’s Rules and Writing into the Dark, and despite that I still struggle with it. Even when I have only ever finish works while writing into the dark. Go figure.
But this little tidbit sent me down the rabbit hole and I read that Mr Card also got this idea/advice from a Dean Koontz book on writing. Kind of topical given your recent post. The rabbit hole also showed me another well known and award winning Sci-Fi writer (Robert J. Sawyer) who follows Heinlein’s rules, among others you have mentioned. More voices that add to your bugle call for change.
So thank you to both you and Rich. I think I am going to have to get back on the horse, so to speak. Unlearn what I have re-learned from the myths and get back to what I enjoy most; writing into the dark and storytelling.
Oh, Matt, I have no illusions to change anything. They myths are buried so deep, all the way through the school systems, that it would be impossible to change. What I am trying to do is show writers who want to be professional that they need to get out of the myths and stand up for their own work and have fun. Not out to change anything, just help when a writer wants a hand up into professional writer world.
Ok, not a bugle call then. Perhaps a lighthouse, guiding those who are paying attention away from harm so that we can enjoy the open sea and safer shores.
Either way, thank you for all that you do.
Wow! I love that way of expressing it! Thank you so much for sharing that. I’ve never been one for all the revising/rewriting/polishing that I hear other writers speak of. I just feel like I got it right the first time around. Why tinker with what is not broken? Sure, I’ll do a fix-errors pass, like Dean talks about, but that usually takes very little time. But Card’s explanation helps me understand why that first draft is The One, and I like understanding why. 😀
Thank you for sharing that, Rich. I’ve screencapped this for future reference – like you, I’ve been trying my best to follow along with Dean’s advice, but Card’s way of phrasing it there really resonates for me.
You’ve literally just cleared up a major blocking issue I was having with a novel. Thank you. I appreciate it. 🙂
It’s because of my impatience alone why Ive never fallen into this myth.
I have a question. I know you write to the dark and don’t outline. Right now I’m in book 4 of a series that just started with a single idea that spiraled out. My question is, what do you think of outlining as you go? The reason I asked this is because last night as I was trying to fall asleep, I came up with a huge reveal/twist that happens in book 5 and then the ideas for book 5 just started flowing even though I haven’t finished book 4 yet so I wrote them down. Would that be considered outlining considering that I never actually sat down to write an outline? It’s the same with another series. I started writing the first book, then the objectives for the next eight just came into my head. I guess that means I technically never wrote ‘into the dark’ since the ideas flow so quickly that ending scenes and sequels come to me without much effort.
Law, I would write down something I thought of for another book, put it on a note pad, and then promptly forget it is there. That’s just me. Only time being out ahead is when you do it with the critical brain and that restricts the creative brain. Usually being out ahead stops people cold in their books. But if it helps you be creative, why not. Just caution on using things you have thought of as a fence to control and contain your creative voice. Think of the ideas as being out there on the open range and if you make your way to them fine, if not, no big deal.
I have a notebook that I keep track of things to add in earlier in the book and ideas for later. Sometimes just having a list helps, even if I never use it. Most of the time I have those big epiphanies though is when I’m falling asleep or not even thinking about the book so I know it’s not from the critical brain, especially not when the ideas are sometimes so random. I usually try not to plan too much but I can’t stop my mind once it’s grabbed onto an idea then suddenly entire scenes are playing out in my head and the ending is usually what I see first. It does usually get me to pump out words at a speed that cramps my fingers, I was just wondering if I was hampering my creativity by doing that. I’m trying to write the best stories I possibly can and I want to eliminate anything that will prevent that.
Thanks for the reply.
No writer is the same, Law. The key is how much time you are spending in critical voice vs creative voice. If you find yourself stuck a lot, struggling, rewriting from critical voice, then it will wear you down over time to the point where writing isn’t fun. When writing becomes work, when you dread any part of it, it is time to change. Most writers learn one way and think that is the only way. If I had stuck with my “only way” thirty years ago, I would have had a five year career and been gone.
So watch the critical voice, the rewriting. That is the killer even though it might be working at the moment, it is doomed for long term and the complete death of productivity.
I think I’m fine then. Creating stories is the most fun part of my day and figuring out which cool thing to write next is the hardest decisions for me to make. I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing then. Thanks for the articles and the replies.
That’s why I write out of order. I would have gotten up, written the plot twist as a scene, and then gone back to sleep. Often that scene gets placed in the future novel verbatim. My storytelling brain likes jigsaw puzzles, so I let it put the pieces together in the way it wants to.
I need an intervention! I’m embarrassed to say I’ve been working on the same novel for years. Good freakin’ grief. I’ve swallowed the Kool-Aid big time and I want to break free but I’m soooo scared. I guess I’m gonna continue to thrash around until I finally get the courage to let go of what obviously is not working.
One thing to remember… It’s only one book, one story, and it doesn’t matter in the scheme of things to your career. You have made one book “important” (echo chamber) and thus the fear can’t help but control. I wrote four books last July. All of them are in print, two are Cold Poker Gang novels and selling like crazy.
I have novels out for sale that haven’t sold one copy this entire year. (Oh, my, I must be a “failure”… shock!!) Nope, just one book, one story, no one cares.
So stop caring and go back to the fun of writing. Stop worrying about the final product, focus on the process of having fun telling a story. You’ll break it if you do that.
Thanks for the reply, Dean. I really appreciate you taking the time to respond. I’m sure you get so tired of saying the same things over and over but it gives me hope!
Just stumbled onto this post, never heard of you before right now 6:51 pm Monday Aug 13 2018… but I’m DIGGING what I see here and the freedom ebbing from the comments. I look forward to seeing that original myth post.
Under Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing at the top of the page. It’s an older post, so slightly dated, but still holds up just fine. And it’s long!
What’s crazy is the advice new writers give each other. Oh, you finished something? Tear it apart! It’s crap! It has THOUSANDS of mistakes in it. Now the real work begins. Better start by dissecting your prose. Don’t use the word ‘was’, that’s bad writing!….
Oof. Just the suggestion that they should send it out or indie publish and move on will have tons of negative replies from “professionals” with no books.
Anyway, thank you Dean for telling us how it’s done! I was lucky to find your website in 2014. I’m working on my 12th and 13th novel now. 😀 Glad to hear you’re still saving writers from the myths!
That’s why you never tell them and don’t get involved with boards like that. Just keep your writing and process to yourself and have fun with it. And then follow Heinlein’s Rules and get the work out to those folks who can buy it.
Yeah, the rules for good writing are just odd. They put in your head that there’s only one “correct” way to write prose, and force you into this “serious writer voice” that Kris mentioned several times. And I noticed most of these people who say this are unpublished writers or only have a book or two out. You get the idea that your voice is unacceptable and must be molded into mush.
Then you read a bunch of published books and see that the rules are all wrong. Apparently, readers don’t care for these rules as much as these writers think. Stories that they would ding for poor prose, five star reviews across the board. That was one of the wake up calls that my voice didn’t need to be changed and to rediscover it. Even as I cycle through now, there’s the occasional voice (that I shut out) that tells me that this sentence is not written “writerly” enough because it breaks some rule. I found out that the first time is usually the best move and makes the story flow, and that’s the most important thing.
I dictate my books with Dragon NaturallySpeaking. Afterward, I go back in cycle through the scenes 3 to 6 times each. Depending on what it needs. I always have lots of typos. Wrong words too, because of the dictation. I will admit that sometimes it’s hard to go back, because I feel like I’ve already written the book. I have often envied your method of writing to the end and being done. Any tips for people who dictate?
Nope, the method forces you into critical voice for a second draft. No way around it.
D S Butler
Kevin J Anderson dictates. A while ago, he had an option to follow along as he wrote a story. (Spine of the Dragon, I think it was called). It was amazing. I got to listen to his dictation then see the final version. It was eye-opening and fun to watch. I’m not sure if he still has it available.
I dictate a lot too. If you do it straight to the computer it’s not much different to typing and cycling is possible. If you dictate into a recorder, it’s hard to do one draft.
I love trying new things, and dictation is up there with the top skills I’m glad I took the time to learn. I love this business. I’m always learning ?
Thanks! That sounds interesting. I’ll look into that. I love to dictate and can’t really see myself going back to typing.
I don’t use dictations, but I suspect (it feels right) that you should still be able to cycle through the whole thing. Just remember to read for pleasure to stay in creative voice as you go. As I understand it, and as it works for me, staying in creative voice vs critical voice is the big difference between cycling and rewriting.
Diane, I dictate also. The common advice I hear on message boards is to not look at the text and don’t fix mistakes. In my experience, that’s how you make word stew. (Maybe after a few years, I would be better, I don’t know.) I dictate on my computer, with the words happening in front of me. I correct about 80% of mistakes and just leave little things I can’t be bothered with while I’m in the flow.
This isn’t much faster than typing, (I average about 1500wph including breaks) but I have found it’s easier to write entire scenes without stopping for a break. The words come out nicely, only needing a proofread when I’m done. I’ve been dictating since April, so I don’t have a lot of experience with it yet, but when a character’s voice isn’t coming through, I stop typing and turn on Dragon. Storytelling the old fashioned way helps me find that rich POV I like in my stories because I’m sort of roleplaying aloud as the character.
Common advice I hear also is to outline your chapters thoroughly so you don’t get off track. Waste of time, imo. You might as well just type it out if you’re writing an in-depth outline per chapter, lol.
This advice helped me quite a lot, back when I first saw it. Years ago, now. But I doubt I’d be writing full-time today if I hadn’t seen it then.
So I just read this 2013 Atlantic article (https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/01/my-pencils-outlast-their-erasers-great-writers-on-the-art-of-revision/267011/) quoting multiple authors on the virtues of revision, rewriting, cutting, trimming, etc.; and right in the middle is this quote from Nick Hornby:
“Anyone and everyone taking a writing class knows that the secret of good writing is to cut it back, pare it down, winnow, chop, hack, prune, and trim, remove every superfluous word, compress, compress, compress …
Actually, when you think about it, not many novels in the Spare tradition are terribly cheerful. Jokes you can usually pluck out whole, by the roots, so if you’re doing some heavy-duty prose-weeding, they’re the first to go. And there’s some stuff about the whole winnowing process I just don’t get. Why does it always stop when the work in question has been reduced to sixty or seventy thousand words—entirely coincidentally, I’m sure, the minimum length for a publishable novel? I’m sure you could get it down to twenty or thirty if you tried hard enough. In fact, why stop at twenty or thirty? Why write at all? Why not just jot the plot and a couple of themes down on the back of an envelope and leave it at that? The truth is, there’s nothing very utilitarian about fiction or its creation, and I suspect that people are desperate to make it sound manly, back-breaking labor because it’s such a wussy thing to do in the first place. The obsession with austerity is an attempt to compensate, to make writing resemble a real job, like farming, or logging. (It’s also why people who work in advertising put in twenty-hour days.) Go on, young writers—treat yourself to a joke, or an adverb! Spoil yourself! Readers won’t mind!” —Nick Hornby, The Polysyllabic Spree
See where the myth comes from… (grin) Luckily there are logical people like Nick that take the stupidity to the logical extension and point it out. Fun stuff, Alex. Thanks.
Yeah, that whole “cut it back, pare it down, winnow, chop…” thing doesn’t work for me – or for anyone else who writes very spare prose to begin with.
I went to a workshop with Don Maass once, and one of the exercises we did was just that cutting back, eliminating prose, and by the third (!) round, mine was unintelligible.
I understand that most writers are over-writers, but if you’re not, this advice is bull. I’m more likely to cycle back and realize that I left something out (like, say, description, because I’m not very visual on top of writing sparely) than that I need to cut something.
Others’ mileage will vary, of course.
Dean, quick question. I’ve been following you for a couple years but suddenly had this thought: aren’t pretty much all writing craft books food for your critical brain? In other words, should we give up reading Writer’s Digest and all those zillions of craft books? I feel like once we’ve committed to Writing Into the Dark, all those other books just continue to feed and grow the critical brain. I had no idea I was doing this to myself but I’ve been reading dozens of craft books (and hundreds of craft articles) each year and it always–ALWAYS–makes me second guess my writing. It seems so obvious, but it all just hit me following this thread. Your thoughts?
Philip, I still read some of them, but I do so with a filter, pushing away all the dreck and looking for that one bit of new learning that will help. But if you can’t filter, yes, stop reading them until you build up the filter. And it sounds like you are letting them in so might be better to hold off for a time.
My attitude is that if a book costs me $12.99 (I buy paper) and I get a solid piece of learning from it, just one piece, one detail, it was worth the price. Cheap education, but again I have great filters.
Thank you for this post Dean.
I have read your book Heinlein’s Rules but I don’t know what cycling is. Is it like a partial redrafting? I read about an old pulp writer who would write and at times, if he saw the story was getting off track, would go back to the last acceptable point in the draft and redraft from there. Is that cycling?
Cycling, explained shortly (explained much fuller in a ton of places, including Writing into the Dark) is hard to explain clearly and quickly.
What I do is to write about four or five hundred words, pop up out of the timeline of the book, go back four hundred words or so and go through it again, still in creative voice, adding in stuff mostly, making sure it is right. Then when I get to the white page where I stopped I have speed up and the story fresh and I go forward another four hundred words or so and then cycle back about six hundred words and go through it again until I hit the white page and then go forward with new words for about four hundred and repeat and repeat until I get to the end.
When I get to the end I have a clean first draft, written all in creative voice. Off to the first reader and then the copyeditor to find typos and then into print.
With this method I average about 1,000 clean words per hour, sometimes lately a little more.
So how to look at the writing is a series of loops with forward progress on each loop. When I get to something that needs to be added in earlier, I cycle back right at that moment and put it in.
I never write sloppy, clean one draft. And then move on to the next story.
Thanks Dean. I got it, however I’m going to order Writing Into The Dark now!
Devils Advocate !
Dean I want to quote from that other Dean now if it’s okay: Dean Konntz.
He says in several places online that he is basically what amounts to the opposite of what you say. That is he rewrites a lot amd works 10+ hours a day but only gets about 6 pages done and that revising helps him get it right.
I am firmly in the Dean Wesley Smith camp but it always disturbs me when the big names preach the myths. Am I to take that the other Dean is just lying because fans can’t handle the truth?
Here is the first quote:
Writer’s block? Never had it. All writer’s block arises from self-doubt, and I have more self-doubt than any writer I know; however, I turn that negative energy into a positive by the magic of revision and polish. By doing the aforementioned 20, 30, and more drafts per page, I force myself into a deeper intimacy with the prose and the story, with the result that as it is polished, I become more confident about it and can move on to the next page, where new doubt will arise but will be assuaged by revision. It might not work for you, but it works for me. Staring at the keyboard accomplishes nothing-but revision keeps you at work and in the story.
“I work 10- and 11-hour days because in long sessions I fall away more completely into story and characters than I would in, say, a six-hour day. On good days, I might wind up with five or six pages of finished work; on bad days, a third of a page. Even five or six is not a high rate of production for a 10- or 11-hour day, but there are more good days than bad. And the secret is doing it day after day, committing to it and avoiding distractions. A month–perhaps 22 to 25 work days–goes by and, as a slow drip of water can fill a huge cauldron in a month, so you discover that you have 75 polished pages. The process is slow, but that’s a good thing. Because I don’t do a quick first draft and then revise it, I have plenty of time to let the subconscious work; therefore, I am led to surprise after surprise that enriches story and deepens character.”
I like Dean Koontz and maybe(?) that works for him amd he’s not simply fibbing for the fans but your way sounds like going to heaven and his sends like the other place.
LOL, George. Dean Koontz, the same guy who wrote for a while under 11 pen names, who worked most of the day in his early years remodeling homes he lived in to sell, who still is rumored to write under two or three pen names.
That same Dean Koontz. He writes 400 page novels and does about three or four a year normally under his own name. Not even the math proves him right.
Why would he say that? Same reason Dave Wolverton teaches rewriting. Rewriting is a different skill than than writing completely, and Dave and other writers think that young writers should learn it, even though most of the time the learning will kill their joy in writing. I believe that rewriting doesn’t need to be learned, that the important skill to learn early is the joy of telling a story.
What Koontz is also trying to install in new writers who might read that is that writing is a long road and has value to learn, thus you must give it time. I agree with that, just not his teaching method. (And Koontz is not known for teaching. He is so self-contained, teaching is a long, long ways from his thinking.)
And notice he says he does not do a first quick draft and revise, he does one draft, clean and finished. He’s describing what I call cycling, only making it dramatic. And notice by his last line he has also basically says he writes into the dark.
So what you quoted there shows that he writes one draft clean and into the dark. His cycling method (revision is what he calls it while in creative voice) is blown up to let his millions of fans know he works really hard at what he does, thus he gives them value. But look between the hype to fans and you see the real writing process there.
He wrote two non fiction books about writing and both are eye-opening. The first book is excellent, the second wasn’t so much to my taste. Sadly, I think they are both out of print.
Dean K.’s process actually sounds an awful lot like Dean S’s…Mr. Koontz’s just sounds a lot more OCD!
He just tells his readers he is. And actually, he is more OCD and always has been. In his early days, he used to track sales of his books through bookstores. He controls every aspect of his career which is also why he fired his agent a long time ago.
Okay that makes sense. And when I reread those lines you pointed out I can see what you are saying, however, it’s very subtle, inbetween the lines. When he says 20 to 30 drafts he is counting a cycle through as a draft! People won’t see that, they’ll assume , a “traditional full revision” each time not a cycling through as a ‘draft’.
Also you pointed out some things I didn’t realize: he KNOWS paying fans are reading these even non writers (ie buyers who are only readers) so he has to show you’re getting you’re moneys worth. I know people are obsessed with that. I’ve seen too many riots on YouTube of Black a Friday shoppers to believe otherwise. People are obsessed with it.
Yeah he is very self contained amd not a teacher but you and Kristine are writers and teachers and we appreciate it! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again you and Kristine are this generation’s “Spec Fic’s First Couple” like the great Henry Kuttner and CL Moore before you.— they weren’t just great writers but from what I’ve read they were a great teaching team that generously helped writers. Except you’re them times ten: writing even more fiction then they did and helping an even bigger group of writers in this “the second great Pulp Age” as I call it.
Thanks, George. An honor to be compared to Kuttner and Moore. He wrote so much in the pulp era before meeting Catherine, it was stunning, and under so many names. Thanks.
I wanted to add this one tidbit: I find it odd that writing is the only creative art that has this “rewriting a finished product” mentality. We don’t see artists, singers, bakers, etc, talk about making major changes to finished product. It’s either it gets shown to the public or stashed away, not a lot of middle space. If they revisit something, it’s on a new canvas, dish, etc. Not the same manuscript.
Janie, only beginning writers have this mentality. Professional writers protect and trust their own work and never let anyone, including editors for the most part, touch it. So that’s why I keep saying to people to get out of that kind of situation. Get away from those boards. Start believing in your own voice and work and you will have taken a massive step toward being a professional writer. Plus, getting away from that kind of thinking is so much more fun.