The Wet Blanket Reality… Chapter One
Chapter One… Manuscript Must Be Perfect
Writers who believe in the myth of traditional publishing also believe deeply in the myth that rewriting is good and that a manuscript must be perfect before you dare send it off to an agent.
Perfect, I say!! Perfect!
(I have never in my 40 plus years in publishing ever seen a perfect manuscript.)
So what happens is that years and years pass while the writer “Works on their book.”
Okay, come on, we all know a number of these writers spending years “working on their book.” And sadly, these writers are proud they are doing that and they will be glad to tell you they are doing just that every time they get the chance.
And yes, instead of writing being fun for these poor souls, the writing is torture and often avoided for long periods of time.
But for some reason, it is a rite of passage to be “working on a book.” All the time spent “working” makes the need to be anointed by a traditional publisher even more intense. The dream of being a rich, published writer during these “work years” just expands into a pathological need.
Where do so many people get this myth? Built into the school teaching that books are special, they are magical, and thus for any normal person to write one, they must work really, really hard at it.
As the years go by while they are “working on their book,” certain things happen.
— Rough drafts are often many and are mostly tossed away.
— Massive world building happens.
— There might even be character sketches with pictures of the characters cut out of magazines.
— The writer (after finishing the first draft) must then do five and six drafts of rewriting. Realize the beginning writer will no idea what they are doing to make a story better. As a professional writer friend of mine said about one of these multiple rewriters, they were basically stirring a pile of shit over and over. It’s still just shit.
Remember, these writers don’t believe in practicing. Rewriting is not practicing, it is moving words around because every word they write is brilliant and was “work” to get down.
Often the “idea” for the story that was so brilliant loses luster, but many, many writers stick to it. Often for years and years and years. Impressive amount of focus, just aimed totally wrong.
These kind of writers will invite all sorts of help from other beginning writers who have no idea what they are doing either. These beginning writers will gather and will read aloud parts of their book, workshop parts of their book.
The writer will then have a hundred beta readers read their book and, of course, try to put in everything everyone says. After that much help, no telling whose book it is or who even owns the copyright (something beginning writers don’t have a clue about.)
(I warned you in the introduction I would be snarky, remember?)
Then, after all that, they finish a manuscript and go spend thousands to hire someone who has never written a published novel to “book doctor” their manuscript. Then the writer will rewrite it once again to fix everything, every detail the scam book doctor suggests.
Eventually, after years, they will declare the book perfect and done and their family, if smart, will give them a party.
I got to admit, the concept of writing one story over and over and over for years and years and years is just completely alien to me. If I spend more than three weeks writing a novel, I feel I am doing something wrong.
But sadly, I have watched, talked to, and tried to help hundreds and hundreds of writers like I described above over the decades. I was never successful. The myths those writers were taught are so much a part of who they are, you can’t budge them.
And these words will not do so either.
Why do some of the bestselling writers tell their audiences that they did numbers of drafts?
A one-word answer…
Readers were taught all the “writing is special and hard” bull puck just as new writers were. And readers are the ones we want to plop their real money down and buy our work. So we writers must, when talking to readers, play into the myths.
Lawrence Block calls it “Telling Lies for Fun and Profit.”
When I am talking to readers instead of writers, I say I write three drafts. I write a first draft, I spellcheck it, and I have Kris read it for typos and I fix those. Three drafts. So I don’t really lie, I just let readers believe what they want to believe. For example, I had a reader ask me how long it took me to write a Thunder Mountain Novel. I said I had been working on the entire series for years. That is true, I have been. I didn’t say it took me a few weeks to write that one specific novel.
Readers need to feel the writer worked for their money. We do. It takes us decades to learn how to write decent novels and stories that will entertain them. Years of practice and learning. We earned their few bucks.
So I talk about this sort of thing here. I have nothing to lose by not lying to writers. But many authors just build in the myth into their own work to sell copies. I sure don’t blame them. They are not responsible for the silliness of a writer taking years to write and rewrite a book.
Sadly, even though the book is done and the family party is over, for a writer who wants to sell to traditional publishing, the silliness is just starting. Next chapter: Agents and Query Letters.
THIS. “If I spend more than three weeks writing a novel, I feel I am doing something wrong.”.
The way I am built psychologically, this is the mantra I want to take. Three weeks, a month, should be enough. i am not writing War and Peace or The Stormlight Archives.
Also Dean, you mentioned that, for fun, we could count cycling as separate drafts. That way, with a cycke ever 1k words or so, a 40k words novel would get 40 drafts. That would satisfy the myth and the public and everyone 🙂
Yup, cycling is sort of a draft in writing, however, it is part of the creative process, not the critical voice process. If you go back to a book after you have finished it, you are always writing from critical (Fix this…) voice. If you add stuff and things in a cycle while during the first time through, you are creative voice (add this) writing.
But it is good to fudge to readers that way, as many top writers do. What was really funny was that Lee Child let a reporter into his office while writing a Jack Reacher novel. He wrote one draft, cycling, and then was done (took less than a month) and the poor reporter who was buried in the myths watched him the entire way and still couldn’t believe it. Really fun. Gutsy of Lee Child.
That man can write. I love the pace and snapiness of the Jack Reacher novels. Are you telling me that those novels are written in the dark?
Yup, totally in the dark and one draft. Most major thriller writers write that way. (Oh, yeah, I wrote bestselling thrillers… in the dark and without an outline and one draft. Go figure.)
Andy Martin’s book about this experience is pretty neat. It’s amazing to me that one of the biggest writers out there can be so up front and honest about his technique and yet so many teachers and writers still perpetuate the whole polish-revise-rewrite stuff.
Yeah, Lee Child got to the spot he no longer cares. Harlan sitting in bookstore windows pounding out award winning short stories was the same thing. (On a manual typewriter and pasting the pages in the window so everyone could read them as he wrote them.) Me talking about this stuff here, same thing. We are not worried about sales and the stupid myths, just wanting to show the real process.
Hi Dean, hi everybody,
just quickly: Is this the article you mean? https://theconversation.com/the-man-with-no-plot-how-i-watched-lee-child-write-a-jack-reacher-novel-51220
Yeah, that’s an article about the book by Andy Martin. Martin is funny as hell trying to climb over his own beliefs and myths to actually come up with all sorts of strange reasons why Lee Childs does what he does. Funny reading, but one line describes it clearly. Also exactly how I feel.
Lee Child writes his books as if he were the reader not the writer.
It really is that simple.
Agreed on everything EXCEPT the “scam” book doctor comment.
I’ve been a developmental editor, aka a book doctor. Often times, I took the opportunity in my emailed notes to SHOW the clients the weaknesses in their manuscript, specifically so that they would improve their skills on their own later. Essentially the same thing that a MFA prof would do.
Yes, it’s an expensive way for them to learn, but hopefully some of them listened to me.
And sadly, all you did was screw them up and set them back from getting to their own voice. Sorry, but book doctors are a scam. Period.
And this is a blog where I try to help people become professional fiction writers. MFA??? Really???
Showing somebody what “setups” and “payoffs” are isn’t a scam. It’s craft.
Showing somebody a “character arc” isn’t a scam. It’s craft.
Showing somebody how to write dialogue tags isn’t a scam. It’s craft.
Showing somebody how to pace a thriller isn’t a scam. It’s craft.
In fact, you show many of these same crafts yourself, on Teachable, for a fee.
Would you call *yourself* a scam? I wouldn’t. I’ve taken two of your online classes, and attended your Business Master Class when it was in Oregon. Your knowledge was useful to me.
Totally unfair to say that I “screwed them up”? My knowledge was useful to them.
Come on, man.
Nope, you are forcing them to rewrite. Giving them an excuse to not trust their own work. Maybe if you want to help writers, really help them, and you have the publishing credentials to know what you are talking about vs an MFA, where you focus on teaching those things so they can use them in the next story in a workshop setting. But “book doctoring” an existing manuscript, you are teaching them a manuscript can be “fixed” by adding someone else’s voice to it, which is basically teaching them how to stir shit. Nothing more. So we can disagree, but I admire your courage to come here and defend book doctoring.
By the way, the stuff you said you were showing them is all MFA bullshit and will do nothing for them but trigger critical voice. And I don’t teach a one of those things you mentioned because not my goal to turn a writer into a critical voice MFA clone. I want a writer to write from creative voice, with their own voice. Having them focus on a character arc (whatever you might think that is) will do nothing but grind them to a halt and leach all the fun out. Just saying.
The best characters live on the page because the author thinks of them as people. If you think of their “arc,” you’re thinking of them as words on the page. I mean, really. Do you think about your neighbor’s story arc? Sorry. No. Thinking about things like character arc breaks the magic of storytelling.
Kris wrote: “The best characters live on the page because the author thinks of them as people. If you think of their “arc,” you’re thinking of them as words on the page. I mean, really. Do you think about your neighbor’s story arc? Sorry. No. Thinking about things like character arc breaks the magic of storytelling.”
Wow. This is probably the best thing I’ve ever read about character arc. I always get a little frustrated when the topic of “arc” comes up, because it’s never been something I could do consciously and figured I’d just never be able to do it. Kris’s take fits my way of looking at it much better. And now I am never, EVER going to think about “character arc” again. ?
Nothing you’ve described is what I think of as “developmental editing.” Developmental editing, as I understand it, is story/plot development – or, in other words, messing with the writer’s original concept/version/vision of the story.
What you’re doing sounds to me more like a fairly thorough line edit, or perhaps one step above that, whatever that would be called.
Of course, my terms may be completely messed up, and if so, I apologize for the misunderstanding.
Okay, let me be clear here so we can end this stupid discussion about how to ruin your own voice and work.
If you want to learn from a developmental editor (however that is looked at or defined… makes no difference to me since all of it goes to rewriting and that is bad), here is what I would suggest.
First, the editor must be a long-time writer with upwards of a hundred novels out and must be a USA Today and New York Times bestseller. A writer by the name of Dave Farland (Wolverton) fits this and I know he works with writers.
Write a new novel, then hire Dave or someone of his level (not some MFA) to go over the book and teach you how to make it better. All the stuff you want or that the editor thinks needs to be done to fix the book. Learn all that. Maybe even put in all the stuff the editor suggests into the book.
Then delete the entire book and write something new using what you learned as you need it. The original book will no longer be yours, so just delete it. If you can’t do that, you still think words are too special and you have other bigger problems.
And no, neither Kris nor I will ever do this for anyone.
Thanks again, Dean, for going over this myth again (maybe for the umpteenth time for us long-time readers – but still something we need to hear). Quick question though that some might have is: “how does one practice writing without re-writing?” Does it mean we learn the craft, try it in our writing, finish the project and then move on to the next section of craft-work and practice that? Those first dozen novels will likely all be practice, then, right?
Lyn, we writers are so lucky. We get to publish our practice sessions. The really nice thing about writing is that NO ONE CARES. Not a soul on the planet cares if it is your first or your 100th book. If they like it, they buy it, if they don’t, they won’t. Only the writer, in their own made-up fears cares. No one else on the planet does. NO ONE CARES.
So you learn something say by reading another writer or in a workshop or by reading a how-to book and then you think “I’m going to practice that in my next book or story.” And then you forget about it. You have told your creative voice to pay attention and it will if you just sit down and write and have fun.
So the more you learn, the more you give your creative voice permission to use tools. You write the story and publish it.
I am over 200 books now AND EVERY BOOK IS STILL PRACTICE ON SOMETHING. Why in the world would I think after a dozen books I am good enough to not have to practice??????
A couple weeks ago, I shared the https://www.can-i-get-a.com/ random word generator someone shared in the comments here (thank you!) in the Discord server I run for my kid and my friends’ kids and their gaming friends. Two of the 16-year-olds thought it sounded like fun, and wanted to do a weekly short story competition, and one pulled a word from each category: “asteroid/gardner-boy/angry” and said “Oh, that sounds really hard.”
And I said, “No, that’s incredibly easy. I’ll do it right now, be back in a bit,” and wrote a 410 word short story that could’ve come right out of The Little Prince in exactly 15 minutes. They were ASTONISHED. Okay, I’m not a bad writer. But I told them that’s all it takes. Anyway, they still wanted to do it and I said just sit down and write and see what happens. Don’t worry if it’s good or bad. Just write for 30 or 60 minutes and let it be whatever length it is. If you hit 150 words, you’re good.
Happily, most Saturdays we all play games from the Jackbox Games party packs, most of which are thinly veiled improvisational comedy prompts. So they’re used to coming up with ideas and running with them even if they can’t think of anything “good.” If it goes well or fails terribly, it’s just part of the fun, everyone laughs, and no one dies. I think this is what gave them the bravery to dare to be bad.
So five days later it’s Sunday and they remember the ‘contest.’ So they each say “I’m just going to sit down and do it right now” and get their own prompts. 20 minutes later, one said “this is fun AF” and came up with a really creative story. I think this is week three now and they’re just having fun and coming up with really wacky ideas and just enjoying it. No rewriting, and if they think a story didn’t turn out because they didn’t know how to end it, well, they just laugh and say it was fun to do anyway. (We’re not really judging or ranking them, either.) And frankly, they’ve all been pretty good.
Of course, they want my FEEDBACK. I just encourage them, giving little tips here and there, warning them about critical and creative voice, but they already naturally have an idea of what a story should look like. And it’s just fun, fun, fun for them. They look forward to everyone getting their stories in because then they can start on another. It’s been inspiring for me, too.
The only downside is… they hold ME to my deadlines. 😉
Fun, Nathan. Thanks!
T Thorn Coyle
The “paying for years of practice and learning rather than for current hours spent” is how anyone who is not an entry level hourly wage worker makes a living. And hourly wage or salaried workers–if their company is smart–get better compensation because their expertise helps them work faster and better. I know a master mechanic who commands a very high wage and is always being head hunted by people who want to pay them like a journeyman. The master mechanic says “no thank you.” They know what their experience is worth.
One way of looking at this analogy:
A writer has written thirty or forty novels. I, the reader, have just bought book twenty or thirty. I’m paying for the work, study, and practice already put into craft. But mostly, I’m paying for a story that will spirit me away for a few hours. And that story can come from anyone.
Thanks for continuously driving this home.
Exactly, Thorn. Thanks!
You’re right about how deep those myths run, Dean. Back in 2004, I met a woman in a writer’s group. She was working on her first novel. Seventeen years later, she is still working on her first novel. It’s never been finished. I doubt if it ever will be.
I’m very glad another writer pointed me towards you blog.
In writing school, they teach you to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite until the process becomes torture. Meanwhile, the professors, who can’t make a living at being professional writers themselves (believe me, if they could, they would), go back to their rooms and have a good laugh at the student’s expense. “Serves them right,” the writing prof says to himself while pouring a couple of fingers of whiskey. “I’ve had to earn a living looking at cruddy student manuscripts all my life. Why shouldn’t they?”
Don’t think there’s truth to this? I’ve seen it in action. Lot’s of these same writing professors won’t have anything to do with me because, guess what? I make a good living as a professional writer. And what really burns them up?
I’ve never had to teach a day in my life (at a college or high school that is).
One more comment on this subject and then I’ll shut up. But during the final semester of my MFA experience, I was working directly with a prof on my creative thesis which eventually became my first novel. He suggested (rather insisted) I make all these cuts, telling me the words didn’t “propel the story forward” (those four words are red flags for, “this is why the college pays me. To tell a young writer his or her words aren’t propelling the story forward” when I have no clue if they propel the story forward or not).
So then comes graduation day. I go home, add back in every single word I wrote prior to showing it to my MFA prof. The book sells to Delactore a few months later for $250K, and then is republished down the line and sells 100K units in 4 weeks. Now that it’s with a third pub (Thomas & Mercer), I’m about to enter into a fight to get the rights back and relaunch once more under my own imprint, Bear Media.
But the point is this: I guess early on I was beginning to trust my built-in shit detector. But the only real way to develop your talent is by NOT listening to the MFA profs or anyone else who thinks they know your manuscript better than you do, but putting in the hours and developing your own unique style, brand, and craft.
My three cents….
A great three cents. And why you are where you are is because you had the belief in yourself and your words to leave them alone. Bet it felt scary, always does, not sure that goes away for any of us, but those of us who have gotten to a certain place have learned to trust our own words. And never let anyone else in. Scary but fun at the same time. Thanks!!
I guess I count it as a blessing that I’m terrible at critiquing other people’s work. My brief flirtation with a writers group ended quickly because I generally had very little to say to people about how to improve their writing besides a general ‘become a better writer’ which I never said out loud.
Besides that reading and critiquing other peoples stuff cut into my writing time, and when you’re already getting up at 5am to find time to write, it’s just not worth it. It was either talk about other people’s writing or make progress on my own.
Developmental editing is always played from the emotional side, the “you want the best for your book (baby), right?”
I attended a con panel on editing. At the time I was looking for a copy editor and I wanted to see if any of the panelists would be a good fit. I was the only one there for a bit before the panel started and one of the panelists asked me what I was looking for. I told him, “Copy editing.” For me, it was a logical, non-emotional business decision. I needed someone to catch my typos.
When other writers came in, the panelists launched into singing praises about developmental editing, playing up far and wide on the emotional appeal. They dropped brinks of hints my way that I was making a Really Bad Decision by not doing the best for my book. To cap it off, when I attended a different panel, one of the editing panelists gave a presentation with PowerPoint. He used images with the watermark from iStock Photo. And this was the guy everyone else wanted to trust with their “baby”?!
I would have replied to Kris above–had no idea that character arc came from the MFAs. No wonder it never made sense to me when other writers asked what my arc was. I think that’s also where the idea of “I don’t have to write to become a better writer” also comes from.
“Where do so many people get this myth?”
You asked it rhetorically, but I’m going to offer an answer.
Remember that old “don’t do drugs” commercial, where a father demands the son tell him where he learned to do drugs and the kid shouts at him, “I learned it by watching you!”?
The myth comes from authors. You admitted it yourself in this chapter that you commonly told people you wrote three drafts, and told people you’ve worked on a series for years but not how quickly you wrote an individual book. You mentioned Lawrence Block “Telling Lies….” The LitFic authors love to tell reporters that they worked on their novel for five years, agonizing over every sentence, every word. And since it won all the LitFic awards, and those authors are on all the daytime talk shows, that must be the way to do it, right?
As you said, you “just let readers believe what they want to believe.” But writers are readers first and that’s what they hear, so you’re trying to undo the myths that you helped create. And it’s always a devilish proposition to unmake your own monsters.
But it should be entertaining. I’ll be looking forward to future chapters.
Yup, but I am one of the few major bestsellers to talk like this out in the open. Go ahead, find anyone else with the courage to tank their sales by doing this.
So sorry, I don’t agree I am helping in that myth. I am one of the only ones actually working to tear it all down to help writers. Sort of annoyed what you accused me of, honestly. Actually I could stop this teaching at any moment and make a ton more money with my books. You see, writer’s don’t buy books.
But go ahead, tell a reader who is thinking of buying your book you wrote it in a week first draft and watch them put their wallet away because they think you book will be shit. You will understand that there are two audiences. Writers who really want to learn and readers who only want great stories.
Thanks Dean, for the post. I think this is a good reminder to writers, be they authors or no. A good question to ask is, am I becoming a slave to my book/story/article, or is this project under my control? Is this fulfilling/fun or just plain hard work? I think if writers stop there. Stop. There. And think about it, that might help them.
Bruce, you are right, but you are making an assumption that a young writer living in the myths can think in that clear a fashion. The problem is that very few can, no matter the training. I was not one who could at first.