Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Look Back At The Book and The Rewriting Issue

Robert Heinlein put a loophole in his "Don't Rewrite" rule by adding the phrase "except to editorial order." This is an exceptionally large loophole for self-publishers because the writer is the editor.

So you have to ask yourself, who's asking for the rewrite -- you as writer, or you as editor -- and do they have a good reason or not?

I bring this up because Dean Wesley Smith started a new series about setting goals the other day (great post -- read the comments too) and one of the things he pointed out was that one reason people go into that destructive endless rewrite cycle is fear. (Fear is a bad reason to do anything.)

This seemed like a good jumping off point for a look back at the book I just finished -- a book I did more rewriting than usual on, but also a book which is done.

"...which is done" has a special meaning here.

What it means is revisions are closed. The ship has sailed. It's after hours and no new visions will happen on this story. It's a done deal. I may do some line editing as I proof it (I always do) but that will be purely spontaneous, because it is what it is.

And that, imho, is what Heinlein's Rule 3 is really all about -- it's a reiteration of Rule 2 "You must finish what you start."

When you are your own editor, you need to be a hard-nosed business person who wants to get that dang story out there. You've got to know when to stick a fork in it. You've got to set deadlines for that creative fuss-budget who works for you.

If you rewrite from fear, you are doing the opposite. You're using the mean boss inside you to demand more work and waste your time. Fire that boss. Hire the one that sets limits instead.

When I rewrite, it's for me. I have a very strong vision of what I am going for, and yes, I do rewrite to meet that vision. (And yes, if the boss tries to stop me from that rewrite before I'm ready, I tell him to go suck an egg -- but I do recognize that is his job. His job isn't to tell me what to write, or whether it's good or not. His job is to say "hurry up!")

When you are younger and just learning your craft, your vision will be more malleable. You second guess yourself, and you're not sure about anything. This leads to what DWS calls "writing by committee." You let critique partners and book doctors and editors co-write the darn thing with you. And instead of having the best of all of the above, you end up with the average of all of the above. Just plain bland.

(I would stop to note that, for all everyone snarks about Hollywood and the way it produces stories by committee, we should all remember that Casablanca was written by committee. So sometimes the best of all the parts do make a brilliant whole.)

Ahem, where was I? ....I rewrite for me, right.

When I look back at the process I went through on The Man Who Did Too Much, you could call a lot of what I did "revision," but I don't see it that way. I see it as creation.

I've mentioned before about my method of layering in scenes and story, like a painting. Or like a movie. A movie is not done when all the shots are in the can. It still has to be assembled, and the transitions marked in and efx added, and sound (which is a multi-layered effort in itself).

I hope I'm not ruining your enjoyment with the following revelation, but take a look at this two minute clip of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

The voices you hear are theirs and probably (though not necessarily) the sounds which were actually made by their mouths at the time the shots were taken. And I'm sure you know that there wasn't an orchestra playing in the room as they danced either. A recording was being played as they danced, but we aren't hearing the sound of a record being played in the studio. Because the sound on that would suck. No we're hearing the sound of the actual orchestra, edited in later to match the steps.

Furthermore, those tapping sounds you hear? Not Fred's or Ginger's feet (or at least not at the time they were filming.). All the tapping and shushing were sounds made by the foley artist, who danced on a box in a sound booth afterwards while watching the shots being screened.

It isn't that Fred and Ginger's feet didn't make such sounds during filming, it's just that capturing the sound effectively is tricky, and sound is so very important to tap dancing.

So even though those tracks were recorded separately from the production of the scene -- the orchestra on its studio, and the foley artist in a booth -- these are essential parts of the story. They are necessary for the creation to be fully realized.

Laying in the soundtrack is not revision, it's creation.

Now, fiction is different from film -- film is a logistical nightmare even at its simplest level -- but even so, it's an apt metaphor for what goes on in my head in writing. Just as a live sound recording can't effectively capture the sound of the voices and the orchestra and the tapping all at once, my attention span can't always deal with all I want to deal with in one pass at a scene.

So yes, I do "revise" up to the point of finishing the scene. This particular book was like a musical, with lots of complications on the technical end.

Beware The Siren Call of Doom

However that was all done to meet the vision. The thing I never do is change the vision itself out of fear that others won't like it as much as I do, or it's not "good enough" or it's too silly or embarrassing or stupid. As soon as you start down that path, you're lost. That's the Siren Call of Doom.

And that brings me to the rewrites I didn't do.

I said above that this story is done. Not because I could think of no way to make it better, but because I declared it done.

Let's just pretend I did not have the sense (or courage) to declare it done.

In the writing of this book, I discovered something: this series is not about Karla, it's about George. Furthermore, the genre model I thought I was going for isn't really suited for the characters. I thought this was going one of those cozy madcap series where each story starts with Karla getting into trouble and calling on George to help out. Silly me. Karla is not a meddler. George is the obsessive compulsive hero who can't resist "helping" people whether they want it or not. Karla is... Nero Wolfe. A kind of zany Gracie Allen sort of Nero Wolfe, but still a person who would prefer to stay in her house and mind her own business. (Unless you want a movie recommendation.)

So if I were the "it's not done until it's perfect" sort of person, or if I were the sort of person to listen to publishing gurus, I'd be frantic right now, and put off the publication of this book for another year, so I could tear the plot apart and make it fit the new model.

And you know what? It might well be a better book if I did that... except for three things.

1.) It wouldn't be THIS book. And my motivation for writing this book is to write THIS book.

2.) That direction I discovered is where I want to end up. Why would I ever want to start there? You don't get places by rearranging the furniture where you are. You get there by moving.

3.) The first book in the series is not going to be the best book in a series. (At least it had better not be.)

That last one is the one I think most young writers (and a lot of modern agents and publishers) miss. All the great series -- the ones that last for twenty or thirty books or more -- develop over time. The first book is never the best book, and certainly not the most successful. Even those series which seem very formulaic often started differently: The first ten Perry Masons, for instance, didn't involve much lawyering. And even though they are different from later books, they are still fun to read.

Here's the kicker: most readers of any successful series did not start that series by reading the first book. MOST of the readers will come after the series is established.

And because modern traditional publishing doesn't recognize that fact, we don't have as many successful series as we once did -- because we never get to the sixth or seventh or twentieth book which draws those readers into the series.

When seen from that perspective, you have to realize that the job of the first book -- for most readers -- is very different from what we are led to expect. In traditional publishing, the first book is everything -- it's make or break. With indie publishing, not so much.

With indie publishing, we can publish the way books used to be published. We can let things sleep. The first book rather than being the lure to bring readers in, is more of a back story. It's there to fill in, to bring the reader up to speed. It's there to just be an interesting book in and of itself.

Your first book is not going to be your last book. But every time you stop to revise a book, that's another book you won't write at the end of your life -- when you're a much better writer.

So... if I were to decide to tear this book apart to make it a perfect whiz-bang kick off for the series: not only would I cause the readers to miss out on the journey to get there, more than likely I will rob them of a later, better, more satisfying book.

I'll wrap up with a thought about fear.

I have one writing fear, and it only gets worse as I get older: I am afraid that I'll never get the stories in my head written down an released into the world.

If you let fears prevent you from finishing your work when you're young -- whether it is fear of failure or embarrassment or what-have-you -- you WILL have my fear when you get old. Time is a precious thing. Don't waste it worrying about what anyone else thinks.

See you in the funny papers.


a said...

"I have one writing fear, and it only gets worse as I get older: I am afraid that I'll never get the stories in my head written down an released into the world."

Amen, to that.

And I do like your insights into series-building. They're comforting.

The Daring Novelist said...

Thanks, Azarimba.

You know, I think the larger perspective applies not only to series, but to careers. And also down to smaller level as well.

I hear so much advice on the internet where people put SOOO much pressure on a first chapter, or first page, or even first line of a story - as if your who life depends on that.

David Michael said...

I agree about the first book of a series being mostly backstory. The first book needs lots of character introductions and "establishing shots" and other story infrastructure. The best part is all of that infrastructure is just there for the using, a foundation really, in the books/stories that follow.

I was reflecting on that earlier in the year, but hadn't articulated it the same way you did.

Also, I tend to write my scenes in layers too, though I don't call it that. I often start with dialogue, then move to reaction shots, then add stage direction, and so on. Or sometimes I start with the stage direction (because it's an action scene), then add the dialogue and reactions and internal dialogue. The scene doesn't usually come out finished in one go. It's nice when it does, though. =)


Maryann E. said...

This rewriting vs. not rewriting debate has me so confused. On the one hand, there is something so freeing about Heinlein's ideas. But when I look at my old drafts, the writing seems better to me. Of course, as Dean Wesley Smith says, writers aren't good judges of their own writing. So am I deluding myself into thinking I'm making improvements? Hmm.

I do like your idea of adding in layers and I think that's what I do too. But sometimes, I'm just ripping out threads and sewing them back into the same places. Do that too much and your material falls apart from the strain. Not to mention your mind! ;)

Another thing that confuses me is that some of my favorite authors have said they rewrite extensively. I don't think Anne Tyler was lying when she said that she even rewrites some drafts in long hand. She just doesn't seem the type to lie. Then there's F. Scott Fitzgerald, where you can find his older drafts of Gatsby and view letters between him and his editor about changes. (Can't remember where I've seen those, but they're out there.) A person couldn't lie about making rewrites when we have physical proof of them.

But then again, as you said: every time you stop to revise a book, that's another book you won't write at the end of your life -- when you're a much better writer.

If you've ever had to clean out someone's office and files after they've passed away, you realize how important it is to get projects finished when you are alive.

The Daring Novelist said...

David, yeah, I think a lot of us do some variation of that. The other way I might describe it is "rolling outline" in that you start with a skeleton (dialog or action), which is like an outline, and flesh it out.

Maryann: You're going to have to decide for yourself whether Heinlein's rules are for you. However, consider this: all those writers who rewrite endlessly may write brilliantly, but the question is whether that rewriting has anything to do with their brilliance.

I think the answer is a mixed one. I disagree with Dean in a couple of areas, and one of them is that the writer is not a judge of his or her own work.

IMHO, that's a variation of another of the dangerous myths -- because it says you can't trust yourself. My mantra is that YOU are the only judge of your work.

The key is to remember two things: the goal is to get to "DONE" and that you have to learn to recognize your own self-destructive habits which keep you from getting there.

Just try to keep in mind that Times Winged Chariot is always nipping at your heels (and it's being pulled by rabid corgis).

David Michael said...

I, as the writer, know if something I wrote works for me and/or is the way I want it. But whether what I wrote will sell? There's no way for me to know. At best I can guess. All I can do is make it available and see what happens. That's how I interpret DWS's "a writer is the worst judge of his own work" statement.

I'm not saying that's what DWS *means* by that statement, though I'm sure that meaning is in there somewhere when he says it, but that's how I take it.

In the same vein, when people say "turn off your internal editor when you write", I take that to mean "trust yourself as you're wriring." Because I edit as I write. I have a great piece of software that makes editing as I go easy and productive. It's not like I have to start a new sheet of paper to fix a paragraph. And I don't get stuck trying to find the perfect word or the best way to open a scene. I write it, trusting that I've done a "good enough" job for now and if not, I'll catch it later when I go back through the manuscript.

All of which to say: Other people have great rules. But you can pick and choose the ones you want to use. And apply them in a way that works for you.

For example, JK Rowling said she wrote the Harry Potter novels longhand. I interpret that to mean: I use my own writing process. Yours might be different. Because writing a long novel out longhand is eff-ing *insane*. No way I'm doing that. :-)


The Daring Novelist said...

Yeah, my internal editor is a great working buddy, once I got a handle on it.

One of the biggest problems I see in blogging about writing is that every one who reads your blog is in a very different place. Not just different personalities, but different levels of experience.

I always figure that the people who know what they're doing, and who have the most confidence, will ignore anything I say that doesn't suit them. I worry, sometimes, about misleading the beginners. (Or maybe I've just been a teacher too long.)

The Daring Novelist said...

BTW: (In re. the idea of the writer trusting him or her self and getting outside feedback):

I LOVE Dean's anecdotes about writing stories and mailing them off and then taking them to the writer's workshop.

I used beta readers that way, and though it sounds funny, it's actually a great way to work. External response may help you with some minor "oops!" items, but what they really help you with is next time.

Sarah McCabe said...

Great thoughts. Though about series I think it depends on what type of series you are writing. You seem to be referring to series that are all the same or similar characters/style/genre but that are each a self contained story. In some genres (mine) series are more commonly one long story that takes place over several books. So the idea of the early books being backstory doesn't really fit there and the first book needs to be good enough to invest the reader in a story that they probably won't finish for years.

I think the thing with Dean's advice (and any advice or "rules" that writers offer) is that it's mostly aimed at young and/or inexperienced writers. People who are still figuring things out. I think it's generally assumed that if you've been doing this for a while, you've already figured this stuff out for yourself. But new writers often need a little nudge to get them onto the path of writing self discovery.

The problem is that too many new writers listen to the advice and the "rules" and think of it like the instruction booklet for putting together a bicycle: you can't veer from the diagrams or it won't work. But of course there is no hard set of instructions for putting together a story. It's more of a recipe. Add characters, setting, plot and theme to taste, mix until the right consistency.

The Daring Novelist said...

Yep -- about the rules and young writers.

As for the series: I have to admit, being mystery-centric, that I don't consider those "increasingly misnamed trilogies" (thank you Douglas Adams) to be a series. They're actually serials.

Even so, I think that we've gotten ourselves into a problem with this "first-itis" in modern publishing. The first line, the first page, the first chapter, the first book.... we don't do the story any good by following this awful advice to make those the end-all, be-all of our story. And we don't do the reader any good either.

Frankly, this is all brought on by the practices of modern publishing. If you miss on that first book you're dead. That's nonsense. The first book, no matter how you plan it, is always going to be the worst. And if it isn't, you've got a serious problem.

Now, note that I didn't say the first book should be bad. I did not say that the first book is back story (someone else said that). I said the first book sets up the rest. That's the same whether it's a serial or a series. It's the same with a first chapter or a first sentence to.

The only difference between a serial and a series is you will get more readers starting it at the beginning.... but once you've got 10 or more books out there, MOST readers will not start at the beginning. Odds are they'll start it with something else, and then go back to the beginning after they decide they like it.

This is true no matter what kind of story arc you've planned.

Sarah McCabe said...

I cannot actually find a difference between "series" and "serial" except that it seems "serial" is merely the proper usage of "series" when pertaining to literature. But either way, "serial" is not a term I see used commonly. Readers refer to "series".

I have strong doubts that readers of 10 book series are most likely to start in the middle. That would be like intentionally starting a movie in the middle and then going back after you've finished. I cannot fathom it. I'm sure that some do, but most? At least, I doubt very much that fans of genres that frequently take this form (like fantasy) read like that.

Not that I disagree with you about "first-itis" and revising. But I do think that series work different ways in different genres, and fans of different genres expect different things from them.

The Daring Novelist said...

Sarah, I don't know if you missed the point, or if you are caught up in a very destructive myth.

I'll post something later about the different kinds of series. Just please understand that I started in SF and Fantasy, and I DO know what you are talking about.

I'm also not telling you what kind of creative decisions you should make about your story.

What I'm saying is that you should not let this myth influence that creative decision, because it's a killer.

Here's the key part again: your first book will NOT be your best. Period. The first book in any series that last longer than a couple of books will NOT be the best. Period.

After you've written five or ten or twenty books, you will not only be a better writer, but you will be a different writer. And you will look back on that book that was so very important to you at the time, and you may very well be embarrassed about it.

If it's just a trilogy that won't matter, because all three books will be at about the same level, but the longer your series goes, the more important it is to let there be other entry points into the series.

It's up to you to write the story how it needs to be written... but it is critical to remember that whatever you are writing now, it will not be as good as something you write later. That's not something you can choose, it's just a fact of life.