I have told this story before, I think: when I wrote my first publishable story (and had an idea it was publishable) I did the three revisions (sense, wording and typos) and one more, reading aloud for word sound (it’s a very poetic story.) Then I sent it out. When it came back, rejected, I went over it again, changed words, put new stuff in, and sent it out again.
Over the next eight years that story was rejected 80 times (and accepted four, of which it was published one.)
Now before it was accepted, I took it out, and read it, and had a panic moment of horror. You see, nothing I could specify, but the story read like… like boiled tofu. There was nothing intrinsically wrong, and it might even be nutritious or perhaps good for me. Tasty it wasn’t though.
So I went and read the first version again. Oh, my. It was rough, in places, but it was like a Clarion call. So I fixed typos and grammar, sent it out again, and it sold.
There are other stories of revision that aren’t exactly like that. Take Darkship Thieves. It had languished in a drawer for thirteen years, when I brought it out and started putting it up in the Baen conference (Sarah’s Diner) from where it got bought.
The thing is it wasn’t the same DST that had languished in a drawer. That was called Athena Rising and had fifty (COUNT THEM FIFTY) pages of info dump at the beginning, starting with a medical examination and giving us in maid-and-butler dialogue the history between our time and theirs.
After it had been put away ten years before, it became clear what I needed to do to it. It got its top-heavy front matter cut, and started with the attempted kidnapping in the middle of the night, with the history inserted here and there as needed.
And then there are others. A lot of the stories I sold in recent years existed as proto-stories written in the very first years I was trying to write, so flawed that they were virtually unreadable.
But what I do with those is break the mold and recast them. I can now see how to say what I want to say, and often will take nothing from the original story but the title or maybe a few words.
There are several novels in the cue, patiently waiting such recasting.
But here’s the catch: if I had tried to do this when I first wrote them, or if I’d tried to get there not through recasting but through a rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, I’d never have learned what I needed to to make them the functional stories they are now.
So, in this set of rules, I’m going to use three different terms: “polish” — what you should do to every story before it goes out. “Revise” the sort of thing I did to DST before it finally sold. “Recast” — what I intend to do to a lot of early novels, and which is when you remember the idea, see it clearly now, and write without using any of the original, unless you remember a special character or a good turn of phrase.
So, here are Sarah A. Hoyt’s rules of what for a lack of a better word, we’ll call “revision” — in no particular order.
1- when polishing a story limit yourself to three passes: sense, wording and typos. Chances are if you go on (and boy, could you go on) you’ll take all the flavor and individuality out of the piece. Flavor and individuality is why we read your story, rather than someone else’s. Yes, I know it’s not perfect. Let it go. No story is ever perfect.
2- Speaking of no story ever being perfect: I know people who have spent the last 20 years polishing, revising and recasting the same story/events/universe. Don’t do that. It will never be perfect. Beyond that, most writers have more than one universe in them. It is in trying out something different (perhaps out of your comfort zone) that you learn the techniques to fix your “baby.” Go forth and do something else, then come back.
3- Say no to the kitchen sink. This is “everything but the kitchen sink.” When you’ve been playing with a story to long, even if only in your head, you start thinking up a lot of “wouldn’t it be neat” incidents. And some are really neat, but the problem is, when you’ve been playing wiht a story too long you forget the flow and how it will present itself to a reader reading it for the first time. You’ll get the “beats” wrong. See any director’s commentary on “we thought this scene would be in, but test audiences hated it.” Resist the effort to put in everything but the kitchen sink. There are always other books.
4- Be aware of what does it for you… and doesn’t do it for other people. For me, for the longest time, it was “beautiful, doomed adolescents” — if there was one in the story the story worked for me, but not for anyone else. Be aware of this because you might have thrown in your favorite splash of flavor, but left out everything other people love. Make sure that your story telling is solid around the writer cookies.
5- Don’t cut out the individual. Sometimes it’s the things you most want to cut — the simile that seems to make you cringe, the scene in which the character acts most openly, the bits that you think “no” because they reveal something of YOU behind the story — that must stay in. They’re the difference between a bland story and a work that resonates with readers. Never be afraid to let them see you sweat. It makes your characters human.
6- If a story isn’t working and you can’t figure out why, put it in a drawer. Sometimes it takes years, but when you pull it out (after you’ve worked on other things!) the clarion call of what you did wrong and right should be loud in your ears. If it’s not let it marinade a bit longer.
7- Don’t be afraid to recast a story. Go ahead and say “um… that character/idea/situation had potential but the rest sucked” and then start afresh. Don’t feel forced to follow the dead story line.
8- Write. The more you write, the better you will know how to write, and yes, how to revise too. No one ever became a great writer by being an amazing typo hunter. Go forth and learn the craft in the doing of it.