Stop the Revisions

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.

67 Comments

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67 responses to “Stop the Revisions

  1. TRX

    “But I put so much work into this story, I can’t just toss it out or break it up for parts!”

    Writing is like programming computers. Not everything you write can be used; that’s lost work.

    Lost work happens. I’d like to have all those hours pushing the lawnmower or doing laundry back, but you just have to write a certain amount of loss off as “overhead” and keep on going.

  2. TRX

    About those parts… even if you can’t recycle them into something sellable doesn’t mean they can’t be of any use. Roger Zelazny used to give odd chunks of Amber stories to a fanzine. They were just cut scenes and bits of dialogue, not short stories. But they made his fans happy, and happy fans bought his stuff…

  3. I mostly agree. But my caveat would be that this assumes you know how to read for sense, wording and typos. Those have to learnt too. As always the only way to get the experience is to write, sometimes that means re-writing. I’ve learnt to eat the humble pie that is my writing.

  4. Christopher M. Chupik

    Come now, Sarah, haven’t you heard? The value of a story is determined by how long a writer worked at it. 😉

  5. Yeah, I had two major epiphanies on the story I’m currently revising. 1 came a few years back: I’d started in the middle. 60k words added. Then there was a long dry spell (2-3 years?) because the story was still broken. Epiphany 2 didn’t come until earlier this year when I handed the draft to my Husband, said ‘help!’ and he asked about the first 30k words and said they really needed more and read rather like an outline. I’d been trying to cram two books into one. Those realizations made the current draft is going MUCH better, though I’m in the ‘make it make sense and add stuff’ stage. The hard part is NOT to over edit the scenes I’ve had sitting around for years other than VERY lightly (as in ‘this information is now in a later/earlier scene SNIP!). Some of them have been edited too much, and I’m going to try and go back as far as I can to versions of the scene or axe them and start that part over. Thanks for the advice. 🙂 Little epiphanies are as useful as the big ones.

  6. Albert

    Keep writing, keep writing, keep writing.
    Hell, I made a commitment to write at least a hundred words a day earlier this year, and now I’m writing twelve thousand words a week, when last year trying to do 4-6k a week was enough to make my brain cramp after a few weeks.
    Granted, between writing and my job I don’t have much time for a social life, but I can have a social life if I make it as an author.

    • “but I can have a social life if I make it as an author.”charming delusion son. At least it’s not pink elephants…

      • Uncle Lar

        Leo Frankowski once admitted that his main reason in becoming a writer was his observation that popular writers got adoring mobs of women at the cons. He didn’t need the money, quite a successful businessman, and a bit of a perv, but that is quite evident in his writing. Adds spice IMHO.

      • Albert

        Okay, lemme put it this way: Right now I’m working at a job that I hate and doesn’t pay shit, because it(barely) pays the bills and I avoid 90% of the office politics that happen. The rest of my time is focused on either necessary household chores(done as rarely as possible) or training myself to be a writer.

        If publishing indie next year works out, I can ditch the job that I hate and thereby get back those hours.

  7. In at least two of my books and in the current WIP, I had a sudden brilliant inspiration when I was in the last stretch, which meant going back and seriously retrofitting what I had written before in order to accommodate said brilliant inspiration. All just part of the writing game, I guess.

  8. Jeff Duntemann

    Ouch ouch ouch ouch ouch. You’ve touched a nerve here; nay, I think you’ve touched all of them. I have worked as an editor now for thirty years, and it’s hard to take the editor out of the boy. So I keep beating on stories out of habit more than anything else. Only once was I constrained (by a very aggressive deadline) to polish once and call it done. If I compare that short novel (it’s called Drumlin Circus) to items that I’ve been tinkering for years, well…there’s no real difference. Maybe there’s something called “Polishers Anonymous,” and if so, I’m sure I belong right there in the front row.

    • Hi. My name is Brian, and I’m a polisher.

      You and Sarah nailed it. Right now I’m making final revisions to a book I started twelve years ago. Now I’ve finally hired an editor, I’m following her instructions, and I’m calling it done.

      One day at a time…

      • Hi Brian, Jeff, my name is Alma and I’m a polisher. It started harmlessly enough, just tweaking a word here or a bit of punctuation there. I thought I could quit, and besides it was harmless. No one else saw it, and they were my stories after all. But *sniff* I couldn’t stop. I’d come home from work tired and instead of working on the WIP, I’d go back and polish a little here and there. *Sniff* I didn’t mean to, really, I just, I couldn’t stop myself.

        Which is why there are, um, 7.5 years between when the bulk of _A Cat at Bay_ was written and when it will be published.

  9. Yep. I tend to write a few years ahead of where I’m publishing. Mostly because I had a huge backlog when KDP happened. But I’ve found it useful for putting in foreshadowing three books ahead. Quite apart from the extensive rewriting and recasting, and digging up the old versions because they were much better. I have a file for the large sections I discard (153K words), plus a folder for the stories that won’t happen and I need to remember to delete before I die.

    • Bjorn Hasseler

      I was talking to another writer recently. It turned out that we both keep a big file of what we’ve cut out of stories. Maybe some of it’s recyclable. But certainly it’s easier psychologically to cut/paste to a holding file than just delete. Yes, I’m fully aware those words are still there in version one of the story. It’s still easier to make the cuts when I’m moving them to the holding file.

  10. Uncle Lar

    From the lips of Heinlein himself:
    Five Rules for Success in Writing:
    First: You must write.
    Second: You must finish what you write.
    Third: You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
    Fourth: You must place it on the market.
    Fifth: You must keep it on the market until sold.
    From his most excellent talk, Channel Markers, which I feel compelled to give a complete fisk when time permits. Not because it’s wrong, but because the publishing world has so dramatically changed since that day in 1973 when Robert gave that talk to the midshipmen at Annapolis.
    It was published in Analog under that title shortly after it was given. I wish there was an open source I could link to, as it is a wonderful speech.

  11. Great rules Sarah! I’ll have to look out for number 4. It’s something I hadn’t considered and a real potential pitfall. As to number 8, I’ve told this story at cons before (back when I still went to cons). I met Ted Sturgeon at TUSCON IV–yes I’m that old. There were about 20 of us, and it was held in something like a Motel 6 at the side of the road. We just sat around in a large hotel room on the floor and BS’d the night away. I took the opportunity to sit next to Mr. Sturgeon of course, and when he found out I had ambitions to be a writer, he asked, “Do you want to be a published writer?” To my assent, he added, “I have a guaranteed method to make anyone a published writer.” I asked of course, and he replied simply, “Write 50 stories in a year. By the end you’ll be a published writer.” It took me 2 years, but I did sell my 32nd story.

    Now making a living at writing, that required other things at the time.

  12. Not to be a spoilsport here, Sarah, but I think “There are several novels in the cue” should be “There are several novels in the queue.”

  13. Arwen

    Writer cookies? Are they chocolate chip?

  14. Now this is helpful to me. Thank you.

  15. Polishing is how I get back into a story I’ve left sitting for a while. I re-read from the beginning, and catch things, fix them, and by the time I get to where I left off, I remember where I left off.

    Although I suppose that means the end of the story is less polished than the beginning….

    • So do I – I reread it all, and notice things that need that absolutely need fixing. There’s nothing quite as productive as stepping away from it for a while, and working on something else.

  16. The Other Sean

    So, can this post be taken as a denunciation of revisionism?

  17. Bjorn Hasseler

    Sarah, can we post a link to this at 1632 Tech?

  18. Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter

    One of the best writing teachers I had was a local fan I met who’d been working on the same novel for twenty years. That was twenty years ago. I’ve avoided asking him if he’s finished it yet. Don’t want to embarrass the poor guy!

    He was a polisher. He taught me inadvertently that polishing is a bad thing to do.

    Now even if there was a good reason to do mild polishing, I probably wouldn’t be able to bring myself to do it.

    • Apparently File 770 took issue with this post, or at least piled on as they do, but yes, there is a point at which polishing becomes crazy cakes. I too have a friend like that, and h*ll her novel was better than my first published one when she first wrote it 20 years ago.
      You know, part of the reason is that at the beginning states of your development as a writer you CAN’T make your story better. You simply don’t know how. When Kris and Dean first told me “Just rewrite, you don’t know how to revise yet” I thought they were nuts. Ten years later, I saw what they meant.

  19. Mike Glyer

    What an unexpected response. My copy of File 770 says — “(5) I tend to be interested in what Mad Genius Club columnists say specifically about the craft of writing,such as Sarah A. Hoyt’s advice about revisions.

    [First of eight points.]”

    • Well, since I know the commenters you cultivate, and how you tend to slant things, I expect no friendly link from you. If the response is unexpected, you’re singularly lacking in self reflection.

      • When I read the comments thread earlier today, there seemed to be little discussion at all about it: one writer pointed out that the advice was not suitable for all, and that she particularly has had success with repeated revision. There was little else to the point: the regulars didn’t seem much interested in a discussion of the craft of writing. Could be different by now, of course.

    • Really? You find it unexpected after all your links to SP3 related posts (and SP4) and the attacks anyone who dares support SP3/4 have had to undergo when commenting at File 770? You find it unexpected when the vast majority of your link backs to MGC, or any of our personal blogs for the last six months or more, have been only about SP3/4 related posts and not to craft posts? There comes a time when people quit following your link backs because of all the attack comments on your blog — many of them having little to do with the truth.

  20. Mike Glyer

    I write File 770. Commenters write comments. When you say “File 770 took issue” you’re not being accurate. That matters to me, if not to you.

    • First of all, it would help if you would hit “reply” so people could see exactly what comment you are referring to. As for the rest of it, nice job leaving out one word that completely changes the import of your so-called quote above. There is a big difference between “Apparently, File 770 took issue” — which is exactly what Sarah said — and your redacted version in your comment above. Just pointing this out since you seem to put so much stock in being accurate. So perhaps you should be as accurate as you want everyone else to be.

      • Not counting the fact that he CULTIVATES the nastiest commenters in the universe — and yes, I said “cultivates” because a blog owner can do much to curb and redirect, while he seems to delight in being home to assterisks.

    • You write File 770. That doesn’t mean we have to like it when you cultivate a culture of commentary that is unfriendly to pretty much everyone, and we certainly don’t have to approve your links – all the blogs and ‘zines I’m currently writing for have a policy of not approving your backlinks because of the blowback that comes through them. Your house: you clean it.

  21. Mary

    It took me over ten years to get A Diabolical Bargain out.

    That was because I had not mastered the form of the novel yet. Most of those years, I spent with it on the back burner working on other novels to master the form.

    Though in the end my first novel written was the first one published.

  22. Perhaps placing self-imposed deadlines is one way to put an end to ‘endless editing loops’. If one’s day job involves grinding out time-sensitive copy (e.g, tech journalism, general journalism, scientific papers,…) then getting trapped in editing loops means the whole piece goes down the drain (because it’s obsolete, no longer news, or a competitor scooped you). So you learn the hard way to put a damper on toxic perfectionism.