If At First You Don’t Succeed

I hesitate to say that sometimes you need to rewrite.  I hesitate to say it, because writers are crazy people, and given half a chance will spend their entire lives rewriting the One True Book, which frankly, more likely than not was never worth that much effort, and would turn out a dud in either case.

I heard Kevin J. Anderson himself compare book writing/publishing to making popcorn. You can pick the one perfect kernel, adjust the oil and heat just so… and if it’s a dud, it will never pop.  Or you can put some oil in the bottom of a pan, throw some corn in, put the lid on (important. First month of marriage, my brother and his bride forgot this step in making popcorn. My father found them, advancing on the corny artillery, using pan lids as shields.)  And chances are you’ll have a bunch of duds but also a ton of very good popcorn.

And yet, you must understand that analogy above is the whole and complete range of your choices. Let me explainYou can either do a bunch of books — this seems to work particularly well with indie and trust on quantity — or you can do the One True Book.

If for some reason you stop believing you can revise, and start believing that work must leave your hands perfect the first time, you’ll find yourself caught in the coils of perfecting the oil, the temp, the pan, all of which will consume your life, make you neurotic, and result in your never finishing anything.

But Sarah, you’ll say, are you doubting Heinlein’s third rule? Never revise except to editorial demand?

Oh, bother. No.

The problem is that “revision” is a very broad term.  Sure, once you’re DONE with a book (which btw should take no more than three passes, under ANY circumstances) you should not under any circumstances go back and “revise” particularly when you’re a young and inexperienced writer. Your revision is in fact likely to kill either the voice or the plot. Take it from a woman who started out both hyper-grammatically-correct or — heaven help the chilluns and innocents! — a putter-inner, which meant I kept tossing more and more stuff in, till the book resembled soup.

But your finished book can have up to three passes.

Look, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I plot by fits of genius.  What I mean is, no matter how exactly plotted my books are, suddenly in the middle of it I’ll have an insight that elevates the whole thing. Or I’ll suddenly figure out my villain really loves bears and that’s why he can’t eat the chocolate teddy. Or…

Or I’ll stop before a big fight scene. I’m not the most visual person alive.  Also, often I’m ill or just not feeling it. So I stop before I write a fight scene. The stop can then turn into months, through lack of habit.

What can I do instead? Go “write it whichever way. Fix it in post.”  This works great, because at that point, for some reason, I’m no longer anxious about “can I write it.”  Also I usually do this phase long hand, which is also easier to visualize.

So, my second pass (first is to finish the book, however bungled) is to do things like make sure all the foreshadowing points right. Characters don’t suddenly change names. (One of the ones in current book was named xyz because I need to look up her name pages before.) Characters didn’t change descriptions/origin/way of talking.  Make sure I didn’t shy away from things I tend to shy away from, like, oh, fight scenes.  Make sure if I only figured on page 100 that they needed a sword, I give them a sword on page 60.  Etc.  I call this “Lady Catherine will never know” (From the pride and prejudice mini series from A & E when Maria is refolding all her gowns so they’re the way Lady Catherine said they must be folded and Elizabeth says, “They’re your gowns. Fold them any way you want, Lady Catherine will never know.)

Trust me, if you do this second pass well, your readers will never have a clue that you spent half the book calling your supporting character Maryhadalittlelamb because you kept forgetting how to spell her name. Or that your fight scene that is now spectacular and really elevates the climax of the book used to be two lines, “We fought. Mike killed the demon. Mary cried. We were done.” This is because your readers will never see your draft. Or at least, not while you’re alive. You can donate the manuscript to a library or something, and have people debate what you meant by Maryhadalittlelamb for CENTURIES after you’re dead. But you’ll be dead, and either not care, or be able to point and laugh where they can’t reach you. Either way you’re cool.

The third pass is trivial, and it’s to make sure you don’t have any [make sure I look up name of the damn castle] still left in your manuscript. Also to make sure that your verbs are verbing properly, etc.  Language pass.

And then give it to your betas, and copyeditors, and put it out in the great big world. And don’t change it unless someone is waving money in front of your face.

Because, you know what, I ALSO suffer from this.  In the book I’ve restarted and am writing (That could count as a rewrite, but it’s more a recasting, because the other character just didn’t “connect” with my mind.) my mind keeps going “you started too early. You should start with her in space.”  Forget it jack. Let it go. Maybe there is an optimal starting place, but that way lies madness.  This is where the voice started, this is where I write it.

Not ideal? Probably not. Nothing is. OTOH I bet you when released this book will be both someone’s favorite of my books, and someone’s least favorite. Every book is.  Let it ride.

However, now that I remembered I’m allowed to do multiple passes on a book — what? No, I have no explanation, except I was very ill for a while, and finding enough “up” time to write once was hard enough, much less time for other passes — I’m writing again, regularly and things are getting finished. (Deep Pink is in second pass. Alien Curse is chugging along.)

If you’re stuck and not feeling it?  Write a crappy first draft. You can always do a second pass later.

Lady Catherine — and/or your readers — will never know.




  1. I’ve had to do multiple passes when we were doing Aff’s Diary: Blessed Hope – not just for typos, but for ‘Shadow was tired when writing this, the grammar is German, not English, and she’s never going to notice, so someone else has to read it for errors.’

    And I did do multiple passes, and found that changing fonts worked for finding errors at times. My eyes were burned holes in my head by the time we were done.

  2. I’ve run into an advocate of the “one draft only” method recently, and I honestly don’t know how she does it. I would go nuts if I was trying to do things in one draft, and I don’t think I’d ever get anything done.

    Go “write it whichever way. Fix it in post.” This works great, because at that point, for some reason, I’m no longer anxious about “can I write it.”

    It’s like you’re reading my mind on this point. Right now I’m trying to write the aftermath of the death of a character I really didn’t want to kill (it turned out that “His family was upset because he ALMOST died” didn’t quite give the impact on my main character that I wanted). If I believed that what I was writing was set in stone, I’d never get through this chapter. Knowing I’ll be doing revisions, I can just start putting stuff down so that I can get through the funeral and on to the next part.

    The funny thing is that often when I do this, it turns out not to need as much fixing as I think it will. At least half the time, the scene is fine, and all my agony was unnecessary.

    In the book I’ve restarted and am writing (That could count as a rewrite, but it’s more a recasting, because the other character just didn’t “connect” with my mind.) my mind keeps going “you started too early. You should start with her in space.” Forget it jack. Let it go. Maybe there is an optimal starting place, but that way lies madness.

    I’ve had this problem too. My last NaNo piece, I realized halfway through the prologue that what I was writing served no purpose. The only thing I was doing was spoiling my own plot. And what I did in response was to keep writing the prologue. Partially because NaNo, and I wasn’t about to give up those extra words, but partially because yeah, this was the start of the story in my mind, and stopping and trying to get back in the flow at a later point would take longer than just finishing the prologue and going from there.

    1. Knowing I’ll be doing revisions, I can just start putting stuff down…

      The funny thing is that often when I do this, it turns out not to need as much fixing as I think it will. At least half the time, the scene is fine, and all my agony was unnecessary.

      So true! I often wish I could just skip the agony in the first place, but if I’m worried I don’t have the chops, the only way to learn I do is by actually doing the writing. Confidence arrives after the proof, not before. 😉

        1. Heh! Not so sure of that, but the confidence definitely arrives after it would have been most useful. Or, to put it another way: there’s no use waiting until I feel ready. Gotta collar the muse however I can, ready or not.

  3. Lady Catherine — and/or your readers — will never know.

    But there are times where we like to know “how the sausage is made”. 😀

  4. This is (one of the ) things that separate the hobbyist from the professional. The professional will (mostly) follow Heinlein’s dictum and revise only on editor’s demand. On the other hand, Tolkien spent years on revising and rewriting what eventually became The Lord Of the Rings. ‘Course, Tolkien was a university professor and never seriously considered writing fiction for money.

    1. Thing to remember about The Lord Of The Rings, that was the culmination of a life’s work. He spent decades inventing entire languages and deep, deep history for that world. Middle Earth is as “real” a place as Medieval Germany to us, because of all that work he did.

  5. Yesterday I spent some time writing a scene where the characters are bantering and fooling around. It doesn’t move the story, doesn’t really provide atmosphere or background or foreshadowing. They’re just playing.

    Maybe I’ll take it out later, maybe I’ll leave it in, but yesterday the only way forward was through playtime. And today, the story is moving again. Yay.

    Write it and fix it later does seem to be a good way to do it.

        1. I’m another who needs to let things sit for at least a week or two. That is, after the beast is finished. Although I tend to get hit with “you need to add this in Chapter two or readers are going to wall it in Chapter ten” about ten minutes after stopping for the day. It’s uncanny.

          1. Two oclock in the bloody morning. Can’t sleep, neighbors are doing the hooman version of the midnight kitty cat crazies. *Now* the Evil Muse Collective starts whispering,

            “And then you need a secretary. Crazy competent, no nonsense, deadpan, just the facts, and so on. The obviously hoppy skinny genius with the bushy eyebrows needs a foil! Oh, and a dog. Not a dog. A lizard that’s like a dog. Needs a bit more dark but not too dark. Norse? Which myth? And steal some of the plot form from-“

            I was *finished!* I swearsies! Done! Dun! Stick a fork in the pun, done!


    1. Write fat. Revise lean.

      Otherwise you will remember that you had two details and knew you had space for one, and picked the wrong one, and can’t remember what the other one was.

  6. Of the things I’ve finished (published, publishable, or not), I’ve found that I need 3-4 months away from it (or more) to be able to get enough distance to see what didn’t make it out of my head and onto the page, or That Great Structural Weakness / Major Plot Hole. So it’s not so much that it needs more than 3 passes, as it needs at least one structural edit pass with some perspective, a copyedit, and a line edit. (Actually, I throw a fourth in there – the post-beta-reader-feedback edit. Which needs to be before the copyedit, or there will inevitably be typos in the stuff reworked after beta readers had chances to ask questions.)

    Peter seems to have skipped that problem, and his stuff is ready to go as soon as he gets beta reader feedback and revises as per the feedback he agrees with. I still haven’t figured out that trick, and when I’ve rushed it, I’ve ended up looking at the reviews, wincing, and about two months later going, “Oh! If I’d only put in this scene here, and repeated this foreshadowing there and there, it would have been much better!”

  7. I am still learning how to edit so as to give the best support possible to my authors.
    Early on my focus was entirely on the grammar and typo copy edit, which is fine in it’s place. Sarah certainly always seems to need that, bless her dyslexic heart. But as discussed that is well down in the schedule, when the entire story has been laid down and finalized.
    When I did a beta of Guardian I intentionally turned off the Edith the English teacher part of my brain and focused entirely on technical issues and overall readability of the plot and story line.

  8. Are there any Mad Genius posts on the hows and whys of the second pass? I made myself a first draft with your and Swain’s help, but I’ve never a clue what to do after. (And that inability has stifled further output, because it’s harder to tell the “why bother” voice to stuff it…)

    1. I’m not a genius, but I might be mad, so that’s a start…

      Usually I refer to my second pass as “Hoovering.” It’s all about putting away the toys, running the vacuum cleaner over the carpet, and generally getting the place into a shape where you don’t mind someone else seeing it. Fix the glaring mistakes and whatever typos you see, go back and read through the sections that don’t seem to work and see if you can polish them up, etc., and then send it to the beta readers to get their opinions. Often, I won’t fix even things that strike me as seriously in need of work at this stage because I want to see how other people will react to them.

  9. Also I usually do this phase long hand…

    I’ve learned that it really helps me to draft dreaded scenes longhand. I can be completely stuck when facing the computer, but the flow of story will sweep me along once I grab a pen and start scribbling. I always use a pen, because the smooth sensation of the ink flowing is part of what gives me confidence; that plus the feeling of freedom I get from vigorously crossing out a word or a phrase and then scribbbling onward without a care regarding the messiness in my wake. 😉

  10. My own writing style is, so far:

    1) Write a page or so summary of what happens overall.

    1b) Work out ahead of time the rough limits of magic or tech of the setting.

    2) Outline several scenes ahead of where I’m presently at.

    3) Use that as a guide to figure out what needs to happen to justify what’s going to happen.

    4) Write the novel.

    5) Go back and make sure I didn’t mess up continuity.

    My first series – trilogy of light novels, looking to clock in between 200-250k words total – uses an inexperienced kid who’s very much a fish out of water for where he finds himself, so his thoughts don’t need to be correct.

    Then, of course, there’s

    6) Remember that I’ve written less than a million words even if we count fanfic, accept that my first several novels are going to suck no matter what, and count them for experience.


  11. I confess, I did at least half a dozen passes on A Diabolical Bargain, including two periods on the back burner of many months.

    That was because my metier is short. I wrote other long works in between to master the form of a novel.

    1. There’s a skydiving place that sells t-shirts with that motto and their business logo! It made me giggle so hard… but I don’t ever want to jump out of a mostly-functional airplane again, thank you!

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