Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Seeing Anew

Revision – should be easy, right? You take your vision and you do it again.

Well... that is actually one of the things you need to do. But to be serious for a while (and you know this kills me, right?) let’s take it from the top.

Years ago, at a workshop with Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith, I was stunned to hear that while I was experienced enough to write stories, I lacked the necessary experience and knowledge to revise/rewrite/recast. You could have knocked me down with a feather. I mean, I used to teach English. And, of course, I learned English (and a few other languages) at one time. How many times had I revised a paper? Revising was easy, right? You go over your book and you change the wording and stuff...

Well, making a long and painful story short, KKR and DWS were absolutely right. I didn’t know how to revise. And I still don’t – or at least it’s not something that comes naturally. I work at it every single time I have to do it. It’s a painful process. All forms of revision.

What do I mean all forms? There are many things that get lumped in under “revision.” Some have different names but they all are, in a way, forms of revising. The ones that come to mind are: editing, revision (proper), rewriting, recasting.

To the extent they all involve taking work that could be considered finished and making it different in an attempt to improve it, they all involve re-vision – i.e., taking your vision and re-doing it. And each of them involves peculiar dangers that you make things worse, instead of better.

Take editing, which is probably the most minor of the processes – you change a word, a sentence there, move that explanation on the mating cycles of cockroaches to the beginning of the book... Simple, yes? I mean, the book remains essentially the same.

NOT simple. Why not? Because as you were writing it, you were “unrolling” the story in a certain order. If you’re like me, there’s the reminder-ticker-tape at the back of your head going “have you described him? Is this the first time we see him? Mention the thing with the hair!” While when you’re editing, again if you’re like me, you’re lost in the prose itself and it might be hard to remember what you’ve mentioned before and not or to find the exact reference back there. So in fact, when you move the thing on the mating cycles of cockroaches, it might be before you mention the villain is a cockroach and you might be confusing your reader terribly.

At the next level of invasiveness is revision proper. This goes a little deeper than mere word changes. With this one you have to ask yourself things like “Did I sufficiently describe the escape pods, so they understand the urgency of her flight?” Or “Should that second scene when he gets knocked on the head be there? He got knocked on the head once already. I need another injury. How about liver failure?” This one is proportionately more dangerous than mere editing. (And btw, I mean editing as a writer does with her own work, not as an editor does, which is more the revision proper level.) While editing can bring the reader to a dead stop at a sentence or paragraph, this one allows you to kill a novel dead, dead, dead. How?

By the time you start this phase, chances are you’ve been living with the novel for at least some months, and probably years. At this point, it’s very easy to come across a description of the character and decide that “oh, who needs to know his eyes sparkle with green fire?” and cut it out. Only your reader did not know that, and, denied the knowledge of this ophthalmic problem, will wonder what your MC sees in the guy (and why she’s stockpiling holy water.) By this process, you end up with talking heads and a nonsensical plot.

The opposite problem is trying to overcompensate for this and thinking “oh, I need to explain that.” In its extreme form, it has the author explaining how a zipper (or something else we have now) works. In its various intermediate forms, it can swell your novel to twice its size and give the reader WAY more information than anyone needs or wants. It can also bring your action scene to a dead stop, as you explain how the sonic guns work.

In a way the next level up – rewrite – is safer (As btw KKR as DWS told me they would be.) This is where you wrote the entire novel. Now you lock it in your drawer and you re-write from memory. While it will never be like writing it the first time – characters and situations are familiar, and presumably there are fewer surprises, though some minor scenes might change – you’re still telling the story anew, and that keeps it fresher as it unrolls. If you are a relative newby, this is the type of “revision” I’d recommend, for your seriously flawed stories. At least, if you suspect the problem is on the “narrative” side, rather than the story side. I.e., you have a basically solid story with solid characters, but you made a mess of how you told it. This is often the solution for stories you’ve edited to death.

And then you have recasting, which is the simplest one of all from a storytelling point of view... and the hardest too from a diagnosing point of view. This is when you take a story and you try to figure out why it was rejected. And then you play with removing/replacing story elements to make it better and/or more marketable. I’ve done this with half a dozen short stories. For instance, there is a story where a revelation of the character’s alien nature made it very icky that the Main Character had married him not knowing this. It tarnished both of them. Though the story was lovely on the word/emotion-path level, no one would touch it.

When I’d been away from it long enough to realize what was wrong, I went back and made the MC his adopted sister instead. This required recasting the story, because no scene could remain the same. But when I was done, it sold first place I sent it.

So now that I am an experienced author (G) I get to tell you – revision is hard, because it’s hard to see anew what you already saw once. This goes against the way the human mind works. It’s like playing poker with yourself. You pretend you never read this, and you write it again.

Do you understand the difficulties? Do I sound like I’m just being snobbish? What is your particular revision issue? Have you markedly improved a story by revising it? How?

It’s a difficult process. Share your pain.


MataPam said...

I tend to spend most of my time writing good guys on both sides of a conflict, and not enough time on the evil ones who are going to prevent a peaceful diplomatic solution. In my most major revision, I wound up with no true bad guys, and a rather tepid bad guy as the only character in a position to solve the problem.

So he had to become my Main Character, and I had to add a couple of nasty sorts who outranked him, and I had to turn a lot of sketchy characters into more rounded sorts, as I was adding a whole lot of pages to the former tepid, cardboard bad guys part of the story.

:: Ahem:: Hadn't noticed how sketchy those bad guys were, something to remember in the future.

I hope I managed to improve it. My first reader liked it, the second is reading it now.

C Kelsey said...

Having just finished pretending I know what I'm doing in a revision I know exactly what the hardest/worst part for me is. As soon as I get down in the weeds of editing/re-writing, etc. all the words become flat and meaningless. The characters lose personality. The vision and desire for the story is gone. I edit and then I rewrite entire sections. I deleted a lot in the last story because I had scenes in their that fit the events in my mind as to how something would really go in the aftermath of a fight like my characters had, but in the story ended up with me just having an entire sub-story within my story that added nothing to the plot. And again, it was totally lifeless to me. At that point the story doesn't roll off the mind but rather it becomes the unlovely and unfun job of hacking at it with a butcher knife in the hope that eventually you'll reach the finer detail of the perring knife before whittling it into something not-ugly. Okay, I'm rambling. Time to find coffee.

MataPam said...


In a short story, cutting away anything extraneous is frequently necessary for the impact.

In a book, you can loosen up and wander a bit. Scenes that don't advance the plot can develop characters, give depth to the world, indicate the passing of time, or just give the reader a breather between "Important" scenes.

I don't know what length you're working with, but don't go over board with the butcher knife. Perhaps you need to put your stuff away for a while, write something different. Then go back and read with less immediate of a memory of it.

C Kelsey said...


As of now I cut it from ~8000 words to ~6000. So I wasn't too extreme. I needed to move it along more. I originally wrote it over the July 4 holiday. And have let it sit since then. It was time to do the rewrite and at least try to get it out of the way. Granted, by the time I was done with the rewrite, I wante nothing more than to just go all meta-fictional, step into the scene, and beat my characters with a hammer. :-/

Anonymous said...

I have a question regarding the rewrite process. Say I've sent out a story to most of its eligible markets, it's been rejected by all, and the biggest problem is its length. Maybe there's not enough to support a full short, so I decide to make it flash. Or the other way around. I've crammed too much into a flash and need to flesh it out into a full short. Will it be viewed badly and outright rejected if editors recognize it as the same basic story but changed? I've heard that it's not the same story, so it's okay, but I'm not sure it's realistic to expect them to read it with fresh eyes. What do you guys think? Thanks.


Synova said...

I've resisted rewriting from memory. Planning on doing that makes the first draft seem like a waste of effort (yes, it's true, I don't understand the word "draft" properly) and also there is always at least one gem, one clever turn of phrase, that I don't want to lose.

But I did just rewrite something. It's the first scene of a script. The original, two year old version is lost in the electrons someplace. I reloaded the newest version of the script writing software (free! yay!) and it isn't locating the lost files. So it was either get my husband and his mad IT skills to try to rescue me, or start over.

It actually worked remarkably well. I needed to take the villain out of the scene since having him there messed up the timing of events even if the scene itself was probably stronger with him in it. Now that one thing can lead directly to the next and people can not have found out yet what they shouldn't have found out until later... that they *can* die, I can tell that the whole thing will be tighter.

I remember the conversation, but not the exact words. So I was thinking, "They teased her about knowing what SERE was. How did that come up?"

I could have just changed the name of the person who couldn't be there, but I don't know if I would have realized what other events naturally follow if I hadn't been writing it fresh.

Now her "escape" leads directly from the conversation instead of requiring some other event to trigger it and the subsequent asking of someone in a different military organization to go find her has the rationale of "It was you that put that idea in her head, after all."

If I had just changed the name, I'm afraid that I probably would have just changed the name.

Jim McCoy said...

Sarah, if you think it's bad with fiction, try revising a scholarly piece. I did a paper for a history class as an undergrad that was ~25 pages long. The longest thing I had written previous to that was supposed to be 10 pages, but I had cut it a bit short at like 9.75 because I knew the prof would let me get away with it.

So I turned in my draft a week before the thing was do and got a more politely worded version of:

"Your idea is good. Your use of primary sources is good. Your organization is a crime against humanity and you should be executed for it - twice."

Trying to tear that thing apart and put it together again was the hardest thing I've ever done in the world of writing. I had to basically rip the whole thing apart and put it back together in a different order while still arguing the same thesis using the same facts. I got it done (somehow) but I'm much more careful about the way I organize things now because Lord knows I never (and I mean EVER!!) want to do that again.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Jim, reading your post made me smile.

Welcome to the world of writing.

I just did what I thought was a final read through on book one of my new trilogy, only to realise near the end that the book had to end in a different place, I had to restructure it and add new scenes.


But where did this knowledge come from? Nowhere. It was just a thing 'I knew'. It was a light bulb moment and I had to sleep on it to see how to restructure.

Wish there was an easier way to explain it.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


A lot of my re-writes are heightening either the badness of the badies or the awesomeness of the hero. Cardboard is never good.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Would it be easier to put the story in a drawer and try again? Just saying. I've been known to do that.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


This is one of those things you should have told me years before you knew me. I first got published in short stories, so I thought DISCIPLINE is essential to the whole thing.

It wasn't until I attended another writer's reading and saw the audience ask for an UTTERLY pointless scene "with the sausage" that I got you need those respites, and you can make them fun and the audience can love them.

My first attempt at this, as you guys are probably getting sick of hearing was the "three guys in a car" in Draw One In The Dark

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Thirst, my first published short was taken down from 10k to 7.5. It can be done, particularly in dialogue. But er... it takes practice. So perhaps you should feel better that you're learning?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Sigh. I was where you are now. Which answer do you want? The short one is "No, no one will hold it against you." The long one is more involved and has to do with which editors you're submitting to. If you're submitting to the major mags, they literally get thousands of submissions a day. If they don't know you personally, they won't even remember you. Also, if your story was not a personal rejection at one of those, chances are they read one paragraph maybe two. Change the first paragraph in your rewrite and they'll never know.
More than that, though I've never done it, I have heard of writers revising the same story over and over again and sending it back till it gets accepted at one of the majors. I don't advise this. I can explain why, but it would almost take a whole other column. However, I suspect that if you rewrite and keep it in there, they know the idea is important to you. You're signaling it's heart's blood. Editors like those.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Synova, the first draft is NOT a waste. It will give you a much smoother path to the second.
Everytime I have to do that -- usually for same reasons as you -- the second is better, even if I'm TRYING to make it LIKE the first.
Second, a lot can be said for thinking about it and recasting the thing. I didn't recast all of DST -- I revised it and changed one of the plot lines. HOWEVER as I was going over it, I realized the way the original novel started -- with her in the doctor's office, and talking about everything that was alarming her, was nonsensical. My tip off was "the action starts on page forty". Then why not start on page forty, with just a little lead up? But how do I start with her on the run? Well... instead of the doctor talking to her about boring matters and pretending an inoculation her father had to know would set her off, how about a goon in her room while she's at her most (admitedly not much) helpless? It worked much better. A little bit of thought can do that.
As for the parts you love -- weirdly I'm not of the "you must kill your darlings" school of writing which is, I think, more a minimalist thing, while my favorite style of art was always -- I know this will shock everyone -- barroque. I advise going over the story first and taking all those cool lines you love, and making a file of those. When you finish the re-cast rewrite, go over that file and see if you still want them, then put them in where appropriate. :-P Reading your stuff one more time looking for "the cool" will also give you a fresh perspective on it, as a reader, particularly if it's been a while.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


LOL. I have the equivalent of an Masters in Modern Languages and Literatures. The equivalent of a thesis was on Flannery O'Connor (for which my then future husband sent me books over the mail. Library books. Which I sent back. They didn't exist in Portugal.)
The first paper was something like 65 pages long and my professor's opinion was basically the same one you just quoted. So... I moved things around and rewrote. And then the professor gave me another critique.
Let's just say I had a typewriter, not a word processor (which even in the states were fairly rare in 84.) At the end of it the professor was saying, "Instead of re-typing it, you could just cut and paste paragraphs in a new page, then take a really good photocopy." So, trust me, I KNOW your pain. Also, trust me on this, a novel is worse. Or even a short. You're not just going for what makes logical sense, you want to keep those emotional highs and lows hitting at the right points. It's, as I said, like playing poker with yourself. And managing to cheat.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Yes, Rowena, I've had those. As I've had stories that end before they're supposed to. I mean, I have them outlined with another ten chapters, and SUDDENLY I just know we've come to the conclusion, that this is the RIGHT point to end.
And then I have stories like Thirst, (available for free :-P in my collection at the Baen Free Library) which I finished, looked at, looked at again, then realized it needed something. And, as though someone else were moving them, I saw my hands type the last sentence in. The sentence that MAKES the story.
These episodes terrify me -- but I've been in enough panels to find they're fairly normal.
As for their coming in revision, yeah, that happens sometimes, but it would have to be a very strong push to make me change it.

Jim McCoy said...

Damn Sarah. A typewriter huh? That would suck. I played with a typewriter as a kid, and I had some typing lessons on them in grade school, but I've never actually SUBMITTED something that was done on one. That would be rough.

Dan Hoyt said...

Two words -- touch typing. (With ALL fingers, not just two, BTW.) For a complete re-draft, it can make the difference between a daunting task you keep putting off and a minor inconvenience that only sets you back a few hours.

Kate said...

Um. World's worst editor here. Half the time all I can manage is to see that something isn't right. Most of the time I have no idea how to fix it.


Sarah A. Hoyt said...

What Dan said.
When I wrote my first novel I realized I was an agonizingly slow typist (about 20 wds per minute) which led to my getting confused about WHERE I was in typing, as opposed to thinking. So I got Dan's highschool typing book and spent a Summer practicing on an electric typewriter. Over and over again. By the end of it I typed 80 words per minute. The last time I was tested on a typewriter (which is slower than a keyboard) I was at 120 wpm corrected. Now, I don't know.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


At least you know what you don't know and trust some people's opinions to help guide you. Trust me it could be worse. I have a friend who has rewritten her first book... fifteen times. And it was fine the first time.

Ty Johnston said...

I've found over time, I do less revision work than I used to. About 6 years ago, I was 45,000 words into a novel, then scrapped it all and started over. Today, that's much less likely to happen. I'm a more experienced writer nowadays, and usually see major looming problems before I get to them within the context of the story.

I pretty much do what is seems Dean Wesley Smith does. I write a story out, give it one or two reads for editing purposes, then ship it off or self-publish it (depending upon the project and contractual obligations). Haven't done any more major re-writing in those six years, but I'm not cocky enough to say it could never happen again.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I used to write three novels. Well, not really, but pieces of three novels, so that by the end I had one beginning, one middle, one end, and nothing related. Then I tried to "merge" them.

Nowadays... well, some novels go just fine. The current pain in ... er... work in progress has made me weave another plot/character history through the main plot from the beginning.

Each novel is different. I certainly have no qualms sending out "edited first draft" if it's good. The problem is when it "bothers" me. Of course, sometimes this is imaginary. With Darkship Thieves, I tried my best to soften/reduce the amount of romance in it. And yet, it seems instrumental to the success of the book.