Editing vs. Revising vs. Rewriting

I’ve been taking a workshop on Editing Yourself.  It’s not the first workshop I’ve had like this; I had another one called Keys to Editing, which covered the topic if you wanted to go in business as an editor.  The Editing Yourself is very different from that one.

The editing class is on essentially taking care of the story while you’re creating it.  Like when I plopped a description of a character in the story early on and then he evolved into something different so I had to create a new description that reflected that evolution.

But one of the things that strikes me is that the writing community generally refers to editing and revision and rewriting all as the same thing when they are very clearly not.

Except in one place.

And that’s when they’re creating the story and they go back and do what I described above for the class.  They called it “revising as you go along.”  And with using that terminology comes actual revision, and often endless revision.  I used to call it that myself and had to learn what I could change and what I couldn’t.

It’s what got me into trouble working with a cowriter who was suffering from fear of finishing and me not knowing that he had this fear.

After a disastrous book where I kept getting stuck so I’d go back and “revise as I went along” until I solved the problem, I decided on the following guidelines:

  • If I was stuck, I had to work that out.  I could go back a few scenes to see if I’d bounced off the tracks, but I couldn’t go all the way to the beginning to tweak words and sentences.
  • I could go back and change things like adding more foreshadowing for a later scene, correcting a name I’d just changed, or a gender of a character.
  • No fixing!  No tweaking of sentences or words to make them perfect.  If I didn’t have a good reason to change something (i.e., I don’t understand what I was trying to write), it stands as is.

My writer friend would have happily revised the first chapter for years.  And this is so easy to do because you think you’re making progress and suddenly the novel takes 25 years (that’s from a writing board I’m on) and never gets done.

The only progress you make is when you can type “The End” and move onto the next one.  Sometimes the tools provided to us by “experts” get in the way of that.


Not Fixing it on the Revision

One of the “rules” I’ve seen around is not to edit or revise as your write.  It leaves writers to race through the draft and deal with a more worse problem:

I’ll fix it on the revision.

Last week, I hit about 10K on my science fiction novel Sinhollow, and I realized I had a problem.  One of the characters wasn’t working.  I included her initially because I wanted to make sure I have enough women characters.  I didn’t want my heroine to be the only woman.

My choices were to leave the character in and deal with it on the revision, but I know that’s a way that leads to a whole lot of unnecessary work (having gone down that path before).  I spent about an afternoon pulling her from the scenes and adding new dialogue.  Wasn’t all that hard to do.  But if I’d waited until the story was done, a lot more would have been tangled up, and each change would have rippled into other changes that would have in turn caused other changes.

And it made me think about the character, because I didn’t want to get rid of her.  So she has a new role, and I’m going back to add scenes.

Not revision.  No editing.  It’s creating.

Not leaving it for the revision

I’m on a Facebook page where everyone’s focus—especially now with NANO—is to simply get the first draft out of the way so they can get to the revision. It’s like the first draft is so distasteful, it’s like, “Let’s just gulp this down and get it out of the way. Everything can be fixed on the revision.”

I used to think that, too.

And it’s like the hatred of the first draft feeds on that thinking. I remember working on the first draft of one particularly problematic book. At that point, my writing was starting to really clash with all the outlining advice that was out there. Little things like “Know your plot points” that are sternly recommended for pantsers were interfering with my story, and all I could think about as I was writing it was that I was looking forward to fixing it on the revision.

Then I got to the revision, and it was a terrible mess. It seemed like every decision I made in first draft affected events that followed. If I changed A, then B, C, D, and X also changed. But I wasn’t done! A changed P, S, and T, and changing P changed C, which changed other things. It just snowballed into a mass of revision that had me pulling out my hair.

But if you’d told me that it was how I was thinking about the first draft at the time, I wouldn’t have believed it. A lot of emphasis is put on that the first draft is always terrible and revision is where the story really comes out.

I saw this first hand when I took Holly Lisle’s How to Revise Your Novel. I had this tangled mess that looked like the cat had taken the ball of yarn outside and unrolled it out in the leaf pile and then dragged it around in the dirt and picked up the fox gloves. One of her lessons was to look through the entire story and simply identify what was wrong. I couldn’t believe the amount of problems that I had created by the magic words, “I’ll leave that for revision.”

It was horrifying when I realized what this was doing to the story. Each part of the story connects to other parts of the story, so if one decision isn’t made, it’s like a car hitting a pothole. The alignment gets thrown out of whack, and every decision that follows is based on that part that’s out of whack.

I ended up tossing out that entire story and redrafting it from scratch—essentially pretending like that mess didn’t exist and doing a new first draft. It was much easier than trying to fix what I left for revision!

Now, if I get stuck in the first draft, I stop and figure out why.  Sometimes this takes longer than I really want, but it’s far better than the old way of “leaving it for the revision.”

Writing Mis-Advice Reported as Facts #3

Number three in my mis-advice, and this one’s probably going to be a bit controversial. But all five relate to each in some way.

Give yourself permission to write crap.

First, I do get the principle behind his particular piece of advice. It’s “Don’t let yourself get bogged down by trying to be perfect.” Some writers will write the first chapter, think it sucks, toss it away, and start a new chapter, then toss that away, too because it isn’t perfect. I saw a writer do exactly this and never write anything.

The problem with the advice is the word “crap.” Most writers start out thinking their writing is terrible. It’s hard thing to overcome because we’re bombarded with so many messages about not being good enough. I had to get off the writing message boards because I kept hearing the negativity of “you’re going to screw it up anyway” and every other writer saying, “My writing is crap.”

If anyone starts typing in the comments that their writing IS terrible, stop and think why you’re saying that

Open with a hook.

This is focusing on the words and not on the story. Story is what sells.

Your first sentence has to stand out.

Also is focusing on the words and not on the story. Story is what sells.

Leave out the boring parts.

What does that mean?! Unfortunately, it tends to mean to leave the description out, which causing the next problem …

Revise, revise, revise. It’s where the true book comes out.

First, I’m defining revision as it applies to this piece of advice as finishing the book, and then going back and taking it apart by piece by piece, fixing big picture items like the entire plot, messed up characterization, or that the setting has been completely left out.

I’ve found that this is a terrible piece of advice. If the true book doesn’t come out on the first draft, I really screwed it up and no amount of revision will fix it. Worse, if I left something as major as setting out of the entire book, then the book is unrecoverable (I’ve had one like that).

The problem, I think, is computers.

I was in the Army right went we first got computers. We printed slides on paper and then copied them on transparencies. We learned to get it right on those slides. Now, because the slides are shown live, presenters continually tweak and make changes to those slides, even five minutes before giving the presentation.

So, with a novel, it’s easy to say, “I can’t figure how to do this, so I’ll leave it for the revision.” Because the computer makes it easy to go back and tweak files. I know. I remember saying that on a novel instead of stopping to work through the problem or go back and try something different. That single decision made a massive revision because it connected to other parts of the story.

So, picture this then, borrowing old technology: You’re on a manual typewriter, and you can only do one draft because it’s awful typing and takes forever. How would you change your approach to writing so you didn’t have to make major revisions like what I described above?

This is what the pulp writers did, by the way. They got so much per word and didn’t get paid for the revisions.

Rule S: don’t beat a dead Story

Linda’s Rules of Writing

Three monkeys: Hear no eveil, speak no evil, and see no evil.
Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil, remember no evil. Yup, it was an amnesia novel.

We’re onto the letter S in Linda’s Rules of Writing of the A to Z Challenge, and don’t beat a dead Story.

My first novel was a dead story that I kept trying to fix.  It was called “Remember No Evil” and was a thriller.  I’d get about to the first 100 pages and the story would stall out.  I could see the whole story, but I couldn’t seem to get past that first point.

So I rewrote it.

And rewrote it.

And rewrote it.

I got hung up having to finish it because I’d invested so much time in it, and I didn’t want that to go to waste.  It was a story though I should have walked away from much earlier than I did.

When my former cowriter approached me about doing a book, I realized that if I wanted to actually finish a book, I needed to go to a new project.  I couldn’t quite bring myself to give up on RNO, so I set it aside.  Then I was able to finish a new project, which was Valley of Bones, later revised into Audacious Run.

When I returned to reassess RNO, I realized that I had been writing it for long that I had grown out of the original story.

Sometimes finishing a story isn’t always the best thing.

Do you have a trunk novel you had to give up on?

Caption: A to Z Challenge Logo

Rule H: treat line editing like Housekeeping not revision

Linda’s Rules of Writing

A sailboat set against a pink sunset, palm trees in the foreground.
I admit it! This was an excuse to show a sail boat at sunset amidst palm trees!  In case you’re wondering, my book Miasma is set an alternate Hawaii.

We’re onto the letter H in Linda’s Rules of Writing of the A to Z Challenge, and treating line editing like Housekeeping, not revision.

One of the things that Holly Lisle mentioned in her course How to Revise Your Novel was that a lot of writers start revision by line editing, instead of focusing on the bigger issues that revision really entails.  It hit me that I’d been doing exactly that in my early “revisions” of my contemporary fantasy, and it also hit me how much of a waste of time it was actually was.

Because I’d line edited scenes, then discovered a major problem in the story that needed fixing.  I’d go through the manuscript and fix the problem, and three scenes that I’d labored over to do line editing came out.  Then I’d go back and start line editing again until I ran into a big problem and repeated the process.

I felt like I let the wind out of my sails. 😦 And all on my own, no wind required.  It made the revision process frustrating and time consuming — and a lot MORE work.

Time to write is hard enough to find without me making more work for myself!  Now I try to think of editing as a form of housekeeping.  Because it really is clean up work: Fixing grammar problems, word choices, getting rid of repetitions, fixing unclear sentences.  And all of these get done AFTER I’ve done all the major work, because there isn’t any point to line editing 24K of scenes and then dropping them.

What have you learned about your editing process?

Writerly Adventures

Sand Dollar Wishes was a very short (under 250 words) flash fiction piece that I wrote for Writer Unboxed’s Flash Fiction Contest.  The story won an honorable mention.  I had to do a lot of editing to keep it at 250 words.

Caption: Banner for the A to Z Challenge

When I Almost Gave Up Novel Writing

I just got accepted into Odyssey’s Getting the Big Picture: The Key to Revising Your Novel, which is a huge milestone in the journey for book Miasma.  You see, because of Miasma, I thought about giving up novel writing and going back to just short stories.

When I broke up with my cowriter, it was messy and I was very angry.  But I realized one thing: I needed to get another book started.  That became Miasma.  I wrote the entire story in about 30 days.  Then started revising it right on the screen.

Yet, there were a couple of nagging problems.  These problems were why I had agreed to cowrite in first place, and unfortunately, cowriting didn’t fix them:

  1. The books ran too short, as in unpublishably too short.
  2. I couldn’t get subplots into the story.

So I cast about for solutions.  But how-to books are written for common problems, and these was clearly rare problems.  I posted to message boards, and this was typical of the response:

“Just add a romance!”

Uh, guys, I couldn’t get the subplots into the story.  How would adding a romance be any different?  It was discouraging because there was nothing out there.  I finally decided that subplots weren’t going to happen.  So I did every workaround I could think of to get the word count up.

A monster raises hands for the attack, bloodshot eyes crazy and wild
The Details Monster attacks!

Enter The Details Monster.

A little short on a scene?  Add more details.

I did not know I was bad with details.  I was a big picture thinker, but twelve years in the army had left me overcompensating on the details.  What I didn’t realize was that I couldn’t tell when I had gone to far.

I finally got the story up to 80K.  Barely.  I sent it out the agents, got the rejections, though I was scared to death of the prospect of getting published.  I wasn’t sure what I would do if I got published and had a year deadline and ran into more problems.

One agent was kind enough to give me comments.  When I read them, I realized that the subplot problem was really affecting the story, and that I’d gone too far on the details.

So I restarted the story from scratch and used mind maps to help me cut back on the bigger details.  I decided to only use three of the bigger details on any subject and that forced me to pick the best of what I had.  One of those was on what kind of magic the main character had.  I also decided to let the lowest level of details go because it was too hard trying to manage the Details Monster.

But that subplot problem was still there.  Maddeningly, I could see how it was influencing the story and creating other problems, and yet, I did not know what causing it.  If I couldn’t figure that out, my novels were dead in the water.

At the point, I wondered if I was ever going to be able to produce a publishable novel, and if it was worth my time beating myself over trying to solve the problems.

For whatever reason, I started looking on the internet one more time in the hopes of finding a clue, and I ran across Holly Lisle’s How to Revise Your Novel.  There’s a lot of truth it in it.  I had been line editing rather than revising, which was keeping me from seeing the story.  I signed up and spent two months pulling out my hair.  I was going through pages and pages and pages and pages of details.  There was so much I could not find the story.

I also found myself beating around the edges of the subplot problem.  Only now it also involved theme.  Class members told me that theme and subplot were there, and that I must just not be seeing them.

Finally on lesson ten, the source of the problem revealed itself to me.  I was walking through one of the steps and it suddenly hit me that I’d started the story way late.  Every writing book assumes that writers need to chop off the first 50 pages, not that the writer is starting too late.  I’d literally started in the middle.

It explained a lot.  I’d been seeing setup in  weird places, even at the end.  Because the story started in the wrong place, setup had to force its way into the story, and it was forcing out theme and subplots.

Or so I thought … my journey to the land of subplots and details was only beginning.

Have you ever had a time when you just wanted to give up because the problem seemed so insurmountable?  Tell me below!