I had a friend who writes stay the night on their way out to go visit family, and because I was awake and breathing, I was talking about writing. She quoted Indiana Jones, because she’s awesome like that (the third movie, not the fourth natch). She said I should let it go sometimes.
I wish I wasn’t so enthusiastic. I see myself in the people I’m arguing with. Set the calendar back enough, and I might as well be debating with myself. I took in everything anyone ever told me and I believed it whole-heartedly. Confirmation bias is a terrible thing for writers. Who doesn’t want to believe they are really good and it’s the industry that is failing you? It’s a sweet, seductive lie.
When I read a story from someone else, I can see the perfect gemstone of what they were trying to say in the lump of rock of what they actually said. Sometimes despite the author’s best efforts, the best that can be cut out of their efforts is something for costume jewelry. Sometimes all the carbon line up and it’s a perfect diamond even in the rough.
Sometimes I could see where the jeweler needed to make a few minor adjustments, and sometimes the lump of rock is just so flawed and murky that whatever they were trying to say is just not worth the effort of trying to fix it. Their time is better used going back to the mine and starting over. There’s no shame in that. Your next book will be better.
Whether it was a near perfect diamond or a hunk of glass, the person who handed it to me clearly wanted to hear, “It’s perfect. Don’t change a thing except or maybe the odd comma splice.” Some specifically asked for a tough critique, but underneath it all the most important question is “did you like it?” I’m very much aware that when I hand something off for critique, I want the exact same thing. There’s nothing wrong with hoping your first draft reads as though it were narrated from the muse’s lips through your fingers to the page.
One of my favourite quotes is from Wayne Gretzky. I’m paraphrasing because I’m lazy and I don’t want to look up the exact wording, but basically it was all his life, people called him lucky. But it was amazing how the more practice he put in, the luckier he became. The idea of anyone nailing the perfect story from start to finish on their first attempt, no matter how much pre-planning they do, is really slim. With all that a book has to do in characterization, plot, conflict, sentence structure, emotional high points, emotional low points, setting, theme, POV, voice… it’s a lot of stuff. The more complicated the story, the more chances there are of it having a better way of doing it the second time around.
I want people to be able to tell the best story they can. And when there are people out there giving out advice that is either completely wrong or incomplete, it gives the person more chances of getting frustrated and quitting before things suddenly click for them. I waffle back and forth on the if a person can be discouraged, they should be, but I’ve met a lot of really talented people who just don’t have the fire and a few people who have never let their a lack of talent stop them. Some of them got better.
There is no easy way to push a boulder up a hill. Writing effective prose is hard. It’s hot, lonely, sweaty, hard and frustrating. I sat on a panel with a writer who told a packed roomful of people that literally what they write isn’t important. It’s a product that can be sold just like anything else. And half the audience nodded along. It’s easy to sell people on the idea that they are amazing, it’s the system that’s broken, but I wanted to ask them when was the last time they bought a second self-published book by an author that they hadn’t liked the first time.It sucks to be the person who has to say but really, though. Work on improving your skills. You don’t like wasting your money on something you don’t like, why would anyone else? No one is owed an audience. Money and time will always be finite while the numbers of books out there grows exponentially. There is no sugar coating that makes that fact any less palatable.
But this idea that the publishing industry isn’t looking for awesome authors any more is just a flat out lie. Anyone who deals with books wants to make money, and they way they make money is in finding new talent and introducing it to the market. There is no financial gain in keeping a brilliant voice unpublished. Writing is hard, and if it wasn’t, there would be no value to well-written work. I love the example of the AIs used to generate the armies in The Two Towers. If the intelligence in the character was too high, they would look at what they were up against and run away, screaming in the other direction.
That’s just what writing is. As a beginner, if you ever realized how hard it was going to be, if you were smart, you’d probably want to take up competitive macrame. It sucks, but less than 2% of writers out there can live off their writing income alone and with ebook piracy, it’s not like authors can go on tour and make money off ticket prices like musicians.
It is a very easy lie to tell people that what most unpublished authors are writing right now is good enough to make it. Who doesn’t want to hear how awesome they are? People who tell writers trying to get better that there is a cheat mode or an easier way are lying. If you write because the idea of not writing is too horrible to contemplate, write. If you’re writing only to be published and famous well… … … good luck with that. Writing a book is comparable to picking out which house you want to buy. Once you’ve done that, the hard work begins, including paying for it.
No matter which method you decide to go with at the publishing stage, you need to make sure that the product you have to sell is the very best product you could possibly produce. Don’t roll your eyes at the person who says rewriting is more important than the writing itself. They probably aren’t saying it just to piss you off. The great thing about writing is no one is direct competition to anyone else, and without you bringing your best work, not your first work, you’re no competition at all.
I’m not perfect. I’m still rolling my ball up the hill, and from where I’m standing, I can’t see the crest. Every single time I thought I was near the crest, the mountain became even steeper. Look at your work not as a writer, but as a reader. Outline everything that happens in the first fifty pages of your novel, then pick up a book by your favourite author and see exactly how much of the book has already happened by the time you get to page 49. No matter which path you follow whether you hold out for traditional or throw your hat in the ring of self-publishing, be sure you have a product is at the very least, emotionally rewarding to your reader.
When I wrote Coral back in 2009, it was a train-wreck. I wrote it from the POV of the human and not the POV of the selkie. It was overly complicated when it didn’t need to be and there was no reason why the book had to happen when it did. Nothing changed.
In 2013, I wrote the first draft in two weeks. They were fourteen hour days so really it was sane person’s month long effort, but when I reread it after I’d finished writing book two that I didn’t really put any of the world’s problems in it. So I wrote it again. This was the second full rewrite where the original source material wasn’t even glanced at. I was happy with it, but when I sent it out, my editor hated it. Absolutely totally, 100% loathed Finn. Finn, at the time, had been forced to sign a fae-contract that gave him one night a year off to do what he wanted, but if he didn’t return by midnight faced dire consequences. The editor blamed Finn for going back to an abusive relationship he had no control over and absolutely hated Devon the love interest for putting up with Finn all those years.
Needless to say, I got a new editor. It was important to the story that the fact that intelligent people stay in abusive relationships for a multitude a reasons, and even though each one is a sad tragedy, a person’s choices are their own. Not all abused spouses have the threat of being turned into slime, but their reasons are just as valid. And until the person wants there to be change, they can rationalize the worst kinds of abuse as a twisted kind of love.
I’m not saying the editor was completely wrong. When I took it back to give to my new editor, I made Finn want to leave more than he wanted to be safe. He was granted a two-week holiday, trading his one day off a year for the rest of his life for those two weeks, but if he was a second late walking in the door, his master was going to cut off his leg.
There are lots of people out there who have a completely fulfilling life as an amputee, but I’m willing to bet that those people are not selkies who need both their fins to swim with. Finn’s lover would have no problem losing a limb, but Finn wasn’t human. Having a POV of a creature that is almost human is 98% of the story and as a seal, he couldn’t imagine not being able to swim.
But making that one change changed everything on the sentence level of tension. Over the course of three weeks, I painstakingly rewrote 1500 words, deleted 1500 words, rewrote 1500 words, deleted…on and on. Only two scenes were salvageable, even though the plot was the same. Would anyone have noticed if I’d kept the POV as it was? Maybe. I don’t know. I don’t have to guess. Not that I live my life off of what a Starbucks mug tells me, but just after I sent the now fourth version of the book in, my coffee cup told me that genius is making the changes only you would notice. Coral is not genius work, but it is very good work. If I hadn’t rewritten the whole thing three times, it might not have been.
I’ve always known to let books sit for six months after you finish. I didn’t start doing that until 2012. If you ever have the opportunity to write your trilogy before you publish the first book, I highly recommend it. Because I finished book three before the rewrites were due on book one, I was able to allude to the end in the beginning. If no one else notices that but me, I’m okay with that.
So why do I care? Because I know how much I struggled putting down the bits of writing theory that played to my confirmation bias at the expense of improvement, I thought like most people that I just hadn’t been discovered yet. The more people internalize the idea that what they are doing is working and that their problem is the publishing industry itself, the harder it is to do that mental 270 degree turn that needs to happen before they get better. Not all writers try to zag when the world zigs, but they have a lot better chance of getting it than the zaggers do.
I can’t force you to change your mind. If what you are doing is barely eking out a living, maybe think about rethinking the way you think about how you think about writing.