Barb, going off on rules again? You don’t say.

I’ve been getting into painting for a couple of months now. I got through school and while I loved both art and stories, I chose to pour all my energy into writing so as not to be a jack of all trades. I started taking an art therapy class and boom, there goes all my pocket money. Painting is expensive, yo.

But it also introduces you to a whole bunch of other masters in their field to learn from. I watched a video about perspectives in landscaping, and the painter said something to the effect of Rules are there to give you control over your environment, not to tell you what to do, and that’s exactly what the structural rules of writing are there for.

Not that I think young writers should try to break the rules, but I do feel as though trying to break the rules successfully without understanding what the rules are there for to begin with is kind of like trying to teach yourself to fly by throwing yourself at the ground and missing. At least with writing, there is an off chance that the story will work despite itself whereas gravity is a cruel mistress.

Quality vs. Quantity

I got into an argument today over how much a writer *should* write in a day.

The idea that there is any set amount a writer should write is just ridiculous. I’ve read so many books by newbie authors where it was obvious that they had religiously wrote every. Single. Day. whether they felt like it or not.

Writing isn’t like walking to the next town over. When you walk, every step counts. When you write, every word doesn’t. If you write 2000 words every day, you’ll have a book finished in a month and a half. If you haven’t given those words enough thought, there’s a big risk that of those 100,000 words, only 25,000 of them count as steps towards your goal.

When I read unpublished fiction, there is nothing worse than words that don’t have a point. I would take an interesting story that has been put through Google Translate to and from Armenian than a story that is not bad. Bad writing has a charm to it as you are left wondering what ridiculous analogy or purple phrase the writer is going to write next. I’ve scanned books looking forward to see what word the author will use instead of “said”.

But writing that looks polished but says absolutely nothing? I’d rather shoot myself in the foot. There’s such a huge difference between not bad and good. Writing that isn’t bad has a long, long way to go before it ever hits good, and good writing has a long way to go before it hits great.

Just because you’ve written a 100,000 words, doesn’t mean you’ve written a novel yet. I once cut 40,000 words of a novel because I’d written myself into a corner and couldn’t get myself out. It was like cutting off my foot. And as much as I liked the final product, it still was just a practice novel.

Having a short story stretched out to a novel still isn’t the kiss of death. The second draft is where you take all the problems of the first draft and smooth them out. When I was first starting out I thought that writers who rewrote drafts without referring back to their original drafts were mad, but after I tried it a few times, I really saw how useful the technique is.

There are a lot of changes you can make in the original draft. You can edit characters in and out, you can add a significant event or cut it out, but one of the things you can’t change once the story is on the page is your point of view character’s motives. Anything that is tangible can be cut out or sewn in, but intangible things, like a character’s motive or what’s at stake is going to affect every single sentence.

There are a million writers out there writing in your genre, but the only competition out there is yourself. Writing isn’t a lottery that you win by getting your book selected, it’s the culmination of all your hard work. If one publishing house doesn’t recognize the value of your work, another one will. Good story telling only competes with itself.

And if you’re not willing to put in the work, up to and including rewriting the whole story or abandoning the whole project as time well spent, but not worth the time and effort to fix all that is wrong with it, the next person will. Nothing is more heartbreaking than watching a writer write their first book and then throw a decade behind trying to get that book published instead of accepting it as what it is and going on with the next story in their heads.

Writing needs craft as much, if not more, than it needs talent. Whether a first draft takes you ten years or two weeks, it’s going to need to be tightened. The old saying, you have good, fast and lots, pick two is only half right. You only get two, but even if you’re cursed like I was at having lots and fast, you can still make it good, it just takes more time.

And time, as an unpublished writer, is the one thing you have lots at. The only person standing in the way between you and publication is you, and not as your evil twin

Though if you do have an evil twin, that’s awesome.

Rewriting is never wasted

The mindset that rewriting a story is “wasted work” is the number one career sabotage for writers still trying to establish themselves. The idea that going back and rewriting a book “wastes” anything at all is simply stupid. There’s no other kinder way of saying it. Reworking a book is not just going back to make sure that what you have to say doesn’t have any errors in it. 

You don’t have to go back and rewrite the book so that the entire story from page one streamlines the plot to the ending you’ve written. You don’t have to make sure that you have put all the information in the place it needs to be for the reader to have exactly what they need, when they need it. You certainly don’t have to make sure that the microtension at the sentence level leaves tiny clues throughout the story, and you don’t need to be the author who folds in what they already have planned out with the two a.m. or shower jolts of genius. 

But if you’re not willing to rewrite from the beginning if that’s what the story needs, you also have to realize that you are competing with people who have. That first draft is for them just the clay they need to build the best story they possibly can. And if you really do believe that your first attempt in that slush pile is as good as someone else’s best attempt, then you shouldn’t be in the slush pile at all. 

I wrote nine books last year, and I had the time to rewrite them all once I’d finished them. And before I sent them off to my editor 3-9 months later, I rewrote them a third time. I finally understood that if I did not have the time to rewrite my stories, someone else will have. No matter how good I thought my finished book was at the time that I finished it, there was always room for improvement. Always.

There may come a point in my career when I finally think that my best is my best the first time I say it, but I’m not there yet. And unless you have a very large group of people who want nothing more than to put down after tax dollars and after work hours to read what you have to write, chances are you are not there either. There’s also a very good chance that anyone who has that kind of following will be the first ones to preach at the altar of the rewrite. Good books aren’t written, they’re rewritten. 

There is a danger of rewriting something to the point that you’ve killed off any part of the original shine, but that’s a whole different rant post.