Author Dean Wesley Smith has a few books about myths in writing circles. Some of them are myths of traditional publishing, some are myths of indie publishing, and some are just myths writers are taught, often by people who aren’t writers.
I’ve been a victim of some of these, and when the belief somehow becomes entrenched, it can be hard to slip out of it. Sometimes it can be damaging to a career.
One of the myths many, many writers are taught is what DWS calls the myth of rewriting. I know this one got me and got me but good. In fact, it’s still hard to step around the idea, no matter how hard I try. I guess some habits die harder than others.
It’s best stated in the pithy little quote, “There is no great writing, only great rewriting.”
I’ve heard that statement attributed to many people but it seems it really comes from a guy named Louis Brandeis. (I actually heard someone claim Michael Crichton said this. Pete’s sake, I fell for that, too!)
Problem is, ol’ Lou wasn’t a writer. He was a lawyer and judge. You can read up on him at that link if you want.
But he did correctly and succinctly summarize the belief of a lot of writers, one that I learned in school (and many others did too, I’m sure). The idea is that, the first draft can’t and shouldn’t be the only draft you write.
Once the initial words are down, the “wisdom” says, it’s time to let the manuscript sit somewhere undisturbed for a period of time, usually months, before the “editing” begins.
The “editing” is in quotes because, generally, it’s not editing, it’s rewriting. The author goes back over the story and finds weak things, things which aren’t necessary, bad word choices, superfluous scenes, you name it. The author backtracks and rewrites, cuts, shuffles…heck, I’ve talked to writers (and a lot of pro writers do this too) who print the manuscript in scene chunks (or literally use scissors to cut the manuscript into scenes), spread them on the floor, and move them around until the book’s layout and flow is better.
Then, of course, they adjust the wording, tweak the scenes…you know, rewrite. When it’s smoothed out they can move on.
Sometimes to another draft.
I’ve heard of writers doing three, four, five drafts. They call it “polishing.”
This isn’t an uncommon practice, and I’m not saying it’s not helpful, but the myth here is that the first draft can’t and shouldn’t be the only draft. DWS provides a lot of insight on this. The best analogy he posited, the one that resonated with me most for some goofy reason, is the analogy of a rock you find on a hike or at the beach.
Say you find a rock on the beach. You love the shape, the colors, the texture…you love the rock’s unique form and features. Then you take that rock home, and you wash it up. It retains most of the unique features and colors you loved when you saw it, even after you take a scrub brush and mild detergent to it.
Then you decide to really make it awesome and you throw it into a rock polisher with a lot of other rocks you’ve gathered. And when it comes out of the rock polisher, a whole lot of what you loved about that rock – the unique shape, the structural features, the colors – have all changed.
Or worse, been removed.
The rock you get out of the polisher isn’t the same rock you tossed in. It’s smooth and featureless, maybe has lost some of the colors that drew you to it in the first place, or had them polished out to be replaced by others, and it basically looks a whole lot like all the other rocks you pull out of that polisher.
This is what DWS says happens when writers write by committee, or when spend too much time “polishing” or redrafting stories. It removes so much uniqueness, so much of the writer’s own touch, voice, and personality, from the story that it becomes bland and…well, the same as everything else.
I’ve felt this way for a while, but didn’t know how to sum it up. And I darned sure didn’t have the gall to state it publicly, because…well, who am I to say those things? A lot of writers have a lot of talent and can it hurt to have your story looked over by someone who’s at a different, hopefully superior, skill level in craft than you?
I know this for sure, and only for me, but I bet it’s true for others too if they’re willing to look at it. When I had a lot of other eyes on my manuscript, I had a lot of feedback on what I should do differently. (Even when I specifically asked people not to do that.) Suggestions sometimes contradicted one another. Reader A would tell me to change Chapter 1 in a certain way, but Reader B said Chapter 1 should be changed another way. Readers C, D, and E all really loved Chapter 1, but C wanted to change Chapter 2, and D wanted to change Chapter 2 another way. And so on.
So as a writer, I have to determine which of those changes I agree with, and which I don’t. Of course it’s always my decision, I’m the writer. But I asked for feedback and if I ignore that feedback, that’s an insult to those who spent their time doing the work to help me clean this thing up.
The problem is, no two people have the exact same idea of what that means.
This happens to a lot of people who join online “critique” communities too. Or even to writers in writer’s groups, who all collaboratively work with each other on stories. I think the idea is a good one – get many valuable opinions on a story to help find flaws and such – and refine the story. The problem with those groups tends to be, they don’t always work that way.
When I last investigated a group like this, it was with the intent of submitting my manuscript for representation by a literary agent. Any literary agent. The idea is to polish the manuscript to a high gloss before sending it out to the various agents who might represent this type of manuscript.
But I read something by a writer – doggone if I can remember who – that said those groups are like going to a public pool with intent of learning to swim, and getting into the pool with six or seven other people who don’t know how to swim, and taking their advice on how to swim.
Now, I talk a whole, whole lot lately about Dean Wesley Smith. And a lot of you who read my blog might be a bit tired of me preaching his particular gospel. But why I’m preaching it is right there, in the paragraph above. He’s an author who’s published traditionally, has run his own publishing company, owned a bookstore, and is now an indie publisher. He’s seen every aspect of every part of the business from the ground up, and he’s familiar with it all.
He also associates with many, many other published authors, and without naming them, relays how most of them agree with him on these sorts of topics. This is a big one.
DWS is a swimmer; a professional swimmer, and now he’s teaching others to swim.
So I tend to listen less to the people in the shallow end telling each other how to swim, and more to someone out there in the deep end, diving and doing laps, who has offered to tell me some of the things I can do to learn to swim too.
It doesn’t mean those in the shallow end learning can’t teach me a thing or two. I learned a great deal about craft from a single review a writer friend of mine gave me on a short story I wrote five or six years ago, and I’ve never forgotten the lessons he offered. I never will, either. They were great, and I’m grateful to him to this day.
It also doesn’t mean I’ll be a pro swimmer. A lot of factors go into that. Being a published author is the dream for many, many people out there, and they’re working hard to hone their skills to make their stories what the traditional publishing industry wants it to be.
But I’m a different breed of cat, and different now than I was even two years ago, or maybe even different than I was a year ago. I look at writing in a whole different way.
I’m interested not in writing for the gatekeepers of the legacy publishing industry, but for the entertainment of readers. I don’t disparage writers who only want to see publication to fulfill their dream. I did deride them once, not long enough ago, and I’m sorry for it. But the purpose for my stories is to be read, by people who will enjoy them.
That’s why, when I finished my last manuscript, I didn’t ask writer friends for help. I asked reader friends to look at it. I wanted reader feedback, to help me gauge where the storytelling fell.
I want to master the art of pulling the reader into the story fast, yanking them deep, and controlling what they feel every step of the way. I’ll only let them out of the story when it’s finished.
That’s what master storytellers do, and that’s what I want to be. A master storyteller.
I have a long way to go to get there, but one of the first steps is to dump the myths of writing and start learning the truth.
If a writer is rewriting, they’re not creating. If they give themselves permission to draft and redraft their story, they’re not putting out the best craftsmanship, the best story, they can. They’re giving themselves an out, an excuse for poor writing craftsmanship.
The first words set down may not be the best words, but they just might after all. How do you know, writer, your first draft isn’t awesome, or that it can’t be awesome if you just go back over it next writing session and make the necessary adjustments? Why allow yourself, as a writer, permission to make speed mean poor quality? What happened in your writer’s brain that told you the first words you use have to be bad so you can rewrite them later?
Make the first words you use the best words you have at your disposal, right then, and when you cycle back over your words the next time you sit down to write, find other ways you might improve them if you can. Make them sing the first time you put them down, instead of dumping whatever’s in your head, good, bad or indifferent. Remove the permission to draft and redraft. Make sure your creative mind knows this is the only draft.
I bet you’ll be surprised how well you can write. And I bet you’ll be surprised how fast the story comes out, despite having to choose more carefully going forward.
Next time, I’ll discuss why this is only a late 20th and early 21st century mentality.