Answering a reader’s question about writing

Posted in writing.

A reader who also writes send me a question in email, and agreed to let me post it, as the answer might be helpful to other readers in similar situations. So: this is about writing and process. It’s not really about news about current writing.

I’ve been editing my first novel for several weeks now and I am finding that I am changing more than I expected. I guess I am concerned that I might be over editing and was wondering how much you change during the editing process? Is there a good way to know if you are going too far while editing?

This is one of those questions that is very hard to answer because it varies hugely by book and also by author and the author’s process.

I actually change very little during the editing process – unless the editor has concerns about clarity.

(Let me make one thing clear, though, because it occurs to me after re-reading this that I haven’t. Editing process, for me, involves 1. Finished *and submitted* book and 2. Editorial input. Even so, my first draft is remarkably similar to my final draft; it has a bit more stupid or flail in it, which I try to correct before I send it in.)

I’m one of those authors who is afraid to beat people over the head with the obvious because it’s one of the things that I, as a reader, find frustrating — but this causes me sometimes to be far too unclear. Also: sometimes I know something so well it *feels* viscerally obvious, when of course it isn’t. This would the failure of the: put what is in your head on the page, please, variety.

(An author who also worked at the bookstore used to bring me her books a chapter at a time. I had asked her how a particular magic system worked (sometimes I have an engineering brain), and she had explained it quite willingly, and in some detail. Fast forward to the author/editor discussion she had with our mutual editor about that book when it was finished and submitted, in which the editor asked her how the magic system worked. She said, but I explained all that! And she had. To me. But having explained it, having answered all the questions, she now viscerally felt that it had been made clear. And it had–to me. It had failed to make it onto the page. I winced when she told me about this because I have also made this mistake.)

In Hunter’s Death, I got the usual editorial requests. I had to add words. But my editor also said: “Gilliam doesn’t feel upset enough”. And I thought – that’s an easy one. Except that I already had a scene with Gilliam’s reaction in the book, and I certainly wasn’t going to extend it or add a second one. Which meant: a) something was missing and b) it wasn’t Gilliam’s reaction.

(Sometimes something is missing, but it isn’t what the editor/reader points out. This is something I’ve learned with time. Sometimes, when someone says that a specific scene doesn’t work, there’s nothing wrong with the scene itself. What’s missing is the framing or the structural support – the pages that should have been there earlier in the book in order to give the specific scene the right emotional weight.

If an editor tells you that the scene doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. There’s a problem. But the solution is often found in other scenes.)

All the rest of her edits – and it was about 50 pages of additions overall – took me 3 days. But the bit about Gilliam took me three weeks of spinning in place. I set it aside for a week, and woke up one morning and thought: oh, of course; I know what to do. And the scene that I did write (or scenes; I think it was more than one) is one of my favorites in that book. It involved the two Hunter Ladies, to whom readers had already been introduced. They visit the Terafin manse.

And it’s *their* reaction, which echoes and resonates with the Hunters, that provides the context for what Gilliam is feeling.

Which, as usual, is a digression. Or several.

When I say I change, I mean me. My tendency if a book needs too much work is to throw out the whole thing and start it again. (I did this with Sea of Sorrows. I did this multiple times with Touch and Grave.) I write toward an ending, but the ending has to resonate with the parts that lead into it, and if those parts don’t have the right tone, the right resonance, I’m either not going to reach the right ending, or the ending is going to feel flat.

I’ve spoken with professional writers who also teach creative writing who find my process … unteachable. One said that if all of his students claimed that my process was theirs, almost none would finish a book in his opinion as a teacher of creative writers.

Having said that?

Most of the writers I know edit extensively after they’ve finished the first draft. I know one writer whose first draft and whose final draft might only have the names of characters in common; first draft is her thinking-about-the-book phase. It’s how she discovers what the book is actually about. So her revisions? They’re huge. Because usually around the 3/4 mark, she suddenly hits the heart of the book, finds it, understands it, and sees the ways in which the first draft didn’t actually address it at all until that point.

Many, many writers say: when drafting, it’s important to get things down on the page. Once you have that, you have something to work with. And those writers clearly revise a lot later, because that’s their process.

Some of those writers write books I love.

There is no Right Way. I’ve said this before, and I really want to emphasize that: there’s no Right Way. It’s why, in the end, I don’t talk often about writing process on the web-site – I’m terrified that people who are just starting out and who love my books will believe that the Right Way to write is my process. It’s not – it’s only right for me. It might be diametrically opposed to what’s right for them. It’s not a moral or ethical value.

Process is what gets you from page one of a novel to the ending. If your process involves heavily detailed outlines and writing scenes out of order, then that’s what gets you to the end of a book. That’s your process. You can refine it, you can alter it in future, but that’s the basis you’re working with. For me, outlines etc. are book killers. But writing the way I write? It’s a book killer for a lot of writers who’ve tried it.

But even so, there’s a lot of doubt about doing it wrong, or about writing the wrong words, etc, no matter who the writer is. I have it constantly: fear of failing the story. Fear of failing the readers. It is, sadly, a normal part of the process, for me. And for most of the writers I know. Some have that fear at the start of a new book. Some have it in the middle (most that I know get middle-of-book-blues). Some reach that at the end (whereas I love endings).

The process is personal. It’s highly personal. No two writers work the same way. So it’s hard to give process advice because it’s so distinctly individual.

So at the end of all of this I don’t have a good answer to the question. But.

If you are making edits that are entirely motivated by fear, I’d suggest that you’re over-editing. I can move sentences around and change scenes when I’m in high anxiety mode – but I have no clear sense that doing this rearranging of furniture is actually making things better. I’m doing them because I’m in the middle of anxiety about whether or not it will work for my readers and I have to do something. What if it doesn’t work? OMG, it probably doesn’t. (This is always made worse when a book is late – because I swear I hear imaginary readers standing over my shoulder saying: I waited how long for THIS?. At that point, I can’t see the book clearly; I can’t see pass the growing anxiety.

If you are making edits that clearly improve the book or the clarity of the book – or if you’re making edits in which whole conversations and characters change or plot points become suddenly sharply clear to you, I’d actually suggest that you’re on the right path. The book isn’t finished yet, even if you’ve typed “THE END”. You are still in the process of writing the book.

Neither of these are definitive answers, though >..

14 Responses to Answering a reader’s question about writing

  1. Maia says:

    it almost sounds like you love editing. * laugh * Lots of thoughts I’ll need to ponder. Thanks for great article. ^^

  2. michelle says:

    @Maia: I don’t love doing the work, no. But I do the work when it’s necessary; part of writing is communication, and if specific bits are as clear as mud, they need to be clarified =/. It’s like copy-edits. NO ONE likes looking at copy-edits, but it’s 100 percent necessary. Copy-editors exist to make us look like way better versions of ourselves.

  3. Andrea Smith says:

    Very interesting. I have to say as a reader, I’ve noticed a big difference lack of editing with online publishing. Not all books. But I’ve read a few and thought this could have been a great book. Whereas, I felt like I was reading a first draft.

    PS New authors out there, congratulations on finishing you book!

  4. Zia says:

    Thanks for sharing this answer with us, and to whoever asked the question originally, thank you as well. I always love hearing about things like this and others thoughts on it.

  5. Karen Zorn says:

    I’ve noticed the the same as Andrea, and the lack of editing and proofreading annoys me. With a couple authors although their stories are good, I can’t tolerate reading the work (nor spend the money) when misspellings, unfinished sentences, and names change. I was a technical writer/editor for 30 years and my work had to be spot on, or bad things could happen, always had an editor and proof reader. I now publish a newsletter for my fiber arts Guild and it goes out to a proofreader before publication.

    As a writer you can’t depend on spell checkers and grammar monitors, nor IMHO can you depend on yourself to catch disconnections or unclear content because you are too close and invested in the work. You know what you want to say, but a beta reader with new eyes can often spot holes.

  6. Tchula says:

    Michelle, I love when you talk about your unique process and the other various strategies different writers use when crafting their novels. I’m going to have my daughter read this, because Talia’s dream is to write fantasy novels for middle school kids. She writes every day, but she struggles with editing–and by struggle, I mean she doesn’t like to do it, even though I’ve told her over and over again it’s a skill she Must Learn. Maybe she can glean some insight from words that come from someone other than her mother. ;-P

  7. Debbie H says:

    Thank you. That was very interesting. I am not at all creative, but I love reading. Sentence structures and the words bring worlds to light and brings much enjoyment. Your hard work is very much appreciated. I have never even thought that the waiting was not worth it. Your books are always amazing. Every re-read brings new things to light. I look forward to every book, and you don’t ever let me down.

  8. michelle says:

    @Tchula: I think, if she wants to write professionally, editing is something she’ll learn.

    There’s a disconnect between writing and writing-for-other-people–or at least there was for me. I learned how to write. I got better at it. But revision was difficult, for me. Most of my (very early) writing was instinctive, and revision is not instinctive. It’s an entirely different skill set. It’s not about finding the flow of the story or the heart of a scene; it’s not about the spill of almost pure emotion and story.

    And in the early years, it’s the latter that drove me to the keyboard (IBM selectric, to start).

  9. michelle says:

    @Tchula: on reflection, let me add another thing.

    Writing for me as a child, as a teen, was compulsive and instinctive. I’d have a scene that would pop into my head, or a series of related scenes. You couldn’t call them stories, per se. But they were visceral and I was… highly over-focused once this happened. Writing them down (well, typing, mostly) was almost like an exorcism. It was a way of channeling something compulsive.

    I wrote a lot that no one ever read, because I didn’t want them to read it. Those stories were, in the end, *for me*.

    Writing *for other readers*, most of whom I would never meet in public, was different. It built on the same over-focus, but it had to be more deliberate, and the words didn’t have to quiet *me*; they had to *communicate* to people who were not me.

    They had to run from beginning to end, without breaks; they had to include the bits and pieces I didn’t need to include if no one but me was reading what I’d written. That seems pretty obvious, of course – but to someone who didn’t write for others except when my English grade depended on it, it was… harder.

    But… I still didn’t have the hang of revision. In general, if something was broken enough that it didn’t work, I’d sigh, figure out *why*, and promise myself I wouldn’t do that on the *next* story. So… I learned how to write iteratively. I got better at not making those mistakes going forward.

    I didn’t actually fix the mistakes; I started something new. And the new thing *was* better, and it didn’t have *those* mistakes. So… I was learning how to write, if that makes sense? And that continued until my first novel, Into the Dark Lands.

  10. Tchula says:

    Thanks for this. I do see a lot of Talia in what you wrote here. She has probably 100 stories that she starts–some she finishes, some she drops and moves on to something else. Your explanation helps me understand what she’s learning by doing this.

    Like your early experience, most of her stories, she never shares. She does upload fan-fiction to a site occasionally. She has finished a couple of almost-novella length stories, but after asking me to help her edit them for grammar/spelling, didn’t seem inclined to go back and work on them anymore. She told me one of them was just “too broken” and she wanted to start over from scratch, which makes more sense to me now. I have noticed that she’s definitely improved on her use of quotations and dialogue each time I read something new of hers.

    I think she might be well served to find a teacher at her school with whom she has good rapport to help her with the editing process. Someone who is less closely involved in her life, who can be more objective. She plans on majoring in English in college, with a focus on Creative Writing, so I’m sure she’ll learn a lot in group writing sessions. The high school Creative Writing class was only one semester, but she enjoyed it very much.

    Talia’s also stubborn–which is a double-edged sword–but in the end, one that I think will serve her well if she perseveres and doesn’t get discouraged. Thanks again for your words and thoughts. I will definitely pass them along to her. :-)

  11. michelle says:

    @Tchula: now, of course, I’m thinking about how, exactly, I made the decision; when I made it, what the roots of it were, etc. This is what I do when I start to think about questions like this: half of my brain begins to process it – and continues.

    (ETA: There’s a reason that one should write replies off-line. They’re less garbled when edited for clarity.)

    I think it’s the transition between doing what you love for yourself – the writing – and making a job of that thing. We begin by protecting the things we love. The younger we are, the more uncertain we are; when uncertain, we’re less likely to expose our thoughts and our work to criticism (this does not require the work to be writing; it can be anything; it’s more about the uncertainty of the age than it is about the work). We love it and want it to be perfect, because we’re equating love with perfection. We don’t fully realize the lack of perfection doesn’t matter when there’s no other audience – what exists is the love of the idea, the scene, the story.

    And that’s absolutely fine – when we’re not writing for anyone else. Shifting that – the activity you love – into a business or career is therefore fraught.

    Retaining the heart of it, retaining what you loved in the first place, is *extremely* fraught. But I think we move at our own pace. Some people don’t start writing until they’re older. Some start right away.

    Some of us are not *good at communicating* and writing for publication is, in the end, an act of communication. The story inside our heads is what we want people to experience – it’s the story that we love. But getting *that* story to people who are not us requires a whole bunch of other work – and that, like communicating with, say, a new spouse or boyfriend – isn’t perfect on the first go. It might not be perfect on the fifteenth. What is viscerally obvious *to us* might seem like Klingon to readers, and its not that the story is flawed – it’s the *communication* that’s flawed. It doesn’t require any evil or judgement on either side.

    To carry that analogy further: it might be because of a lack of compatibility. If you like my sentences, but think writing fantasy is a waste of my talent (this has, of course, happened), no attempt I make to communicate is going to change that; we are fundamentally incompatible.

    But… you start to learn how to communicate. You have this incredibly powerful, emotional event or scene. You can weep thinking about it. You want everyone to experience what you are experiencing.

    How do you do this? What must they learn and see in order to go into the end that you envision in the *same frame of mind*? At the very beginning of the writing journey – and I was still single digits, so other writers may not have this much of a wall to climb – it was so clear to me that I assumed I could just tell people and they would feel the same way I did.

    But! Spoiler! They didn’t. I was frustrated and confounded. Not only did they not see it, but they started asking a hundred questions. And arrrrrrrrrrrrrrg. And yet… that early frustration and those hundred questions eventually became part of the paradigm.

  12. That sounds so much like Sherwood Smith’s journey to connect as a writer. She’s very visual and has to work hard at making others see her visions. We are so blessed that all of you prevail against the odds.

  13. michelle says:

    @Estara: It is like, and unlike; Sherwood almost sees a movie unfolding. I am not visual at all; I *feel* a movie unfolding, if that makes sense?

    Either way the craft involved is similar :)

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