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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