the Author

On Writing Process, part five & a half: Revision again

Posted in writing, process.

Yesterday, on the way home from a memo­rial service for my high school English Teacher, I returned to revi­sions on the inside of my head.

It was better than traffic. (I’m a passenger; I don’t have a driver’s license.)

I realize that I have forgotten an iter­a­tion of revising that very first book for publication.

When Veronica made her offer for the first book of the Book of the Sundered series, I was ecstatic. This meant the book I’d written was publish­able, right? I’d finally gotten it right!

…Well, no.

What it meant was a long contract and a lack of guilt when she asked me for revi­sions – because now that they had made an offer on the book, she didn’t feel guilty about asking for work that might lead nowhere on my part.

She now had Into the Dark Lands on her desk, and it would be the first book published. However, while she had no issues now with char­ac­ter­i­za­tion, she had some with a partic­ular absence of some­thing in text. This book was, btw, short for me 525 manu­script pages.

What she wanted me to add – and to think about going forward – was actual, phys­ical descrip­tion. Because there was none.

She said, “Michelle, you must be one of those readers that skims over – or skips – descrip­tive passages in books.” This was not entirely untrue. “But that’s one way of reading a book, and not all readers are you.”

(She also once said to me, when we were at a conven­tion together and I had picked up a book, had read the begin­ning, and had flipped to the end, “MICHELLE. Don’t you think if you were meant to read that FIRST it would be called Chapter One?”)

Readers choose what the skim, if they skim. All readers have their own inter­ests and their own way of reading. So you are now going to go back to the book to add all the bits you, as a reader, would normally skip.”

But – but what do you mean? There’s descrip­tion here. Look – ”

Yes, you’ve described a table.”

Because the table is – ”

I want the rest of the room, Michelle.”

(There was more, but this is the one that I actu­ally remember.)

I started as a poet, and all objects that are described have, hmmm, purpose, texture. And also, I pointed out to her that the char­ac­ters in any of these scenes would not really notice where they were because to them it was common place; it was some­thing they saw all the time, and it was a tight view­point. It wasn’t an argu­ment, per se. She said, “I have faith in you” (this is like “it’s not that bad” in certain situations).

So… I had to go back to the book. It was diffi­cult, because, hmm.

I think when we start writing, the advice we’re often given is: write what you love. I would say, write the stories that speak most strongly to you. I had done that — I started the first book in the series in 1988. My first published novel was published in 1991.

But there’s an inte­ri­ority to writing what is most impor­tant to me when writing. And obvi­ously, publi­ca­tion is not just writing for myself. I under­stood that — I mean, it’s completely the point, right? — but obvi­ously I had not really thought through what that meant across all writing fronts.

So for me, this was a huge stretch. I approached it by shifting what the view­point saw. If I needed to describe a building, I had the char­acter start with an activity that would force them to notice it — like, say, cleaning or sweeping or juggling heavy objects while trying to walk across a crowded room.

Descrip­tion — to me, and also the descrip­tion I don’t skip — tells you a lot about char­acter, because what a person notices, what draws their eye, what they think about it, tells you a lot about who they are.

It would be years before I could actu­ally describe some­thing without the need for that inte­rior view­point. When they tell you that writing makes you better at writing, this is partly what they mean. 

Earlier in a comment I spoke about the flex­i­bility of multiple view­points; I talked about choosing a char­acter who could – and did – notice every­thing, every element of a room, every hair out of place on any of its occu­pants, if I needed to fully describe a room. Some writers do not do this because that’s not how they perceive space and the various objects in it.

We all come to the writing table with strengths and weak­nesses. We all come with things that we’re stellar at and things that we’re terrible at. The specific things will vary by writer, and the goal is to increase our compe­tence in the weak areas while somehow main­taining the strong ones.

So: There I was, with a book that had no phys­ical descrip­tion. I added over ten thou­sand words — but I added it by reframing scenes. I started at the begin­ning and tried to “look” at it with figu­ra­tive eyes. 

This is called scene-blocking, I later discov­ered. In a stage play, the scene blocking is the back­drops, the props, the things that switch before the actors walk back on stage. Or on stage at all. They’re the visual markers that indi­cate a scene change, a change of venue, etc. Thinking of my novel as a stage play was very helpful in deter­mining what was required. Or what I thought would be required. 

Had I don’t this before? Well, no. It honestly hadn’t occurred to me that it was missing. What I wrote was the people, with the signif­i­cant and possibly metaphor­ical elements/objects I required.

It’s hard to write things that you gener­ally don’t read. They are part of the novel — but, not perhaps in as visceral a way. So this was one of the “things you must do when writing a book” that did not come easily to me.

But, neces­sary work, regard­less. My editor accepted the revi­sions and additions.

The only review that I received for that book noted the “complete lack of phys­ical descrip­tion”, after I’d added over 10k words. T_T.

It was some­thing I tried to keep in mind going forward.

There will always be revi­sions to any book you submit. Even if they buy the book that you submitted, there will be edito­rial concerns and possible changes.

So: you submit a book. Your agent will prob­ably ask for some changes. You make those changes. The agent takes it out and with luck finds an editor who feels strongly enough that s/he wants to buy it. Then the editor will have some changes. When you’ve made those to the best of your ability, there will be line-editing — which is pretty much what it sounds like. 

And then copy-editing, where in theory people find the mismatched bits or the errors that you didn’t see in all the previous passes. Like, say, ears for eyes. You should get to review the copy-edit, so you can argue with the changes if you feel they’re not helpful.

At that point, it is sent to produc­tion, and you will next see first pass page proofs, which are the last thing you will see of your book until it’s published. You proof-read those, trying to catch the mistakes that were made that you’d missed every other time. At that point, you are not supposed to heavily rewrite your book. 

And then you have a book.

If you are self-publishing, the agent part is irrel­e­vant. But you will or should hire an editor, and the edito­rial process is similar. And copy-editing. And proof-reading. (And you will need to find a cover, to write cover copy, to write retailer copy, and to put it into the retail stream.)

None of this happens in a week; it’s a process.

11 Responses to On Writing Process, part five & a half: Revision again

  1. Argentum says:

    Well, editors sound wondrous. :)

  2. michelle says:

    @Argentum: I’ve been very lucky with my editors. 

    Luck is a large factor in publishing. Timing is luck. Submit­ting your book about Dragons just after an editor has bought another book about Dragons is bad timing, for instance. Submit­ting a book to an editor whose style is diamet­ri­cally opposed to yours is some­thing that can happen, and it can be painful.

    I’ve had editors that I loved working with be terrible for writers who I love — because they didn’t really get what the writers were doing.

  3. DeDe says:

    Michelle — Are there any edits done on re-prints of the book? Do you get a chance to make correc­tions between the hard copy and the paper­back? I can’t imagine how frus­trating it must be to see eyes for ears in an unchange­able book after spending SO much time editing. 

    There have been a couple of times where I wondered if I should say some­thing, but I was guessing that it wouldn’t really be helpful. Osprey instead of Hawk never both­ered me. (My reader-brain goes, “Doh!” and then laughs in sympathy…) 

    The things that usually jump out are things like someone stealing Kaylin’s chair, so she sits on the desk — but then one sentence later pushes back her chair to get up. Are errors like this because of the revi­sions? Rewriting the scene somehow messing up the flow/staging of the story? I was always kind of curious about them. 

    And by the way, thanks! I’m not a writer, but I’m really enjoying these posts.

  4. Helen says:

    @Michelle “The only review that I received for that book noted the “complete lack of phys­ical descrip­tion”, after I’d added over 10k words. T_T.”

    Ouch… Not some­thing I’ve ever even thought of or noticed in any of your books! But there’s gener­ally so /much/ in the West novels to take in, that “didn’t describe the throne room/corridor/forest glade in excru­ci­ating detail” isn’t some­thing that would even ping my radar!!” ;-)

    I was always ordered to “take it out if it doesn’t drive the plot or char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion” and warned of Chekov’s Gun — if you linger on it, someone some­where is going to expect you to use it! But I grew up reading a /lot/ of 19thC lit — when it wasn’t SF/F — and had to battle my then-youthful percep­tion that describing every­thing was how it’s done, my own pitiful tendency not to notice anything unless it’s shoved under my nose (and subse­quent over-compen­sa­tion when writing), and the modern “advice” that goes along the lines of “adjec­tives, adverbs and lots of prose descrip­tion are evil! Destroy on sight!” being screamed at me by every acquain­tance who’d been on a creative writing course or been published. Then there’s the number of Amazon comments on older novels you see complaining “too much descrip­tion, ugh, needs an editor”… on some­thing that looks like a docu­men­tary compared to, say, Dickens or Collins at their most loqua­cious! (But what philis­tine would ever deprive the world of that glori­ously vitri­olic first page of Bleak House!?)

    However.. you /wouldn’t/ describe every detail unless it /was/ neces­sary, surely? I tend to approach it the way you describe above, using the pov to decide what is or isn’t shown to the reader — one char­acter is a former oper­a­tive and he takes in every­thing — after a fashion — but he’s a bit of a hot-head and tends to skim-read his envi­ron­ment, with all the conse­quences you’d expect…! Anoth­er’s a former geol­o­gist — he comments constantly on any stonework or his envi­ron­ment… (his “ooh! shiny!” moments are legendary — mostly for being totally inap­pro­priate regarding timing…!) the ship’s chief engi­neer only notices the mechanics… Most (though tellingly not all!) of the mostly male crew however will linger lovingly on the — ahem — “attrib­utes” of any female walking by… often to the detri­ment of /anything/ resem­bling situ­a­tional awareness! 

    It’s even harder in 1st person… After a ten year break I started writing again in 2014, and ended up using 1st, since it seemed to work better than 3rd. But… straight away I was having to cut and re-write scenes as I went, because it wasn’t how my protag­o­nist would view it… (no, you /can’t/ describe that male crewmember in loving detail, unless your equally male POV is plan­ning on asking him out…! He’s not a physi­cist or doctor so he wouldn’t pay much atten­tion to the tech­nical specs or decor in those areas unless forced to — in the latter, stuck in sick bay, then yes, that ceiling is going to get some loving atten­tion because what /else/ does he have to look at? lol!) He’s also newly blind in one eye, and strug­gling to adapt, so by trying to compen­sate, he some­times over compen­sates, missing some details, or concen­trating on the wrong ones… (And damn! Now I’m going to have to go back over over the re-write and shake more of this out!!)

  5. Helen says:

    @dede “The things that usually jump out are things like someone stealing Kaylin’s chair, so she sits on the desk — but then one sentence later pushes back her chair to get up. ”

    ISTR Peter Morwood waxing lyrical about these kind of prob­lems when (after about 20 years!) he was revising his Horse Lord series for E‑publishing it! A char­acter picking up a sword which wasn’t where it had been a few pages back was one, IIRC!! Some­times I think it comes down to reading what you think should be on the page, rather than what actu­ally is! (And they slip past the editors as well, please note!!)

  6. michelle says:

    @Helen: I think my sense of what was neces­sary and my editor’s sense were not the same. But… thinking of it as staging helped. If I was writing from the inte­rior of a view­point, it became confusing if, for instance, I knew who was in the room…

    But failed to mention this for readers. So: someone would speak in the middle of a conver­sa­tion who hadn’t spoken before, and people would then rush back to the begin­ning of the scene to see if they’d missed the fact that she was there.

    These are the things I had to learn the hard way. I think I have – the first four books taught me a lot – and I learned to fold the scene-blocking into the scene so that I wasn’t pulled out of it. I started to think of it as tone, as texture, of a different type.

    And yes, view­point writing poses prob­lems. But… I’m the reader who loved the six page descrip­tion of a building in Stephen­son’s Anathem. I don’t gener­ally love descrip­tion, but – the descrip­tion itself was seated so strongly in the char­acter it was like reading dialogue for me. Most of his descrip­tion has that effect on me; what’s noticed is one of the most solid windows into who the person noticing it is.

    @DeDe: Errors like these are because I am incom­pe­tent, sadly. These are the ones I gener­ally catch in copy-edits, but not always. Between hard­cover and paper­back there’s another set of page proofs, so another pass, and those errors can be corrected (this would be West novels); there’s not usually another pass for the Cast novels, but HLQ can amend or correct ebooks.

    @Helen again: Peter Morwood’s expe­ri­ence matches mine =/. For the record: My editor will read my submis­sion draft. She’ll send it back to me, and I’ll revise, and I’ll reread and do my own line-edit and then send it back to her. She’ll read it again. And then it will be passed to copy-editing. Who will read the whole thing line by line. And then that will come back to me. And then when I’m done reviewing changes (and rereading the whole book care­fully again), it will go to proof-readers.

    So: those errors survive at least four people through iter­a­tive passes. 

    It’s the same at DAW, except there’s also the page-proof pass at the end.

    It’s why it’s so gut wrenching to see some­thing that *we all missed*, and I swear it’s the first thing I see if I open an author’s copy for the first time. T_T

  7. Therese says:

    I find this very fasci­nating! I think I have the oppo­site issue. I am a visual thinker, so when I’m writing, the scenes appear to me as they would if I was watching a tele­vi­sion show or movie, so I can easily describe scenery and expres­sions, but I find dialogue a little more challenging.

  8. Helen says:

    It’s Steve Erik­son’s editors I pity… (or should take my hat off to!) ;-) the Malazan books are written by a man who can deliver a scene in book 10 that was flagged by what looked like a throw­away comment in book /1/… The infa­mous time­line running gag aside I don’t know how he and his publisher managed to keep it all straight and every time you think you’ve caught him out on a conti­nuity error, you find out /you/ were the one not paying attention… 

    There are fewer revised editions now though, than in the past, aren’t there? For example, IIRC the publishing history of the Lord of the Rings has left numerous editions revised by Tolkien in its wake on both sides of the Atlantic, correcting errors and making the odd change here and there… not sure that applies to many books I see these days, when the UK publisher seems to just use the text-block from the US edition if it was first, judging by the number of times no-one changes the spellings from US to UK

    @Michelle “I swear it’s the first thing I see if I open an author’s copy for the first time.”

    I think if you took a show of hands here most people would say that’s true! I’ll never make anything public until I’m happy with it, my resi­dent grammar nut has crawled all over it and it’s been checked and rechecked half a dozen times. But you can guar­antee, the moment it’s there for all to see, the ones you missed seem to be there in giant letters with a flashing neon sign over them!

  9. michelle says:

    @Therese: I am almost, but not 100%, posi­tive that that’s how Sher­wood Smith see her stories as well. Also, I think she and Kate Elliott both start with maps. Like, making maps is their hobby, their down­time from the stress of writing novels.

  10. DeDe says:

    I’m not sure incom­pe­tent means what you think it means… ;-)
    You are the only writer I still pre-order both the hard­back and the paper­back copies for. Your stories can stand up to 12 hr plane flights, hours in waiting rooms and the most-dreaded 15min wait at the dentist’s office. And you have me reading (and enjoying!) a 5.5 part blog on writing, editing and revisions… 

    Is any part of your process different when you write a short story? (besides the suggested length limit?)

  11. Helen says:

    @DeDe heartily seconded! Michelle’s one of the few writers I buy in hard­cover. Shelf space getting scarce after 40 years of buying, and having a small house already stuffed to the rafters with double-stacked book­case shelves, anyone not in my top ten now tends to get rele­gated to the Kindle app!! (I am wishing I had the Hunt­brother and Sun Sword books in h/c… I had to split the series up!!)

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