If you find you are getting too many blog-post emails and you really don’t want them, you can subscribe to the news only mailing list which I promise not to inundate.
So: before I talk about revisions, and what that meant at the time, I want to talk a little bit about a couple of other things.
A writer has to learn to handle critiques, because you are going to get them. If from no one else, then from your editor. There are things that are not clear, and things that make no sense (because you’ve left some of the sensible parts on the inside of your head.
“But – I explained all that!”
“No, you didn’t.”
“But I did.” Michelle thinks about this because she is certain she has. “Oh. Wait. You’re not Tanya, are you?” T_T)
The thing with an editor is that the editor believes fully that the work she sees needs done is going to make the book a better book. You would both like the book to be a better book. Yes, this is in the ideal universe; sometimes you will find editors who kind of want to rewrite your book. They like the idea and the story but they want to change the execution. Grouchy, older author can easily put her foot down. Uncertain new author might not. It’s safe to put your foot down — but it’s helpful not to take it personally if you can at all avoid it.
Right. Where was I?
Many of the published writers I knew were, at the time, in various writer’s workshops. I considered attempting to join one – but I had no publishing credits, and only two attempts at a short story, the second of which was two books (spoiler: it was not two books. It was four.)
Also, given my ability to stick a story in a drawer at the first rejection, I wasn’t certain that writing workshops were actually for me. I understand the need to be tough, to develop a thick skin, and to learn to take only the practical and useful information out of a workshop.
I would take advice and opinions, I would accept that they were true, and I would be determined to do better next time.
Some authors are great at this. They have a clear idea of the story they’re telling, and what they look for is overlap of reaction, or reactions, to single points within the story itself. They might not agree with a single comment, but if all five people are saying there’s a problem — even if three of them can’t agree on what the actual problem is–they will look at that part of the story and assess its clarity.
I, otoh, assumed at the time that 95% of everything was probably wrong. I couldn’t figure out what was right. I was certain that all the bad stuff was true, and I absorbed it. And then I set the story aside because next story I wouldn’t make those mistakes! I’d do better!
So… clearly, to my mind, what was likely to happen was that I would… set a lot of stuff aside. I would continue to write Newer! Better! but the things that were written would gather dust.
I had some experience with a workshop environment by this point; a fabulous one in grade 13 (which no longer exists — the grade, I mean), and a more fraught one in university. Neither of these existed for commercial fiction purposes, but — I learned a lot about the mechanics, for good or ill, of the critiques and interactions. (And yes, I also absorbed advice and critique and set the story aside to work on something new.) So this decision was not actually based on nothing or simple fear; it was based on me within those contexts.
Therefore, no workshops for me.
You could call this cowardice, if you’d like. But having seen the personality conflicts that can arise in workshops — have I mentioned recently that my favorite Sesame Street character was Oscar the Grouch? — I felt this decision was wisest for me.
I have a certain amount of cognitive dissonance when it comes to some writing advice. When I was a younger author, any number of published professionals told me variants of “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen”. They were the Tough Love brigade of workshoppers. One in particular – whom I otherwise quite liked – felt that you would never make it as a pro if you could not handle brutal honesty.
I see this a lot: Brutal + Honesty. The use somehow implies that honesty must be brutal. That in order to be an author you must listen to people who can’t be bothered to choose the right words, even if they are in a writer’s workshop with you, that fact implying that learning to use the right words is what they want to do. It is head-scratching.
In the michelle-verse, you can be honest without being brutal. They are not the same thing. They should not be the same thing. The implication here is that the content is key and how it’s delivered doesn’t and shouldn’t matter – and that being affected by anything else is kind of crybaby.
Just because I can take verbal abuse in the guise of helpful advice doesn’t mean it’s not abuse. And the idea that abuse is a necessary test of your mettle as a writer kind of implies that the entire process will be abusive, doesn’t it?
There are people who are very unhappy when you are honest, it’s true.
But that doesn’t make honesty brutal by nature. (We had a whole discussion about how to tell a writer (not me, btw) different things. He gave me a sentence, I told him how I would say it. This went on for about 6 sentences, ranging from “your characterization sucks” (his words) to “boring snooze fest” for pacing problems.) I thought about the woman who would hopefully become my editor — ie an actual professional, and how she answered my questions. And oddly, that is not the way she spoke about her problems with my characterization.
People who know me in real life are possibly laughing and shaking their heads now, because I am often blunt. But I steer away from brutal, and also: just how much useful information can anyone take from “your characterization sucks” anyway?
I also admit that I find it very very frustrating to be told to use Clarion style workshopping: the people who are offering critiques are to offer those critiques to the writer, and the writer is not allowed to say anything until everyone has finished.
This would not be helpful to me as a writer. Sometimes people give comments very much like: “Your characterization sucks”. And then they move on to pacing. And I don’t know about you, but my new-novelist self could take nothing actionable out of that comment. I want to be able to ask the commenter to be more granular, to be more specific; I want to be sure I understand where and how this assertion was derived, because that’s useful to me going forward.
If I don’t, how the heck can I fix anything without a ton of flailing?
I also, as one of those critiquers, feel a need to ask questions of the writer, one of which is: Where do you think this is going? Or: What were you trying to achieve/say with this scene? If I feel that a scene doesn’t work, I kind of need to know what it was supposed to be doing – I don’t feel that I can say why it failed in a useful way if I don’t understand fully what it was attempting.
HOWEVER, to be entirely fair to this workshop style: Many, many writers will argue with the critiquer. They will attempt to defend their text from aspersions being cast. They might even tell the critiquer that they have to, oh, read with their eyes open. Writing is personal. Sometimes critiques make a writer feel personally attacked.
(Understand that arguing with a critique — which is just a reader’s opinion, with supporting facts — is like telling someone they must love olives, even when they demonstrably hate them. It’s a response to the text. It’s how they felt when reading it. There is no point in telling them they’re wrong – it’s their response. It’s how they reacted when they read it. What you are asking for is their reaction, but hopefully with enough information on what caused it that you can then decide for yourself whether it’s a problem. If 5 people tell you something is a problem, it is probably something you need to look at. If one person out of 5 does, it’s less clear. You get to assess.)
So: I understand why people are not supposed to talk at all until every critique has been offered, but I personally would not find it useful on either side.
Ahem. Digression city, I know.
But since we’re digressing, I’m just going to add a little bit here. (Yes, a little bit more.) For my drafting process, I have to be open. I have to be emotionally committed to be open. In order to write, I can’t write from a clinical distance. I can construct an outline that way — which is the other reason that outlines do not work for me. Although the story beats and the structure look like they would be a good book, they aren’t, in the end, the actual book. I’ve sold exactly one book with a synopsis. It almost killed me to finish it.
So: writing the book itself is not something that can be done from an emotional distance.
But somehow we need distance to deal with everything else. I think if you scar a person enough that they choose to remain at a safe distance, they find it much harder to write. And yes, this will not be universally true of all writers – but actually, it’s true of a lot of them.
I think it’s why many authors pull back, or far back, from the online authoring. They are, in the end, protecting their ability to write. More on this later.
Back to revisions.
Having finished this phone call, and having asked All the Questions, I returned to the book that had been rejected.
If I could address her problems, she wanted to see it again. So of course the leading question was: Could I? As a new author, it felt like the whole of the future was resting on this heretofore unknown ability: Revision.
I know writers who say: Draft quickly and then spend the time revising. They work best when something is on the page. I have envied this for all of my writing life because I am not that person. To people who love revision, having the draft is important because they now know the extent of the actual story. They’re not wed to words or even structure: they know what the heart of the story actually is.
They then make choices in how to present that story.
Actually, one author starts what she calls an exploratory draft. She just starts writing. I’ve talked about how much thinking I do off the page – that’s just the way my brain works. This is not the way hers works. She does all of her thinking on the page, and sometimes the first draft will have almost nothing in common with the finished book, except names and a scene or two. It’s in writing that draft that she finds the book and story.
And this has worked for her. I thought it was fascinating, tbh. I think she’s the only author I’ve met who works like this.
I, however, was not her, and not the revision-loving author. Clearly. I would love to be the revision-loving author.
I did talk about my lack of visualization skills, right? I want to emphasize that now. The story as it exists exists in the words used to tell it. Words are my shape of things; words describe what I see. Words exist that way across all of my brain levels. Drafting to get the bones of the entire thing is just not the way my brain works. I can’t separate story from words easily, because they’re so tightly wed. I think, if I had a different range of mental skills, I could. So: again, a reminder that this is about me and my brain, and not about Art or superiority. I don’t take the books more seriously or less seriously than writers who have different brains.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t look at sentences and think who let a drunk monkey loose on my book??? while line-editing. But line-editing isn’t the deeper revision that’s often necessary.
It was necessary here, and I had, after an hour long conversation with the editor, some idea of what was wrong, of what I’d done wrong. I could, having borrowed her viewpoint and her way of looking at the book I’d written, see exactly what she meant.
Seeing it, however, was not fixing it.
The one advantage of workshopping would be the experience of having to learn this while surrounded by people who were also learning it. Since I did not have this, I had to take a step back from the text in which the story was rooted and really look at it as if I were the editor. I could do this only because I’d talked to her and questioned her and made certain that my understanding of what she was saying was correct.
Okay. I have not actually written enough about this character to show who she is on the page. I know who she is. What information reveals that to people who are not looking at my brain? And what information does that within the context of the events that are fixed on the page, fixed in the story? What events can be moved and what do I have to abandon? Because I can’t just paste in scenes that exist solely for the purpose of giving information, like cue cards.
How do I look at this book as if I wasn’t actually the writer?
The answer is: imperfectly. And the problem with this is that you cannot see the book a second time with the same reader-eyes as you did the first time. I wish I’d kept some of the files; I didn’t. So what you’re also getting is my memories of three decades past. What I remember – and memory is always tricky – is going through the book and giving my character a much more obviously active role in the events in which she finds herself. I tried to see her as if she were a total stranger, as if she were not the protagonist.
What helped me at the time was a certain sense that I had failed the book the first time, and I intended to do better by it. I didn’t look at it as anything but my own failure to communicate. And that failure can be fixed. It was the type of writing error that did not require that I toss the book away and start from page one.
I sent this book back to the editor, and she liked the revisions enough that she passed it up to the editor in chief, Lester del Rey.
…and he did not hate the characters. He was pretty pissed off at me, though. I got a four page (letter size) rant about what he thought I’d done wrong. It was, hmmm, funny. And not as bad as I thought it would be because everyone was warning me about the fact that Lester was generally mean.
So… then I looked at *his* criticism. What he hated the most was the fact that there was about 85 pages of flashback, when the character finally gets her memory back. WTFH, he demanded, was I EVEN THINKING? This was CRITICALLY IMPORTANT and it should NOT be wedged into 85 pages towards the end of the book. ALL OF IT SHOULD BE IN ITS OWN DAMN BOOK! (I’m only slightly exaggerating, here. He did use all caps throughout the letter.)
…neither I nor the editor who would otherwise be responsible for this book in-house thought this was a problem because of the way it was revealed within the structure of the book. Lester, however, did – and he was the Yes/No ultimate authority.
But oddly enough, what he wanted I could absolutely do. It’s just… it’s kind of a tragedy and there’s a lot of heartbreak in it. But: I knew what had happened. I could write that book.
So I sat down to write that book and finished it in 3 months, which was kind of a record for me.
And then I sent *that* book back to the original editor, and she read and approved and sent it to Lester, and he said Yes.
So the third book I wrote became the first book published with my name on it, because I was mostly finished the second book.
The second book I finished, however, was not like the first one, and definitely not like the third. It was effectively my second novel, but part of the series. And it wasn’t working, and I couldn’t see why. The individual scenes seemed okay to me. But — something was wrong with it and, again, I wasn’t sure what. So I sent it to my editor (because by this point, I had contracts for it).
She called to give me the bad news (for some reason, most of my editorial revision letters have always been phone calls, but — I prefer them because I can make certain what I think I’m hearing is actually what the editor is trying to tell me).
It was a pacing issue.
It was a pacing issue and when the editor made this clear, everything snapped into place for me: structure, story, weight. I said, “You realize this means I’m going to have to throw this away and start from page one?” and she said, “I think so, yes.”
(My agent of the time did not agree, but to be fair, once I realized that’s what was needed, it didn’t matter to me if anyone else told me that it was unnecessary.)
But… oddly, this did not upset me. Because now, I knew what was wrong. Now I knew what needed to be done. I threw away that book and started it again, and it did not have that “something is wrong and it makes me uneasy” feel.
The end remained pretty much the same, though; everything else on the way to the end changed.
It still remains easier for me to throw away a scene and start it again than to revise bits of it, unless the bits are “why is this stupid sentence here?”.
I am never going to love revision. Sometimes it’s easier and sometimes it’s much harder.
But, and here’s the thing, anyone who thinks it gets easier to write with time is… optimistic. The actual writing of first draft IS easier. But the anxiety of the entire process is more difficult as you go on. Or at least as I did. Anxiety has become worse for me with time; I know more, I’m a professional, and I should not be making these mistakes by now, OMG Michelle WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?
But louder, and on the inside of my head.
When it is too loud, the writing is very, very difficult. If that very hard produced better books, I might live with it — but my experience has not proven this to be true in any fashion. It certainly produces later books.
Revise with anxiety? Yes, because revisions up to a point require an entirely different frame of mind – although even then, if you spend your entire revision process second-guessing all your fixes, it also becomes grueling.
Sometimes you need to find the windows of relative calm. In those windows, you can assess objectively. But… I think you have to learn to accept your process and your writer-needs, and this would include the anxieties and the things that get in the way of writing.
Instead of telling yourself that you should be like that other writer who gets so much done, accept who you are if you’ve failed consistently to change it. Should be is irrelevant.
Can you shoulder the anxiety and the sense of failure and continue to move forward? Can you asses which activities knocked the air out of your creative lungs, or knocked you off your feet? Can you write and find the love of writing and story that probably got you started in the first place?
I want to talk a bit more about anxiety, writing, and authoring in the next post. Or two.
Which, actually, I do consider an important part of process, although it might not be the obvious one.