On Writing Process, part five: Revision with digressions

Posted in writing, process.

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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.

14 Responses to On Writing Process, part five: Revision with digressions

  1. Carrie Hamilton says:

    As always, I greatly enjoyed the lengthy descrip­tion of your expe­ri­ences. This might sound odd, but they also made me laugh. My husband and I read each other’s mate­rial, and in the early days of our rela­tion­ship, the brutal honesty led me to cry and him to stomp off in a huff. Through the drama, we learned a more diplo­matic approach to editing because we both real­ized we improved each other’s work AND we wanted to remain together. We have since learned to apply this diplo­macy with co-workers and others. In my case, it has meant my students appre­ciate how I edit their work and learn from it. I know because I’ve asked after seeing how those who follow me improve from class to class but the “newbies” perform at a lower level (and I DON’T teach English or rhetoric, so I have no idea what they are or aren’t learning from those profes­sors). I suspect some of the “brutal + honest” commen­tors have either a) never had to deal with the personal rami­fi­ca­tions of such an approach or b) had rela­tion­ships explode because they never learned the lesson. Looking at the history of tumul­tuous romances in literary history, one suspects the latter. LOL!?! Thanks again for sharing!

  2. Z Hunt says:

    Well, I can honestly say I love reading these. I haven’t replied to most of them, but I have been following, and will continue to follow. Thank you so much for taking the time to write these!

    I intended to reply to all of these because I do enjoy them and find them fasci­nating, but I forget and then feel like it may be too late to reply, so I stay silent.

    But I am looking forward to the rest of these, so thank you again!

  3. Tchula says:

    @Michelle, Just thought I’d tell you Oscar the Grouch is also my favorite Sesame Street muppet. I just love cantan­kerous char­ac­ters – I look forward to becoming one as I age. ;-P

  4. michelle says:

    @Zia: Thank you :). I don’t need you to post in every thread; I’ve been answering some comments in the older ones (there was a really great post about language and thought and second languages that I’m now really thinking about!).

    @Carrie: I have always thought that a house­hold with two writers would require some nego­ti­a­tions that one writer house­holds don’t. I think making it work is great — and totally under­stand the more diplo­matic phrasing. (I also read your comment out loud to my husband as he was driving me to work.)

    @Tchula: I feel that I have aged enough to be a curmud­geon :D

  5. Argentum says:

    So now of course I am wondering if my two book draft is really four books :)

    In seri­ous­ness, I’ve been really looking forward to this partic­ular post because I’m fighting my way through revi­sions of my first finished draft. My big take­away is that I don’t know yet whether I’m a write-by-writing or write-by-revising type yet … and that’s okay, I’m in the process of learning and figuring it out. The distinc­tion is inter­esting. I’m absolutely writing-by-revising right now: trying to figure out how to best present the story that emerged from my first draft. But this wasn’t so much a conscious choice. I wrote the first draft in brief spurts spread out over ten years, and by the time I finished, the begin­ning no longer fit; char­ac­ters had morphed and the world building had deep­ened. It wasn’t a surprise, really — I knew once I created an outline some two-thirds of the way through that I could EITHER go back and rewrite what I had so far OR plow ahead and change the begin­ning later, and I chose the latter. I was defi­nitely influ­enced by the NaNoW­riMo culture here and I don’t regret my deci­sion, which after all worked: I finished a first draft. (There’s a quote I heard through NaNoW­riMo that neatly captures the write-by-revising approach, which Google tells me is attrib­uted to Shannon Hale: “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shov­eling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”). But … now revi­sions are such a struggle that I’m deter­mined, for my next project, to just write it right the first time! And I’m just fixing the prob­lems I MYSELF know are wrong — I haven’t yet gotten any outside feed­back at all. Part of the issue I fear is that lazy-me tries to preserve as much as possible of the orig­inal draft, while dreamer-me thinks many scenes would be better if I threw them out and started from scratch.

    Anyway, thank you very much for sharing so many reflec­tions and insights! And by the way, I am completely with you on the strange wide accep­tance of ‘brutal’ when followed by ‘honesty’.

  6. Argentum says:

    A random unre­lated comment on visu­al­iza­tion: I had a dream last night that was in words as much as images. It was a stan­dard nonsen­sical dream (my dreams are extra weird when I’m preg­nant) and there WERE pictures to go along with the words, but they were the accom­pa­ni­ment; the essence of the dream was words, which lingered longer than the images after I woke. This was a first for me — a visual person — and it made me wonder if maybe for other people dreaming in words is normal.

  7. michelle says:

    @Argentum: there are a lot of writers who would swear by the Shannon Hale quote :).

    For me, writing and revising are two very different mental processes.

    I didn’t revise — I threw out scenes and vignettes and then the story, and absorbed the crit­i­cisms and thought about them and thought about how to avoid them in future. I would have thrown out the novel the same way if it weren’t for profes­sional inter­ven­tion. I got better at writing as I wrote.

    But… this didn’t actu­ally flex or develop any *revi­sion* muscles.

    So: I under­stood enough by this point about char­acter and struc­ture to write a novel that was almost there — by writing.

    Revi­sions were there­fore harder, because those were … not the muscles I’d devel­oped.

    I find it *easier* to throw out scenes (or even chap­ters) and start them again than keep bits and pieces of them. So, that’s prob­ably lazy-me.

    But… for me some­times I’d get caught up in the scene itself and emotion­ally *it works for me* and then I am in-the-book rather than above it, and I don’t want to let that emotion go. =/.

  8. Joey says:

    I would like the unex­pur­gated audio­book of these process posts, the one complete with all the sighs and mutter­ings that I imagine have been removed. Please.

    Miscel­la­neously, is Digres­sion City the capitol of the Michelle-Verse?

  9. DeDe says:

    @Joey —  Maybe an animated short film? I can just see an animated muttering-Michelle. :)

  10. michelle says:

    DeDe: what he really means is the volu­able cursing. For some reason, swearing on the page is a gravity well, for me. When I look at what I’ve written, all cursing stands out like 72 point, bold face type.

    In person, I tend to be more… Colourful.

  11. Helen says:

    @Michelle (quote) “Words are my shape of things; words describe what I see. Words exist that way across all of my brain levels.”

    Was it Roger Zelazny who said “It’s not just about finding the words — it’s about finding the /right/ words…”? Which to me has always made a case for the story and the words to be quantum entan­gled!

  12. Thank you for sharing this and I can’t wait to read about anxiety. I really thought it was just me, which In restro­spect is a little crazy. It’s not that I am comparing myself to anyone else, because no one I know is a writer, but more because I feel like if I was really meant to do it, things would be easier. Not sure why I would feel that way. Nothing of value in my life ever came without hard work and a consid­er­able amount of anxiety. I espe­cially appre­ci­ated, “Can you shoulder the anxiety and the sense of failure and continue to move forward.” That’s exactly what it felt like at the end, but again I thought if I felt that’s well I must have done some­thing wrong. So thanks for sharing.

  13. michelle says:

    @Tracy: I think a lot of people starting out feel that way — I know I did. People whose books you love are, of course, *talented* and there­fore immune from our own less talented strug­gles. This is, of course, not true — but it can certainly feel that way.

    Another reader, who was also writing, came in to the store and said that she really did appre­ciate it when I talked about the diffi­cul­ties that I encoun­tered writing. Because if even I was having diffi­cul­ties hers were normal­ized.

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