24 July 2014

To Tweak, Or Not To Tweak...

By Brian Thornton

...that is the question!
With apologies to THIS guy!

If you've ever written anything from a novel to a laundry list, you know the conundrum: leave well enough alone, or go back and "improve" your work.

I will admit up front that I am by nature a relentless reviser. I tweak, and edit, and add and cut and am constantly looking to make my prose smoother, better, more concise. It can get exhausting!

So how interesting is it that, as I close in on the third and final draft of a book project that I began plotting seven (yes, that's right, SEVEN years ago!), I have begun a new regime–born in large part of necessity–that includes minimal revision.

In other words, I'm gonna finish this sucker and then go back and fix what needs fixing.

Now I've heard it all from a variety of quarters on this subject: that's the common sense thing to do! Why haven't you done it all along? What sort of sick-o perfectionist can't leave well enough alone? How do you ever expect to publish anything with that self-defeating attitude?

My response: I am the author of nine published books, the co-author of several more–with all but one of them still in print. I've also got half-a-dozen short stories (every last one sold for actual money to actual venues that actually pay) completed and out there in the world as well.

How come this book project is different?

I have some thoughts on that. (Obviously, otherwise this would be a very short blog entry.)

All of my previously published book-length prose is non-fiction. For those of you not in the know, that does make a difference. From the time I sold my first book in 2004 until I sold my latest two in 2011, publishers would cut a contract for a nonfiction book based on an outline and a writing sample.

Not so with fiction. That sucker needs to be pretty close to completed before you see a nickel for it.

And that's the thing: this new book project is a novel.

I have no idea if these rules still apply to nonfiction. Like I said, the last two books I sold were in here). That's a lifetime ago in publishing, the way things go these days.
My Most Recent Sale
2011 (one was a nonfiction work and the other was an anthology of crime stories that can be found

And while I have enjoyed my forays into nonfiction, and am proud of what I've produced, this book, my novel is still different.

It's far and away the most creative thing I've attempted (at least artistically). I am far more invested in it than I was in my nonfiction.

So why haven't I finished it yet?

Well, for the first few years after I conceived it, I had a choice: work on the novel or work on something that would pay me that very year.

No contest- my nonfiction got the bulk of my writing time/attention/energy.

Then in 2009 I got exceedingly lucky and met my future wife. We married in 2010, bought a house in 2011 and had a child in 2012. All great things, and the money from my last three books helped fund all of the above, to say nothing of a terrific honeymoon touring the UK.

Now with my regular full-time job, my mortgage, my marriage and my toddler, I find time far more at a premium than I did in my days as an apartment-dwelling bachelor. This, more than anything else, has dictated my letting go of my obsession with trying to "perfect" my work.

Which is not to say that I don't revise my work anymore. I do plenty of it on the fly, and schedule a full run through the book once the draft is finished. I just can't afford to keep grinding and grinding on any one part of it anymore.

Ace Frehley, getting better.
For me, it's like Ace Frehley, lead guitarist of KISS said of his early days playing in that band: "We toured all the time. We weren't very good when we started out, but you play three hundred dates a year, and you're gonna get better."

So I have the benefit of experience. There really is no substitute for it. It helps me trust myself to get it right more efficiently than with my first "mistake" novel (that one will never see the light of day- in my metaphorical desk drawer it lies, and there it shall remain!)

So how do I manage to accomplish both? Make good progress while also ensuring that the things that need fixing later do actually get fixed?

Two things: first, I keep a writing journal–one that deals specifically with the challenges I'm facing on any given day (it's hand-written in a series of Moleskine journals. Hey, works for me!). I also use a tactic that my friend and colleague (really a terrific writer, this guy!) Michael Jacobs introduced to me: when there's a spot that I know will need fixing later, but I need to move on: I type [TK] in and around it.

This makes these places in the work that need a revisit later, once the draft is completed, easy to find. A word search on a document that runs in length anywhere from 60-100k words can be a challenge, unless you recall exactly which words you're looking for.

[TK] occurs almost nowhere in the English language as part of a word (and definitely nowhere else than where I place it as a marker with those brackets included). This makes it easy to find as part of a quick word search.

And there you have it. The answer to the question contained within the title of this blog post is: "Yes to both."

Just so long as it gets done!


  1. Very best of luck with your novel. You sound as if you have the project well in hand. I'm a great believer in writing whatever way works for you. There is no one plan fits all!

  2. Oh, I'm going to have to use that [TK] myself. Right now I am in the process of revising a piece - and it occurred to me last night that I was revising it too much. Thankfully, I keep the old drafts, so I'm going to take a couple of days off, and then go read the old, the new, and make up my mind! Thanks!
    And I can hardly WAIT for the novel to come out...

  3. Brian, nice article. Always interesting to read a how-I'm-doing-it piece. Keep on writing.

  4. Nice thoughts Brian. But I'm lazy. I simply use one square brace - [ - also called a bracket, because in fiction, one should rarely if ever use parens, and never use braces. So I avoid ever putting a brace in, except when it is a "note to self." Then I do the same as you, but I just search for "["

  5. Brian, I like your use of TK, though it's a bit different than mine. I use TK to stand in for something I don't have yet, but don't have time to research or create prior to putting an idea down in a document. This missing element might be a character name, proper term for a machinery part, etc. I was taught to use TK in this manner, when led to write according to Associated Press Style Book convention in J-school.

    I find your use -- as a tag for sections that don't quite "feel right" upon first draft creation -- quite intriguing. May give it a whirl, myself.


  6. Your TK is a clever shortcut. When I have a problem passage, sentence, word, etc, I highlight it in red. Easy to find.

    Good luck with the book.


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