15 January 2018

Second Thoughts and Second Best

A few months ago, I read a Facebook post from a writer I didn't know, ecstatically proclaiming that his writing was so good he never revised anything. I went to his Amazon page and opened the "look inside" button on his most recent masterpiece. His claim was about half-right. I read a page and decided he really didn't revise. If he'd been in my tenth-grade comp and lit class when I taught, he might still be there, too.

Someone I know once compared a first draft to that stranger at the bar who looks a little better after every beer. If you don't look again in the cold harsh light of day, you'll never appreciate the bullet you just dodged.

One advantage of accumulating over 700 rejections (That's when I stopped counting) is that it gives you plenty of work in progress. When I published my first short story (I think it was my 23rd), I learned enough from it to go back and revise several of the others. Some of them have sold since then, but many didn't pass the sniff test.

I wrote twelve novels before I sold my first one, too. Three or four of those early attempts have undergone major surgery, since then, always for the better. Cherry Bomb, my second Zach Barnes novel in Connecticut, started as the second Woody Guthrie (He had a different name then) book set in Detroit. The last half of the book rocked, but the first half rolled over and almost died. Moving it to Connecticut solved a few problems immediately, but it took me six years to figure that out. Blood on The Tracks, the first Woody Guthrie novel, changed the character's name three times and had four different titles over the course of ten years and 112 rejections. The cold case surrounding the dead rock singer stayed constant, but the original story had a cozier concept that confused agents, and setting it in 1991 forced the action to stretch out over abut three months and dilute the tension.

This is stuff you learn only by doing it wrong and getting called out for it. Then you have to find your own way to fix it. That journey is a personal quest, but most people agree that you start with the major issues (Plot, structure, setting, character arc) and gradually zoom to smaller details: prose style; dialogue; backstory and description; spelling, punctuation, grammar.

I like revision because it's working with something you already have. You can't make a cake without flour and sugar and various other ingredients, and it's the same with a story. Even if it's a half-baked mess, you can add more ingredients or change the proportions and cook it a little more until you get lucky. The more you do it, the luckier you get, too.

One advantage of self-publishing is that you can go back to a WIP if you're not happy with it and not have other people screaming at you to hurry up. You can put it away and look at it again after time gives you more perspective. When you do come back, you're not as invested in it so killing your darlings won't upset you as much.

I never throw anything away (Flash drives are a wonderful invention) and I recycle stuff fairly often. The October 2017 issue of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine features "Death by Water," which received its first rejection in 2009. My spread sheet says I sent out three different versions of that story before I got it right. Another story that first crossed the street in 2010 will appear in the May/June 2018 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. In 2005, I interviewed several people and did lots of research for a book that I thought would feature Woody Guthrie. I moved it to Connecticut in 2011, and discovered the plot didn't work. Several supporting characters worked perfectly for The Kids Are All Right in 2014. Postcards of the Hanging was my sixth-year project in grad school in 1980, and about 90% of what appeared in 2013 is what I wrote then, but re-sequenced with flashbacks to introduce the conflict earlier.

This week, Before You Accuse Me, the fourth Woody Guthrie novel, makes its debut. I first conceived of the story (Including the title, which never changed, a first for me) in 2004, but knew it was the fourth or fifth book because I had to develop the intervening backstory first. That took nearly 14 years, but about half of what I thought up back then remains and the rest is stronger for the time away. The biggest change is the move from San Francisco (which would have required LOTS of research) to Connecticut, where I live. That made geography easier to work with and allowed me to feature Hartford cops Trash & Byrne as supporting characters.

It never gets easier, but you get better.


  1. Steve, I laughed out loud reading your first graph. My first drafts are perfect, too, just like the guy you talk about. Then my wife reads them and I end up doing twenty other drafts just to please her, 'cause I thought the first one was perfection ;-) .

    But seriously, as we say, all writing is rewriting. I’m a pantster, don’t outline, so I look at my first drafts like outlines. I don’t care how bad they are, they just get something down on “paper”. Then real fun begins, the honing, which can take a lot of drafts and a lot of time until you get something you’re actually happy with. And then it goes out in the world and (sometimes) gets published. And you look at it again, if you dare, and find all the things you still want to change. Except for the guy you mention, whose every first word is golden. I wish I were him! (Would love to know who it is.)

  2. PS -- Congratulations on Before You Accuse Me coming out!

  3. Paul, my "first draft" is a list of my scenes (usually about 50) that I try to put in chronological order so the cause and effect are there and tension builds. I never have them right, but I use that list to write the real scenes. By the time I have all the scenes written, I find that I cut, add, move, or combine most of them. Normally, that list is in somewhere between its twelfth and fifteenth version when I complete the first round of "real" writing. Then I know most of the story will work, but it all gets five or six more revisions before it sounds like English.

  4. I do think there is no one perfect way to write. I am definitely a reviser, but two members of my family, both successful journalists, are in the rarely revise category- and, to be fair, they rarely need to.

  5. I've had several stories published that were essentially first draft--once through the typewriter followed by a read-through to correct, with pen, any typos--but that was long ago, most of them appeared under pseudonyms, and none of them get listed among my "best" work.

    On the flip side, I've a few stories that were so heavily revised I don't think I kept anything from the first draft but the byline.

    The trick is knowing when revisions stop being improvements and become nothing but change for the sake of change. One must stop before reaching that point and put the manuscript out to market. A story never submitted is a story never published!

  6. Congrats on the new book! And thanks for the great post here on revision. It's all so true--and like Paul, I loved the anecdote that started the post here!

  7. Now I have Creedence Clearwater Revival stuck in my head. There are worse things. I like to quote Gore Vidal who said, approximately: "I'm not a writer, I'm a rewriter. I have nothing to say but a lot to add." Congrats on the new book.

  8. Michael, my test is when I start obsessing over whether to use a comma or a semicolon. When I get there or when I'm wondering about adding a conjunction, it's time to send the kid out.

    Janice, I admire journalists who have to get all the facts right and get the article out there immediately. I could probably do it if I HAD to, but I doubt that I could stand to re-read anything. It would be grammatically correct but sound wooden.

  9. I think I've seen that guy's stuff - I probably gave it an "F" in class.
    Me, I revise constantly, and even after I occasionally get something published, I always see something else I could do better, should have rewritten, etc....

    Congratulations on the new book!

  10. Harlan Ellison proved to me on more than one occasion he writes one draft of a story. Then again, he's Harlan. My novels go through 6-7 drafts. My short stories at least 5 versions. Y'all are right, the strength is in the re-write. And the old cliche - get it written, then get it right.

  11. Yes! I read where a few of the pulp writers could get away with selling first drafts, but I sure can't!

  12. I can't begin to count how many revisions my work goes through because I revise almost daily. When it's almost put together like a jigsaw puzzle, it's nearly done. But the revisions have happened by the dozens along the way. Some people might call that a first draft, but believe me, every scene has been revised and revised again. I'm not sure it saves any time doing it this way. It's just the way that I must do it. I can't bear to leave something imperfect when I've thought of a better way to do it. I have to rewrite it *now*. Thoughtful post, Steve.

  13. Congrats on the new book, Steve. Quite an accomplishment.


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