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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Dare to be Bad?

One of the traditions I've had is when I'm writing my NaNo novel in November, it gets printed out, and whenever our family is driving a ways, usually to church which is 45 minutes each way, or to Austin which is about an hour, my wife will it read in it in the car, warts and all, and my two sons (22 and almost 17) will listen. It usually does two things for me. One, if they really like something, they'll laugh, or say something. If they find something silly, then I know it doesn't work. And listening as someone else reads your work allows you to see what mistakes you've made.

This year right in chapter 1, I noticed as my wife read it that I had an "As you know, Bob" bit of dialog. So I made a mental note it needed to be fixed. A little later on, they mentioned something I had the main character find. And I realized I'd never used it during the rest of the novel to that point, creating a smoking gun. Check, another issue to fix. And so it goes.

I see all those glaring bad mistakes. Then I read a blog post of Dean Wesley Smith titled "Dare to be Bad." I have to admit, the concept makes a lot of sense. And it is supported by numerous professional writers. Take a moment to read the blog post, and the comments if you have the time are good too. But make sure you come back. Or open it in a tab to read after this.

I've posted this on my Facebook account, and Twitter, and retweeted. But he mentions there that the scariest thing is to take literally Robert A. Heinlein's third rule of writing: You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.

Checking a few writer blogs on his rules, I've read those who think what he "really meant" was not to tinker with it endlessly. Another simply dismisses the rule as something of his culture or experience, but things are different now. But not too many want to take it literally, as Dean does, and I know from secondary sources, some other authors do as well.

In Dean's case, he doesn't do any rewriting. He does do "editing," that is, he corrects typos and grammar mistakes, but that's it. So I'm thinking about this. I'm looking at that "As you know, Bob" dialog I have in chapter 1. If I take this literally, does that mean even if I notice something, and I'm right on that page fixing a typo, that I shouldn't fix that "As you know, Bob" dialog or ignore it and let it be?

Most writers would fix that if they saw it. Can I ignore that obvious newbie mistake and send it out like that anyway? That's scary. And I know I tend to be light on description. My last short story I sent out, the editors sent back that they would like some revisions, and one was better descriptions. That actually fits with Heinlein's rule, since it was to editorial request. But do I take my current NaNo novel draft, and send it out without going through and adding in needed description? I know I have places that need it. But if I followed this rule, I would only add in description if the editor requested it.

Now, some of the reinterpretation of Heinlein's rule appeared to be because the writer didn't want to take it literally. But I would suggest that the "except" clause specifically specifies the one time you can rewrite, so Heinlein meant one shouldn't rewrite at all. I don't think he was specifically addressing endless tinkering, though obviously that gets fixed in the process. I don't even think it applies purely to newbie writers, though it probably applies more to them than anyone. Yes, I know. That goes counter to what all newbie writers are told, to rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, and then do it again. My first short story, I must have rewritten ten to fifteen times, but the last two were to editorial request.

Let me explain why I think Heinlein put this rule into place, not as a "writing process" rule as one blogger put it, but as something that will prevent an author from selling the work and so fits with the rest of the rules. There are two reasons why I think he said this.

One, and maybe the obvious one, is that rewriting, even once, will slow your output down by at least half or more. For instance, I've written all but one novel within a month's time for the first draft. Yet, I'll take several months just to get the first edit done. Then I will take a few days to go back and fix what my chapter-by-chapter beta reader noticed, both typos/grammar and plot/character issues. Then I'll send the complete novel to one or two beta readers, and then fix whatever things they noticed that I agree with need to be fixed. Then I deem it ready to ship out. But by then, it's been nine months or more since I wrote it.

If I didn't rewrite, just sent the rough draft to a beta reader, then when I received that back, fixed the typos, grammar, and maybe any glaring plot holes/continuity problems (not rewriting, mind you, just easy fixes that don't require me rewriting paragraphs), then ship it out, I'd probably have the novel sitting at an editor's desk within three to four months of writing it, rather than the nine months to a year it currently takes, if I am diligently working on it and the beta reader doesn't take too long going over it.

Why is that important, you ask? After all, some writers, even some famous writers, sweat over their manuscripts for years. It's the difference between wanting to make a career out of writing, to earn a real living out of writing, as opposed to it being a side hobby. If you look at most professional writers who earned their living writing fiction, they have one thing in common: they put out multiple titles a year. They were prolific, whether we're talking the classics like Asmov, Heinlein, Clarke, and Del Ray, or current authors like King, Card, and McCaffrey. And the closer to being a mid-list author, which most are, the more true it becomes. Short of hitting the big time like J. K. Rowling, you can't earn a living pumping out one book a year. Most advances on a novel will fall in the $10,000 to $25,000 range until the author can command more because of customer demand. If you can live on that, then maybe you can do it. But it will be a slow build.

And if I spend a year getting one book out, guess what? I'll never reach my goal of becoming a full-time professional writer. Now, if your goal isn't to make a living off writing, you want to tinker away at it, maybe get a book here or there published, then this point doesn't apply to you. Don't quit your day job short of hitting the Rowling jackpot. But if you do, it means you need to cut your rewrite time down to the minimum, so that you can get started on the next book. You're call there.

Two, unless you know what you're doing, you're more likely to rewrite your voice out of the work the more you tinker with it. What makes a story uniquely yours is your writer's voice. To develop that voice takes doing a fair amount of writing, for most authors somewhere between half a million to one million, or maybe more. But your rough draft will contain your raw, unedited, unique voice. Dean Wesley Smith points out that when writers do rewrites, especially new writers, they will tend to edit their voice out of the work. This is most especially true if you take your work to a critique group and adopt changes they suggest.

The problem, especially for new writers, is they don't have the skills, the time spent writing, to readily identify their voice to know how to preserve that in rewrites. Why is that? Well, it really makes sense if you think about it.

First, what is voice? It isn't just style, it isn't just word choices, it isn't just poetic feel, it isn't just worldview. Voice is a combination of all these elements, the way your brain thinks and views the world, the reactions and interactions of people. It is all these things combined into your unique mixture. Because of that, it isn't something you logically think about doing. You don't decide, "Hum, today, I'm going to write with voice X." It is a subconscious event that develops the more you write. Once you have a distinct voice, people can hear something being read, no matter the style you used, and identify it as yours if they are familiar enough with your novels and stories to know your voice.

Because of the way voice gets into your work, once you shift from the creative mode of writing that first draft, over to the critical thinking mode of editing a work, it is easy for your critical mind to say, "Hum, all the books say I shouldn't use [insert favorite writing rule] so I should edit that out." Or someone in your critique group says, "Your teen is talking too much like an adult," so you go back and rewrite his dialog to sound more teenish. What you may have actually done is to remove your voice. Why? Because you don't know what your voice involves, especially early on. You can't even identify "this is my voice," so how are you going to know if you are taking it out with any specific rewrite? Bottom line, you won't. And what you're likely to end up with is something generic that sounds like every other writer out there.

And that's not what editors want. They want something with a unique voice. The reader wants something with a unique voice. Most any story you write will be something someone has done before. What will make it "original" is your voice infused into it. Edit that out, and you have the same story everyone else has told. Therefore, if your goal is to ever sell your work to an editor, the more you rewrite, the greater the chance you've edited your voice out of the work, unless you really know what you are doing. Therefore, the more you rewrite, the less likely it is to sell to an editor.

Dean, in the post linked above, relates how he used to be a rewriter in the comments section (and other places on his blog). And he had a hard time selling. One, because he wasn't sending out that much, and two, because his work sounded like everyone else's. When he took the advice of the professional writers he hung out with to heart and stopped rewriting, he started selling. And over 100 books later, is still selling using the same formula. Write the first draft. Give it to a beta reader. Make typo and grammar corrections the beta reader caught. Send it out.

Because what sells a story is primarily and foremost, the author's voice. Not the absence of plot holes. Not the hard to find "unnatural" dialog. And when the editor finds a unique voice, they will request whatever edits they believe need to be there. Then, according to Heinlein's rule, you rewrite. Why? Because they can buy it and publish it. Not your beta reader. Not your critique group. Not even your agent. The editor is the one ready to put up the money to publish it. He's the only one with a significant vested interest and the knowledge of the market to suggest changes that need to be made. He's the one with the cash to put behind your novel.

The editor can suggest changes to improve marketability. He can point out typos or grammar mistakes, or plot holes that he deems needing fixing. But he can't tell you how to put your voice into something. If that isn't there, the novel's not going to fly.

Therefore, I believe the rewrite prohibition is more than to prevent endless tinkering and never sending something out. It is to prevent an author from cutting the voice out of his novel, and make him productive enough to earn a living writing fiction. If you skip step three, steps four and five are not as likely to produce a sell. Not impossible, mind you. Just make it that much harder.

So the main problem we writers have with this, is the fear of sending out a flawed manuscript. One author blog talking about this, said to not rewrite, a writer would have to write a perfect first draft.

No, no, no, no! That's not what this means. And this is where the title comes into play. We know that draft will have problems. It isn't a matter of making the story "perfect." Indeed, make it "perfect" and it will sound like everything else unless you really know what you're doing, and feel proficient enough to identify and edit your voice. Rather, we send it out knowing it isn't perfect, but does have our voice in it, and that is what will sell it. Not the perfection of the writing craft.

That point right there is exactly why you see editors buying books like "The Davinci Code," which breaks tons of writing rules, and is roundly criticized among writer types. And justly so. But writers ask, "How did that make it to market?" The answer: a unique voice. And the sales proved it to be a correct assessment. People gobbled it up.

Then how is a writer supposed to get better? Do we really want them to send out crap to an editor? Yes. What? Well, think about it. Let's say a new writer who doesn't really know what he's doing yet, writes a novel, fixes the typos and grammar, then sends it to an editor. The editor may see a unique voice in the work, but sees there are tons of things that would need to be fixed for people to read it. Maybe the plot is all over the place. Maybe the characters are stereotypical. So he'll reject it, maybe even write an encouraging note of what the writer needs to work on if he likes the voice he sees. The writer learns and grows through the effort, both the practice in writing it, and finding out from someone with the money to publish the work what doesn't work for them.

The writer keeps sending it out, but while waiting on that one, he's already written another novel that is ready to go out. So he sends that one to the editor. The second novel is even better, because the writer has improved. But, still, there are too many things that the editor would have to fix, but the voice is stronger now, and compelling. So he writes another note back. Multiply this process for several editors at several publishing houses. With each novel, the writer gets closer to critical mass. So maybe on his fourth or fifth novel, his writing has improved significantly enough that despite the remaining issues the editor sees that needs fixing, he likes the voice so much that he's ready to go to bat for the novel with the sales team.

If the writer is putting out even one book every quarter, shoot, how about one every six months, then he's spent two years before getting his novel published. Meanwhile, the person that takes a year to crank out a novel because they spend so much time editing and polishing and rewriting based on input and critiques from a variety of people, not only are they likely as new writers to have their voice edited out by the time they get to sending it to an editor, but in the same time they are only on their second novel when our other author gets published. And because the voice is gone in their work, they only get back form rejections because the story didn't grab the editor's attention with a unique voice. So they never hear from the one who can buy their work, what was wrong with it. Instead, all they get is the input from other writers who are also not published, in many cases. Or an agent who acts more like a critique partner than an agent to negotiate your book deal, but also has never published anything (in many cases). And what feedback they do get, they use spending time rewriting the same story yet again, instead of using it to write something new, something better.

Granted, that is one scenario, and one can find the exceptions to that. But you're more likely to have that scenario than not. Maybe the numbers would be a bit different in various cases. Five years instead of two, etc. But the dynamic remains the same.

Point being, a new writer learns best by doing creative writing, not by doing critical rewriting. So you write something, learn from your mistakes, go onto the next story. Do that over and over again, until you start selling.

So, am I going to "dare to be bad"? I'm certainly eager to test drive that theory. I even have the perfect candidate with this last NaNo novel, because while it is a good story, I don't feel it is my best (but writers are said to be the worst judges of their own work). If I send it out and it sells, then it will confirm what I know in my brain, but am scared to do in my heart.

What about you? Would you dare to be bad and follow literally Heinlein's rule number three: You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order?

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