Monday, June 29, 2009

The Need to Revise

Picture me in a room full of writers. Not too hard to imagine, right? I'm standing up and talking to a couple of women I've met before. Nothing too dramatic, just chitchat.

Behind me, three women are seated at a table and making plans. This conversation is fascinating, and I can't stop myself from eavesdropping a little. A writer, somewhat sad and apologetic, is explaining why she has been out of touch lately. She had a deadline and put herself on internet rationing until the book was finished. (That was the part that interested me. I keep threatening to do this to myself.)

Her friend tried to offer her some advice. "If you write a thousand words a day, that's 365,000 words a year. That's three and a half novels, every year."

"No, I can't write that fast," says the deadline author.

"It's only a thousand words. And that's just where you start." She's clearly warming up to her subject. "Bump it up to twelve hundred words a day, and you get a whole extra novel every year."

The deadline writer is demurring when a third writer chimes in. "Oh, but you write much faster than that. You told me you write 15 or 20 pages a day."

She sounds skeptical. "When I'm drafting. You're not leaving time for pre-writing or revisions."

"Don't need them," the first friend insists. "If you write this fast, straight through, the story will hold together by itself."

"And even if it doesn't, so what?" This is the second friend. "Your editor will tell you how to fix it. She's going to make you change things, anyway."

"Yeah, and by the time she reads it, you'll have something else ready to sell her, too," says the first one.

"Well, that might work for some people," the skeptic said. "But not for me. I need eight months to finish a book. At least. I don't want to send it to my editor until I've had a chance to really think it through and make it as good as I can."

I made a silent bet with myself that only the third skeptical writer was actually published. I didn't think the other two had ever had an real exposure to the publishing and editing process. Over the course of the event, I had the opportunity to meet all three of these women.

The deadline author had a string of credentials including magazine articles and more than ten novel releases. A solid midlist author with the potential to breakout. Authors like this are in danger of not getting enough editorial attention, and this woman was smart enough to know it.

The third writer, the one who was merely chiming in, has never sold a story. No surprise there.

The one advocating for a thousand words a day? Sold a pair of stories to one of those places that gives e-publishing a bad reputation. You know the kind of place I mean. They push their authors to sell them lots of stories because they make up for the low returns with high volume. Every book under the writer's bed gets a slot on the editorial calendar. These places convince their authors that they're building readership with each new release. (You sold six copies of your first book and nine of the second? Fifty percent increase! Woo hoo!) And these authors are rarely exposed to anything like a real, nitty-gritty, crawling-up-the-book's-butt-with-a-magnifying-glass kind of editing which they certainly need. Some of them don't even get basic copy editing.

Want to know why? Because many e-houses pay their editors in percentages. That's fine if the book sells in good numbers. Not so fine if it doesn't. Then the editors, too, have to make it up in volume, so they buy up lots of projects and push them through to publication as quickly as possible. (My house doesn't do this. Obviously. My turnaround time lately ought to prove that.)

In any event, if that's the kind of career you want, then by all means, write your words every day and submit them without scrutiny. I mean, each thousand-word segment will be fine, right? Because you're jumping into it with one deep breath. And when you kick for the surface as hard as you can, every day, day after day, you build up your muscles, right?

Right. It's absolutely true that many writers find this helps with their process. Most of the working writers I know have daily or weekly page goals, and they make those goals consistently. This is how they get to be working writers in the first place.

But they also know the difference between generating pages and generating good pages. And they know that when a writer is so close to her work, dealing with little bits each day, that she might not see the total picture. It's the forest and the trees. Each individual tree might look perfect. Step back to look at the forest, though, and a different landscape might emerge.

The moral of the story: Take the time to step back from your work and see it from another perspective, or obvious design flaws might make people think you're just dicking around.


(This picture comes via Smart Bitches from a blog called Garden Rant, which is one of my new faves. The comments are brilliant. Thanks to both blogs for giving me the perfect visual excuse to blog on the importance of stepping back from your masterpiece to give it a big picture review for global revisions, important even without penis plants, but so much better with them.)


Jean Wogaman said...

I've heard a lot of this kind of talk at conferences too. It explains a lot of the slush stories you read on agent blogs.

She who can't be named said...

Want to know why? Because many e-houses pay their editors in percentages. That's fine if the book sells in good numbers. Not so fine if it doesn't. Then the editors, too, have to make it up in volume, so they buy up lots of projects and push them through to publication as quickly as possible. (My house doesn't do this. Obviously. My turnaround time lately ought to prove that.)

*sigh* and this is why I want to join your company so badly. It sucks to work 100 hours on a book and see maybe $50 in royalties over the course of a year... And no matter how hard I try to convince myself not to, I can't do a half-assed job on any of my books. They all need my full attention and devotion.

But I so agree with you. I pretty much know if I see the word draft in the file name, I'm not getting past the first page. And I see that way too often.

JohnO said...

I totally agree. Your first draft is when you make it. Your subsequent DRAFTS (plural) are when you make it good.

That photo should absolutely be on this site:

Julie Harrington said...

When I'm in the flow of a story I can writing 15 pages in a day. But that's after a ton of mental thought about the book, character development, outlining, conflict scrutiny and on and on and on. *sigh* My dream is to write 3 books in a year. Maybe 4. It's doable. I know this. Physically. It's the prep part that always slows me down, especially when I can't put my finger on what's WRONG at the time. Gah! So the book is what it is and it takes me as long as it takes to get it done. Just ask my current WIP. LOL.


Anonymous said...

JohnO, it's sort of amazing-- there are websites for everything!

Anonymous said...

Interesting commentary on word count goals. Most often people talk about word count goals but not about quality. I know of someone who churns out a lot of writing each year and still can't find an agent. He's been able to get multiple books ePublished, which sounds great until you read the sample chapters. I look at the chapters and think, "If you took the time on this, you'd do better."

That being said, the short deadlines of publishers scare me. My last book took six years--but I was doing a lot of learning about story on it. My current WIP has taken almost two years now. I had set a deadline (date of a writer's conference), but missed it because I could not get the ending to work. I'm finally making progress, but I was hoping to be in the proofreading phase by now. And I felt like I've kicked and prodded this story along all the way just to get it done that fast! But I'm also not going to sacrifice quality just to make a word count.

Linda Adams said...

Great insights into spinning one's wheels versus actually getting somewhere...ala the turtle and the hare.

Edittorrent said...

Nameless, I feel for you. I really do. The competition for our last hire was intense. Lots of qualified, conscientious editors are looking for work now.

Jeanie, some of the slush subs make you wonder if people have ever read anything besides txtmsgs.

JT, I think that's a common process, though everyone's process is different. But some seem to let it stew for a while and then draft it in a big rush.

Garridon, fiction writing almost always has a long learning curve. It doesn't matter how fast you ride that curve. It only matters that you keep moving forward.


em said...

I am trying to stick to word count goals but some days are better than others when I am writing.

Jody W. and Meankitty said...

I like the idea of weekly wordcount goals more than I like the execution of them :). I am doing better now that I have the littlest kiddo in a mommy's day out sometimes. But I'd never send something in that I hadn't revised, either, unless it was for a bad fiction contest. And even then I'd probably revise it until it was as bad as it could be.

Genella deGrey said...

I try to put down a thousand words a day - but that doesn't mean all of them are keepers. ;)

Perhaps they are hiring at the Willie building. LOL I don't think I could drive up and park at that building every morning without dieing of laughter.

I'll bet they're fun to decorate around the holidays! LOL


Jami Gold said...

A long time ago, this blog did a survey on how many rounds of revisions we did. (I just got to it a week ago as I went back through EVERY post in this blog once I discovered it - so many great things here!) Anyway, insert sigh here, I've lost count on how many revisions I've done on my WIP (at least 20), but I know that every one of them is important and necessary because I recognize that I'm on that learning curve Teresa talked about. I really hope that book 2 will go much smoother... :)

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I want to live in that neighborhood.

And I want to spend at least an hour every afternoon on my couch, editing my own works. That landscaping would be great motivation!

Amanda Borenstadt said...

My husband's tired of seeing me with my nose in my manuscript. He asked me the other day, "What are you doing, memorizing it?"

Riley Murphy said...

Revision to me? I'd liken the process to Bugs Bunny having to get root canal done on his two front teeth. Painful, but necessary if he wants to eat.

Hey, speaking of painful. I wonder how the landscaper feels when he has to trim those suckers? Or, God forbid, chop one down:O!

Jeanne Ryan said...

My MS is the first thing the world will see of me as a writer. First impressions matter.

Why would you want the world, whether an agent, editor or reader, to see something that isn't your best? I don't send my kids to school wearing dirty clothes that don't match and have holes in them. Why would I do less with my MS?

It takes time, but Rome wasn't built in a day and Rome didn't have to worry about continuity and plot holes.


Edittorrent said...


I just showed my mom the picture, and she thoughtfully stared at it for a minute and then said, "Those bushes look like sabres."



Edittorrent said...

Jami G, I am in awe of your stamina. Every post? Wow. Even the silly ones? *g*


Leona said...

I love this post! I have word count goals (and no, I don't count the words I erase!) 5k day. But I also edit/revise almost everyday. I go back and read last chapter(s) worked on to help me get into the flow again, and I fix and problems found and (especially since recent posts) fix common errors I'm making.

Then there's the full revision, where you reread/rework the whole WIP at once because you found a plot hole.

I had to add a whole chapter and fix the intro to the next because I'd done way too much boring stuff without action.

*sigh* Wish I was so good I didn't need to fix it after first time.

I'm full of tongue in cheek today :)

Leona said...

PS Theresa....

I didn't get it either **grin** but my 18 yr old daughter cracked up...
I'm not that old, I'm an artist. I was actually looking at an "artistic perspective" to see what was wrong with the vanishing point LOL

Riley Murphy said...

LOL Theresa! Any chance your Mom writes romance? Sabres, lances - depending on age: bayonets?

Patience-please said...

I must be your mom's age. For a while, all I saw was lovely landscaping!

Jami Gold said...


Yes, even the silly ones. (Can you tell that I'm just a *bit* of a perfectionist? *snort*) Although I will admit that I didn't go through the comments for all of them. But I've learned so much from both of you that it was worth it. (I can now proudly say that I know what the heck a dangling participle is and how to fix it!)

Jami G

P.S. I have to keep restraining myself from addressing you and Alicia as "T&A"

Anonymous said...

Well and here I thought I was being such an old fuddy-dud for working so hard on my ms when see others just flying away with word counts! I thought there was something wrong with me. ;-)

I said this on another writer's blog (he brought up the quality vs. quantity) and I really believe for me it's simply the discipline of making myself do something on my novel every evening. Even if I don't plough through 1,000 words, I'm editing or checking for plot flaws. I guess that goes to the quality side of the tracks, and I'll just be slow.


Wes said...

Great pic! Is that the headquarters of Red Sage?

Anonymous said...

Arundhati Roy ("God of Small Things") said she revised two pages of her novel.

Is this possible???

Genella deGrey said...

Literally laughed OUT LOUD at your comment!
NICE one!

*While at the local nursery, I saw Theresa asking an attendant how big the plants would grow . . .