Tag Archives: Revision

Kill your darlings (and make sure they stay dead)


We all know variations of the “kill your darlings” quote, but there’s a companion to the quote I see almost as frequently. It can be boiled down to…

“Save your darlings for later. You never know when you might find a place for them.”

This seems like a hoarder’s mentality to me, an approach toward writing that assumes that everything you’ve ever written has a place somewhere. I believe this is objectively false.

There’s a popular notion that it takes 10,000 hours to be an expert at something. A writing variation that’s a favorite of mine converts that to “write as much as you are tall.” For me that would be a stack of paper 6’4″ tall. Considering that a ream of 500 sheets is about 2 inches and the standard manuscript page is 250 words, I need to write about 4.75 million words before I’m any good. Hopefully, that number is a bit absurd, but I think we can agree that getting good at writing takes time, practice, and well … writing.

I think a lot of ideas are like flowers. From the moment we cut them they have a set amount of freshness before they start to wither, die, and grow mold. I’m not saying that ideas can’t be timeless, but I think most of the things we write have a shelf life. If they make it to the end of a novel drafting process, then there’s a good chance they’ll survive for a long time. But if they’ve been cut out of a book, and stuffed in a drawer for later use, they may never find a place to fit in.

And that’s okay.

I wonder if this advice, to “save things for later,” is given to novice writers as a way to make cutting things out easier. It assumes something that I just don’t think is true for the passionate writer:

“You might run out of ideas.”

I’m more worried that I won’t have time to write all the books I want to write than I am about not knowing what to write next. In fact I’m pretty certain that no matter how many books I finish in a lifetime (I’m shooting for 30-40), I will always wish I had written more. At the very least, it makes sense that I would want to write books using some of my best ideas, and these are usually fundamentally different things than the “darling” moments in books that just make me smile.

What I’m writing now is a product of my life experiences and the writing I’ve done before. Because I’m changing as a writer, it can be hard to look back at something I’ve written ten years ago, five years ago, or even three years ago. The piece you’ve cut out is a time capsule of who you were as a writer when you wrote it. If you’re growing as an author, with time this fragment will seem less and less like your writing.

Share a drink or a last meal with these little bits of personal whimsy, then put them before the executioner’s ax. Revision can be ruthless, and it should be. If a moment doesn’t add to characterization, useful description, or moving the plot forward, then it probably needs to go. Being able to tell what is good and what is not is part of being a better writer, and that means throwing some things out completely.

But I do save every draft, every little thought, in notebooks and drawers for years (as do most authors). Tomorrow, I’ll talk a little about why, and how ideas can still be useful.


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Surreality Update

I’m a couple of weeks into what should be the final round of revisions on Surreality and am nearly half finished. I have a writing retreat scheduled for August 13-17, a rare five full time days of writing, so hopefully I will either be finished after that or very close. I’m really loving my new office, and a last critical piece of it arrived on Monday, my new coffee maker. Between that and the mini-fridge I’m ready for the long haul.

There are still many things to do, including the cover shoot and design, formatting for CreateSpace and KDP, writing acknowledgements, descriptions, metadata, etc, and coming up with some kind of a marketing plan. Yesterday I spent a considerable portion of my day considering page size and gutter margins. Still, I’m very excited and glad to have this book so close to out the door.

As you may have noticed The Sky Below updates have grown less frequent. That’s probably going to continue until Surreality revisions are complete and I have a road map for final release. I’m still enjoying The Sky Below project and want to finish it well. Thanks for your patience and understanding.

Like any author, I’m prone to distraction, and a little Googling of my book’s title turned up some interesting results. In addition to Surreality being my forthcoming technological mystery, it also happens to be a very geeky, very naughty, and decidedly NSFW web-comic by Caleb King. It’s also a creative Roleplaying communityHarry Potter fan-fiction, a collection of essays about New York, and a song by STS9.*

*I do not endorse or claim affiliation with any of these projects.

It’s been really nice to spend time working on this again, and to discuss the minutiae of sentence structure, word choice, and scene flow with another writer. Some of our discussions in the comments of my draft have been hilarious. I would reproduce them here, but I suspect the world doesn’t need to know just how geeky the two of us are. I’ve always been blessed with great editors who are willing to take the extra time to really talk something out rather than just hand me a draft and move on to the next author.

How are your WIP going?

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“Perfect is the enemy of the good”

Both professionally and as a writer I am bumping up against this aphorism in my current projects.

One of the things they tell you as a writer is to keep revising, keep changing, keep editing, keep making the book better. The same is true of software, though unlike writing often the process is keeping up with changes other people are making that affect your work (I’m looking at you Microsoft).

The first thing I learned as a professional programmer was the difference between the ideal perfect solution, and the practical, applicable, “quick and dirty” solution. On deadline you don’t have time to make flawless code. And truthfully flawless computer code is a lot like haiku’s: not very long and can only express a few things.

Writing is much the same way, especially if you want people to actually read your stuff. Eventually you have to reach the point where it is okay to put something out the door. If you’re constantly rewriting based on your evolving standards (changing user requirements) you will never deliver a product. This is not to say you should send something out that is half finished and buggy. Even though ebooks are becoming more like software in that you can push updates out to everyone who purchased them, you still have to deal with initial market impressions of you. If you become known for making crappy software, or writing crappy books, no amount of post-release revision is going to fix that. Then your only solution is re-branding (maybe a pen name).

So how do you know when something is done? Maybe it’s a fixed number of revisions, or even more practically a release deadline. Maybe it’s finding that fresh beta reader who hasn’t read a lick of the draft and hasn’t already formed impressions of it telling you they love your work. Whatever the case, sometimes you have to accept something is good, and will never be perfect.

How do you decide when something is done, and when it needs a few bug-fixes?

As a side note apparently the above phrase is commonly attributed to Voltaire though it has its origins in ideas from Aristotle and Confucious. Thank you Wikipedia.

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My (Current) Revision Process

It’s week three of revisions on Surreality, and so far the week has been off to a slow start. I’m planning a “makeup” writing session at 5:30am at Starbucks (and hour in the past by the time you read this) so I’m writing this post while the wife watches Bones.

Fellow revisionist Monsignor Buckley wrote yesterday about his revision process, so I thought today wouldn’t be a bad opportunity to talk (again) about mine.

It’s different with every book.

Heck, it’s different with every draft.

The fractal book followed a similar pattern to the revision process Brian was describing, though never with another blank canvas. This was in part due to the fact I was passing chapters back and forth with the little red haired girl. I’d finish a chapter, cut it out into a separate document, and merge in her changes, while making adjustments between the two drafts.

Much the same way congress drafts bills. *shudder*

Surreality’s official revision number is 3, though a more accurate term would be version. Like software Surreality has been through countless “builds”, not including the ones that created actual eBook files.

Believe it or not revision 1 was done entirely by hand, twice. Once by myself, and then again by my wife. Before the fractal book took me away from revisions of DM I revised about 150 pages of that draft as well, again by hand. I had this idea in my head that revising by hand made me see every word better, but it may have been more true that I was just killing trees.

This draft I have an eBook version of Surreality on both my Kindle and my Nook (so I don’t have to remember which one to use). I’m back to using the netbook fairly exclusively on the road. I’m copying nothing directly, so I’m retyping the entire draft which has roughly the same affect as making changes by hand (except it’s a little faster). Inevitably I make changes along the way, but they tend to be more organic, and hopefully fit the flow of the narrative better than trying to insert those sentences into fully formed existing paragraphs.

For some chapters it’s probably best to say this draft is “inspired by” the original text. Between changes of scenery, adjustments to characters and motivations, and just general patch work this draft will be a very different read from the previous draft. So far I think significantly better. Each writing session I read all or most of the previous day’s writing, fixing mistakes as I find them and often getting 50-100 words of my word count done before I’ve really gotten going (though other days I’ve cut almost as much).

I’ve also done a few test eBook versions of revision 3 as a little reward to myself, though Word 2003 is not as good of a source editor as 2007 so results have been a little inconsistent. I’ll probably have to try the “nuclear option” before final formatting. I’m intrigued by programs like Sigil so even though this book is just text, you may see a couple more formatting guides come out of me yet.

I think the 800-1000 word pace is working, though I expect for some sections I will go faster. Conversely, some of the new material has taken me hours to work on due to research and trying to create the best dialog possible. But I’m trying to keep the little progress bar moving most days, and even that little gold star of getting to update my progress makes me feel good about the day’s work.

I expect things will get even more interesting as the little red haired girl hands me back the first few chapters. That’s when we’ll know if this draft is better or not 🙂

What’s your current revision process? How have you changed it between books or even between weeks?

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Rewrite, Revise, Repeat

As you can see from the progress bar on the right I had a pretty decent first week of final revisions on Surreality. For those who aren’t word count inclined I’m done with two chapters out of twenty.

It hadn’t really hit me until I was a couple of days in that it has been a little while since I’ve been dealing with fiction. A month or so prior I did a complete reread of the book, taking notes on every chapter on changes I’d like to make, and on what I’d like to keep mostly untouched. But actually getting going took some doing.

This rewrite has a number of subtasks that require varying degrees of rewrite, reworking, or just touching up scenes. For starters I’m changing the main setting of the book from one city to another. I’m making tweaks to the mystery aspects of the story to make certain motivations clearer and to hopefully throw the reader down a couple of rabbit holes. And I’m removing references to a certain noir detective movie of the 30s and 40s but trying to maintain a noir feel to the work.

Here’s my one piece of writing advice learned from the first week of revision (and countless hours before this):

Nothing is sacred.

Put another way, you can change anything, and should feel free to do so with the important caveat that the change needs to actually make the story better. Now I have definitely experienced the phenomenon of tweaking a work repeatedly to keep it fresh for myself, even if it is already working. Sometimes random new ideas need to be poured into the next book and not the one you’re working on.

But in general I think it’s a good idea in revision to be open to the idea of significant changes, even in what you think will be your final draft. Otherwise, the book would already be ready to send out.

And I’ve been trying reading the book out loud to myself as I work. This is more effective at correcting mistakes and flow of dialog than I’d care to admit, though I have not always been a big fan of it. I think the main reason is that I don’t do a very good job of differentiating characters and narrative with my voice and so everything sounds to me kind of robotic even if the prose is great. I need to work on that if I want to read stories to my children (or record any audio books). It might get a bit tricky to read passages back to myself while the wife’s around (not because of her but because of me being a little self-conscious), but I’ve got a few tech tips I might share for turning your book into an audio book you can listen to anywhere.

I do think the slower pace, 800-1000 words a night, is helping. Partially I’m not up to my fighting weight when it comes to punching out prose in a matter of minutes. But more importantly writing a little less each night gives me time to really think about what I’m doing, even to correct work from the night before.

Let’s see how week two goes.

What’s your revision process?


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Dusting Off Old Stories

Unless everything you write is divinely inspired, breathed onto the page straight from your thoughts, you’ve probably got something sitting in a drawer.

These days that drawer is an old folder on a hard drive, a buried but not forgotten document of a project that once captured your imagination, and which perhaps someday you will bring into the light of day. What day we are waiting for can vary greatly. Sometimes we are waiting for the skill to tell a better story, other times we are waiting for a story’s moment to arrive, and sometimes we’re just exhausted, burned out from years of work with little payoff.

For me stories get put in a drawer not because I don’t love them, but because I only have a fixed amount of time to work, and I need to spend my efforts pretty ruthlessly on the projects I am passionate about, and that I can finish. I have rough drafts from two years ago or more that I realistically won’t be able to work on for at least another eight months. It bothers me, and those stories fill my thoughts often, but as I’ve been turning my attention to one of those works I’ve really come to appreciate the freedom that comes from a little distance.

My current project Surreality was first conceived shortly before my wife and I met, about seven years ago. Its first draft was finished shortly after we were married, and its revisions have been carried on in the midst of a cat running up on my porch on beggars night (and not leaving since), the marriages of several of my friends, and across at least four computers. But since about July 2011, during a summer of furious writing for the first draft of DM, Surreality quietly faded into the background, subsumed entirely by the fractal book, gone but not forgotten.

You can’t just dive back in to an old project. You need to warm up to it, get to know the world again, which in my case meant re-reading the current draft. Reading with an editor’s eye, or as close to an objective one as I can get, I could see the sections that were working, and more importantly those that weren’t.

We fight passionately sometimes about scenes, about characters, about clever lines we’ve written. We don’t like to think that our first idea is not our best idea, because so much of writing relies on instinct. We know where to carry the story forward, we know the next thing we need to say.

At least we do the best we can with the skill we have at the time.

But there’s a danger that we can get locked into the story as it is, without seeing how we can make it better, make it clearer, and still get across the point we were trying to make. Time spent in a drawer makes both writer and story more humble. What’s the worst that can happen if you change a chapter here or there? It can just go back to the drawer, but if the change makes the story better, it might just see the light of day. And you might be pleased to discover how much of the story still holds up.

After finishing reading my draft last week I’m writing an outline to plan my rewrites. I’ve been a guy pretty resistant to outlines, more of a fly by the seat of my pants writer. I know the destination, and a few of the stops along the way, but the rest is a mystery to me until I write it. I’m still trying to figure out if this is a good habit for rough drafts, but for this project anyway an outline seems warranted. It will help me to formalize what I’m keeping, and what I’m replacing, and hopefully serve as a bit of a spur to action.

I’ve taken pages of notes on what to cut, what to keep, and what to tweak. And best of all, I’ve been having new thoughts. I’m seeing the old characters in new lights, learning things I was unwilling or unable to learn years ago.

How have you revived old projects? What’s kept you from looking at a story for years?


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Removing “pink slime” from your novel

How do you recognize and remove “filler” from your novel?

I’ve hit a patch like this in my current draft. It’s not that the writing is especially bad (or at least not worse than anything else around it), but it doesn’t seem to do much to advance the plot or enrich the characters. Plus, it’s in the middle of a section of the book that my alpha readers thought went on too long. A temptation is to toss the whole passage out, but there might still be valuable bits to be saved. How do you identify what’s working and what’s not?

1) Does the passage advance the plot? – Does the passage reveal anything new about the situation your characters find themselves in? Does it introduce a new crisis that they must face? I’m working on an action story right now and one of the temptations is to throw my characters into crisis after crisis, then leave them to fiddle their way out. This led one of my alpha readers to comment that my book reads a little like a video game in places. Action can be one of the most exciting moments in a book, but good action needs good setup, and even a good action scene needs to pertain in someway to accomplishing a goal.

2) Does the passage grow your characters? –  Do the characters interact in a way that reveals more about themselves, their past or their relationship? Do their actions in the scene change the interaction in any way? A scene where two characters are having coffee might not do much to advance the plot, but it can illuminate how they communicate with one another, what they like to do to relax, and also provide a break from the action. It might be tempting to cut out these beats, but if they enrich your characters they might be worth saving.

3) Does the passage describe the environment, or explain a technical detail? – A large part of my current story takes place on a large spacecraft, adrift in space. The location of certain assets, the bridge, engineering, the main computer, and places to eat, factor into some of the decisions my characters have to make. Where possible I’m trying not to use the “techno-babble” approach to solving problems, which means the ship is governed by a set of rules, an interaction if systems, and a specific layout of decks. While I don’t want to take 50 pages to describe all of these in detail, I want the reader to understand where they are.

4) Does the passage show my work? – It aggravates me when characters are dumber than I am, or possesses knowledge that has been hidden from me. I want my reader to have the same understanding of the environment and the current situation as my characters do. Sometimes I cut a passage where a character is thinking about the crisis because I think it is redundant, but it may be the kind of review that’s helpful in putting the situation together for the reader. While novels aren’t TV, where you need to summarize what happened before the act break, it is still important that there be a sequence of actions, one action affecting the next. A story in which a character makes random decisions with no thought for what has happened would not be a very good one.

5) Why did I write this? – This is the broad question that encompasses the first four. If the reason was “I needed to write 1800 words today” then cut it.

6) Can I rewrite this? – Even if a passage has valuable qualities like the ones above, it may not be the best implementation. The details revealed, and the character interactions might all be valuable, but their current goal is flawed. Other sections can be sprinkled into parts of the novel that are working but need a little flavor. I’ve encountered this a couple of times in this draft, and extensively on my previous book.

7) Don’t be too ruthless – One value of alpha and beta readers is external feedback. We aren’t always the best judges of what people like about our work, and it never hurts to get a second opinion. The final decision is always yours, but input is incredibly valuable (and has already saved a large portion of the beginning of my book I was inclined to cut). And keep your old drafts around, even the ones you edited by hand. You never know when something might be useful.


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