Rewriting Treadmills: Traditional Publishing versus E-Publishing

Everybody knows at least one writer who edits the same story for years.  The material is never good enough, the author is afraid to send it to editors, the author desperately wants to become the next JK Rowling or Stephen King.  If everything is rock-solid perfect, or so the author thinks, then it’s a no-brainer that the novel or story will sell to a top market, hence establishing the author as a Big Name who earns Big Bucks.

These are myths that turn writers into hamsters on treadmills, rewriting the same material over and over again.

“If I take one more writing workshop, I’ll finally know how to fix the manuscript so it sells.”

“If I rewrite the first chapter just a few more times, I’ll land a great agent, who will sell the novel to a top publisher.”

Nine months and three rewrites later, nothing changes.  Then ten years go by.

If you’re constantly working on the same short story or novel, you might consider changing your approach to writing.  Break free from the rewriting paradigm that’s paralyzing your potential, not to mention your fun.

Yes, edit your own material.  Yes, set it aside until you can read it “cold” – assuming deadlines don’t force you to edit it more quickly.  However, know when to get off the treadmill and move on.

I never dreamed of becoming a Big Name who earned Big Bucks.  I wasn’t into the whole “get famous as an author” mentality.  In fact, I wanted to remain anonymous.  My byline on a printed story was like exposing my raw nerve endings to strangers.  Fiction was close to my heart.  It was personal and revealing.

However, I wasn’t afraid to send stories to editors.  Even with a byline, I figured I could remain anonymous.  After all, nobody I knew read science fiction, fantasy, or horror, much less weird fiction.

Through some perversion of fate, I sold everything I wrote to professional-rate markets during my first year of submissions.  I quickly realized that anonymity was a dream.  The stories were slivers of my soul, the raw nerve endings were exposed, and I had to learn to toughen up.

When I finished a story, I moved to a new one and never looked back.  After my stories were published, I basically forgot about them because I was thinking about new stories and ideas.  Looking back was boring.  Looking forward was fun.  It was the immersion in the current project, the research into the next, the generation of new ideas, the craft of writing that propelled me forward.

Today, if I’m lucky enough to have a first reader, I’ll incorporate suggestions that make sense to me and ignore the rest.  I don’t mind rewriting, and I always edit my work.

However, if I find myself on a rewriting hamster treadmill, I’ll leap off and work on something new.  You see, writing has to be fun.  It has to give you a rush.

Here’s what I’ve learned over the years:

Rule #1:  It’s your work.  Be true to yourself.  Filter other people’s suggestions and use only what makes sense to you.

Caveat for Traditional Publishing World (otherwise known as “publishers who pay advances so writers can afford to eat”):  Keep your editor happy.  Take his comments very seriously.  Assume he understands your genre and knows what he’s doing.  He’s your boss.

Caveat for E-Publishing World (otherwise known as “e-publishers who pay next to nothing and take all your rights”):  E-publishers who don’t pay you have no right to work you fulltime for a year for $0.00.  Move on.  E-publish the material yourself.  You’ll make more money without the headaches, and you’ll keep your e-rights and your sanity.

Rule #2:  You can’t make all the people happy all the time.

Rule #3:  Do your best job on the story, rewrite it until you’re happy with it, then send it out (or e-publish it yourself) and move on.

Rule #4:  Write on a schedule as if it’s a “real” job.  Try to write every day.  If you need space from writing, take as long as you need, but when you return, stick to the schedule.

Rule #5:  Chill as much as possible.  Let your brain float.  Daydream.  People might say that you’re goofing off or screwing around, but ideas come from watching raindrops and birds, looking at your ugly toes, walking in the woods, following ants, etc.

Rule #6:  Read a lot and in a wide variety of genres and subjects.  You’d be surprised how many new authors scoff at this idea, and yet, it’s extremely important.

Rule #7:  Study how your favorite authors structure material:  novel outlines, paragraph structures, grammar.  Play with your craft and find your own voice, tone, and style.  This is how you’ll have fun.  Which brings me to…

Rule #8:  Always have fun with your writing.  If a project ceases to be fun — for example, if you’re on the hamster rewriting treadmill — stop and write something else.

In today’s e-publishing world, writers go so far as to rewrite the same book endlessly in hopes of signing what I call a “rape the writer” contract that might supply a $0-$100 advance and meager royalties.  If the e-book does well, the writer might earn a few hundred bucks, and in some genres, perhaps more.  If it doesn’t do particularly well, the e-publisher rapes the writer and makes a lot of money due to the nothing-advance meager-royalty clauses, and the writer gets nothing.

You see, the e-publisher has nothing to lose:  no print costs, no distribution costs, no marketing costs.  The writer, on the other hand, has everything to lose:  no income.  Be very careful.

Yes, edit your work, but submit it and then write new material.  Don’t be afraid to experiment.  Don’t be afraid of rejection.

Go for the rush.  After twenty years in publishing, I can tell you:  there is absolutely no other reason to write.

c. 2012 Lois Gresh


LOIS GRESH is the New York Times Best-Selling Author (6 times), Publishers Weekly Best-Selling Paperback Author, and Publishers Weekly Best-Selling Paperback Children’s Author of 27 books and 50 short stories. Her books have been published in approximately 20 languages. Current books are TERROR BY NUMBERS: A WALL STREET THRILLER (June 2012), ELDRITCH EVOLUTIONS (on the Preliminary HWA Bram Stoker Award Ballot for Best Fiction Collection of 2011), and THE HUNGER GAMES COMPANION (Nov 2011). She’s also editor of DARK FUSIONS: WHERE MONSTERS LURK (PS Publishing, 2013). Lois has received Bram Stoker Award, Nebula Award, Theodore Sturgeon Award, and International Horror Guild Award nominations for her work.

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Rewriting Treadmills: Traditional Publishing versus E-Publishing — 6 Comments

  1. My analogy is chewing gum. You can chew that gum for a long time, but after a while it loses all its flavor. Do not get it to that point. In workshops I can spot the work that has been workshopped over and over again. More detail! the first workshop suggests, so the detail goes in. Less detail! the next one says, so the work gets cut again. You cannot keep pingponging like this. At some point you’re not getting any more flavor out of it. Move on!

  2. When we’re learning to write, most of us need to practice the process of coming up with a story idea, developing it, and then completing it to the best of our ability. That means writing lots of different stories in different ways, exploring the elements of craft (voice, POV, pacing, scene construction, etc.). If all goes well and we do our work well, both concept and execution will improve with time. If all we ever do is endlessly rewrite an early story, we’re limiting ourselves to an undeveloped, unskilled foundational structure. To grow, we need to push the envelope — bigger, wilder, edgier, more challenging concepts.

  3. The other common complaint is that my idea is so stupendous, I Must Write It (and become the next Stephen King or J.K. Rowling). Fine. And if it doesn’t fly, stuff it in the trunk. That’s what a trunk is there for. The idea will not go away or get stale in there; it will stay like Snow White in her glass coffin, waiting in perfect beauty for its day. Leave it while you write other things, and get better. Come back to it in 20 years. That’s what Neil Gaiman did with THE GRAVEYARD BOOK. He had the idea many years ago, and recognized immediately that he wasn’t a good enough writer to write it — yet. So he kept it, and only went back to the idea recently. The novel won the Newbery last year.

  4. Being a published author is not for egotists or for people who crave fame and fortune! As you say, writing is a very personal business, and to make a living at it, the emphasis is on business. One cannot expect to survive in the business world if the product doesn’t hit the market.

    I’ve had books that I’ve had to rewrite several times before I found their essence. But to do that, they had to simmer for long periods of time in which I wrote a whole lot of other things and learned the craft I needed to come back to those books. It was that or learn “Want fries with that?”

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