Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 7

 One of the problems – and traps – of giving advice is that everyone writes differently.  Our brains are different, our thought processes and approaches to the world are all different, so why should our writing process be the same?  Some folk like to hash the entire story out in their brains beforehand, or talk it out, while yet others let it grow on the keyboard, following where the twists lead.  And some of us shift between those aspects, depending on the story.

No matter how you get there, what matters is that you get there.

But once the story is done, and we’ve passed it off to our editor, there comes a Very Special Time in the writer’s life: revisions.

I jokingly referred to this post as being “Writing and the Art of Zen Revisions,” mainly because for so many of us, revisions are done under an intense deadline, often while working on another project, balancing other demands on our time, forced to go back and look at something that we had thought (hoped) we were done with.  All that tends to equal stress.

Stress is good.  Stress gets us energized and off our backsides.  But it also makes us hyper-focus.  And that’s not good for revisions.

As I write this, I have pages of a manuscript – and my revision letter, marked up in several different colors of highlighter – scattered across my desk.  I’m taking apart the manuscript, guided by my editor’s comments, and putting it back together, bit by bit.

And in the doing so, I’m discovering something interesting.  I had no idea what I was actually writing about.

This isn’t a new revelation: every time I start a book, I have a picture in mind of what that book is.  When I finish the book, the picture usually has changed, either slightly or massively, depending on what happened during the writing (see earlier entry about writing your synopsis.  But it’s not until I walk away from the book for a while, start doing something else and let my brain relax its death-grip on the now-told story, that I actually understand what I’ve written.

That is, inside the story I was intentionally telling, there’s stuff I wasn’t aware of, filling in the cracks and making the story more three-dimensional, more meaningful.  Sometimes it’s  small details, sometimes it’s “okay I didn’t see that theme at all, before, that’s interesting…”

From talking to other writers, and the response to a number of editorial letters sent over the years, this seems to be a relatively widespread phenomena.   Not that we don’t know what we’ve written, but that we often don’t see the implications or undertones of our own work, caught up in the intensity of the writing.  Not because we lost control, but because we gave control up to the part of us that delves into our brain and gathers the material we need to tell stories in the first place.  I call it the lizard brain, some refer to it as the undermind, writer Jay Lake calls his “Fred…”  named or not, that part of our brain is – when the writing is going really well and we’re rocking it – in control.

The logical brain just comes in later to clean up.

This is why I think that revisions are so important – and why a writer should never, ever rush through them, but rather take time to breathe, to let what was done come to them before they change anything.  By not looking at them, in effect, we see them in a different light.

All this came into focus a bit more for me last week while at the Cézanne exhibit, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.  I was walking through the display, which showed all the studies in pencil and paint the artist had done to create three different full-sized paintings.  I was fascinated by what it said about the artist’s process, focusing on how many subtly different poses he did, how many changes he made in placement and light and expression…and then I looked at one of the full paintings, and suddenly I felt what he had been going for, the full range of expressions and emotions that had nothing to do with the individual parts, and everything to do with how they came together.  Not when I was thinking about the work, but when I was letting it affect me.

Revisions are like that.  Yes, you’re looking at the broken bits, sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter.  But it’s also the chance to see the larger picture, sense the impact of the whole – not only on the characters but on the readers.  In the quiet “oh” of understanding, you will understand what your story brings, and in that, understand how to bring those elements forward better, making the whole story stronger.

And you can’t do that if you’re too tightly wound. 



for Week 8, we’re going to Reader’s Choice.  You tell me what YOU worry about, and I’ll see if I can help….

Laura Anne Gilman is a former editor with Penguin/Putnam, and the author of more than a dozen novels, most recently the urban fantasy PACK OF LIES, and WEIGHT OF STONE, Book 2 of the Nebula-nominated Vineart War trilogy.  Her first collection, DRAGON VIRUS, will be published by Fairwood Press in Spring 2011.  For more info check her website, her BookView Cafe bookshelf, or follow her on Twitter (@LAGilman)  And yes, her nickname really is meerkat.


About Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne is a recovering editor-turned-novelist, with an Endeavor Award, a Nebula nomination, another Endeavor award nomination and a Washington State Book Award nomination under her belt. Her most recent series is the award-winning "Devil's West" trilogy, starting with SILVER ON THE ROAD, and her same-universe story collection, WEST WINDS' FOOL, AND OTHER STORIES OF THE DEVIL'S WEST. The novella GABRIEL'S ROAD was published by Book View Cafe on April 30th, 2019. Her Patreon, featuring original fiction, writing advice, and original Rants, is at Learn more at, where you can sign up for her quarterly newsletter.


Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 7 — 13 Comments

  1. In the heat of composition, I tend to forget the larger picture. Only in the rewrite do I get the chance to sit back and remember, “Oh yeah! The whole point of the story was that he was going to die in misery — I got lost in all the partying and champagne.”

  2. Brenda — Have you ever been working on the next project and suddenly thought “oh, right, I need to do X when the revisions come back” on the previous one? No particular trigger in the piece you’re working on, just the lizard brain scurrying through….

  3. Laura Anne, can I get a copy of this in pdf or other email-able form? I’d like to put it in my editing library to hand out at work. It says about revising a book many of the things I try to get across for revising a report but I keep getting the “that’s just you” response. Our guys are accountants forced to write up their findings for public consumption, so I am the only experience of a writer/editor that they have!

    I would send them to the blog, but we are security-blocked on all social media at work. Thanks!

  4. I worry about getting stuck. I have an idea to start a novel, but I worry I am going to hit a wall, and not be able to go forward–and worse, learn that I *can’t* go forward. And so the inertia of that inhibits my writing in the first place.

  5. Camille – My Evil Plan is to collect all the essays for BVC once I’ve finished (survived?), so I’d rather not send them out piecemeal….

    Paul – did you check out the earlier essay on not fearing the synopsis? That might help a little….

  6. >In the quiet “oh” of understanding, you will understand what your story brings, and in that, understand how to bring those elements forward better, making the whole story stronger.<

    This is my *favorite* moment during writing. The "aha" moment, when you suddenly (thanks, lizard brain), understand the purpose of the book. It never gets old.

  7. I love the moments, when I’m doing first pass revisions, where I discover that I’ve left cool little things in there that 1) I’d forgotten about, and 2) help move plot and theme forward. It’s one of the rare instances where I get to say I’m smarter than I thought.

    Conversely, there are those sentences where I recognize what I meant, but also recognize that I did not convey the sentiment in, like, human language.

  8. About Week 8 – How about that “choosing the best word” thing? What does that *mean*, or how do you *know*?

    I know it has something to do with style (another indefinable), but if I’ve got any feeling about it myself, it’s all instinct. And I know it’s not just trolling the thesaurus and picking “gulch” over “ravine” or “generous” versus “munificent.”

    Is it even possible (or advisable) to write a novel with no five-dollar words in it whatsoever?

  9. Oh sure. Consider Hemingway.

    LAG, either the lizard brain is always working or it’s never working. If someone could figure out a way to steer it we’d be in clover.