Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 26

by Laura Anne Gilman

Week 26.  Halfway through the year.  There are weeks I’m not sure I have anything more to say..and then someone goes and does or says something and I think “oh god, yeah…that.  People need to be told/reminded about that, so they don’t screw up, or dig themselves into an avoidable hole, or think that they’re the only ones this ever happened to…”

This week, we’re going to talk about revisions. And that old but useful cliche, writing-as-parenthood.

There is often a flurry of discussion – usually set off by someone saying “I’ve just finished xth draft” of a project – on how many drafts it takes to get a work into shape.

When discussing the pre-editorial version, there is no one ‘right’ answer.  You do whatever it takes, however many tries it takes. Like a child, you bring it up though the colic-y nights of infancy, potty training and the Terrible Twos, and the years when it’s constantly dashing off in all directions on unsteady legs, all the way into the stubbornly “I’m done” stage of adolescence, in all its gawky glory.  Draft Zero, I call it.  At that point, the bones are good and strong, the skin splotchy, its fashions sense regrettable and oh god, let’s not talk about its table manners.

You could hand that draft in to your editor, yes: but could you show your face in public for the shame, when someone else sees how it behaves?  For some, the answer is sure – your editor understands that teenagers are sometimes teenagers.  But that’s asking a lot of your editor, who after all has many visiting teenagers hanging out on her desk.  So you run it though another draft or two, or three (or four), straightening the teeth and clearing up the skin, teaching it a fashion sense appropriate to its body type, and end up with a respectable – perhaps even presentable – manuscript that you can trot out at neighborhood gatherings and family reunions without wincing.

And here, you think “I’m done.”  Submission Draft. Send it off to college (the editor) and let someone else knock the rough edges off.  Except that, if you’re a responsible writer, you’re not done, of course.

Unless your manuscript is desperate to hit the streets and get to work (a crash publication schedule, which is not a thing you wish on anyone), odds are that your baby will come home twice more, once for the copyedit (continuing the analogy, this would be sophomore year, when they discover they don’t know everything, and are flagged for errors) and that last summer between junior and senior year (those page proofs, almost an adult and aren’t you so proud and nervous?)

Each time, you revise.  You tweak and shape, smooth and polish.  At first you sem to be working on everything, and then less each time, more subtly, trying not to disturb what’s already been done, until it’s ready to stand on its own.

And then you’re done.

Except, deep inside, you’re not, of course.  Because no matter how proud you are of how it turned out, no matter how well you think you understand that the story need to stand on its own now, you still have this urge to fix, to fiddle, to tell it to stand up straight, to revise that one last detail….*

And here’s the thing: It’s okay to think this.  It’s normal to think this.  You’ve poured so much time and energy into a project that even when you have days that you’re heartily sick of it, you still think you should do One. More. Pass.

But you can’t.  It’s out of your hands and into final book form.  And now, finally, you’re done.

Let it go.

*and my beta reader, the parent of two, interjected here “and pray they don’t come home to live in your basement because they couldn’t find a job.”

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Coming up in Week 27:  A rose by any other name… is an iris

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 SF collection, DRAGON VIRUS, which SF Signal called “amazingly evocative….a potent ride through a changing future, was published by Fairwood Press in June 2011.  For more info check her website, her BookView Cafebookshelf, or follow her on Twitter (@LAGilman)  And yes, her nickname really ismeerkat.

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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 https://www.patreon.com/LAGilman Learn more at www.lauraannegilman.net, where you can sign up for her quarterly newsletter.

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Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 26 — 8 Comments

  1. Sometimes writers just can’t quit. The story is told of John Irving, author of THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP. A best seller, made into a movie starring Robin Williams — you would think it would be -done-, right? Irving was spotted reading aloud to his children from GARP. (Suitable for the little ones? a separate question!) It was the mass market paperback edition. And he was -holding a pencil- and -making corrections-.

  2. Brenda – well, there are always revised editions/errata. I did leave that out…. (so few of us ever get the chance to get a new edition, these days – the wormy can of digital updates makes me cry with exhaustion)

  3. “Perfect is the enemy of the good”

    We can’t all be Gustave Flaubert, who took years to write and rewrite and revise his books. And even then, I am willing to bet there were typos and mistakes in his final draft…

  4. Nine and ninety ways, remember. The great Gene Wolfe goes through ten rewrites, and then he feels he has a First Draft and can really buckle down to it.

  5. I’ve known writers who send rough drafts to their editors because that’s the relationship; the editing process includes orthopedic surgery. Not me, although I’ve had to do major chop/rearrange/completely-rewrite-sections on Submission Drafts.

    The Darkover collaborations have an additional special-circumstance stage, sort of Submission Draft sub-2, which is that they all go to the MZB LIterary Works Trust for approval before they go to my publisher. The Trust helps to ensure that the books are consistent with the previous body of work.

    As an anthology editor, I’ve had writers send me rough drafts to test whether that’s what I have in mind and are we on the right track. Then I don’t give line-edit level comments, I address overall issues (and offer gobs of enthusiasm). Most of the time, I already know these authors, so it’s a friendly give-and-take relationship.

  6. Brenda – yep, the multiple-drafts during the ‘teenaged stage’ is a thing of personal comfort and writing style. Some books benefit from it – and some people who revise overmuch hand in a book that reads ‘stale.’

    As always, knowing what works for you is the goal. But being unable to let go t’ain’t good for anyone.

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