Get Me Rewrite
Posted on February 20, 2004 Posted by John Scalzi
I’ve terrified Tamar with a comment I made in the Novel Postmortem thread, so it’s worth clarifying. In the comment thread for the entry, John Popa asked: “As an aspiring-to-be-published writer, I’m curious as to how much rewriting you expect from this point? How ‘done’ is this ‘done?'” My response, in part:
I rewrite only very rarely, mostly because I tend to resolve most of my writing issues during the initial writing. In some sense I think “re-writing” is an artifact of the days of typewriters, when it wasn’t easy or practical to rework material on the fly. With computers, it’s much simpler to makes changes as you go along.
This strikes Tamar as very wrong. While granting me props for my mad writing skillz (which I appreciate), Tamar not unjustifiably worries that I’m setting a bad example by eschewing rewrites, noting:
…it scares me to think of some writer out there taking his opinion to heart, someone like my friend, looking for validation and an outside justification to avoid the work that needs doing. The world already has too many bad, unedited novels.
I would agree that there are indeed too many bad, unedited novels out there (and too many bad edited ones, too, although that’s a different matter entirely), and I would also agree wholeheartedly that as a writer I’m probably a terrible example to follow. But that doesn’t surprise me in the least; I’ve always figured that was the case. Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be John Scalzi.
I also don’t want to single myself out as a writer who is just so good I don’t need to rewrite — I mean, I think I’m a pretty good writer, y’all, but off the top of my head I can think of quite a few I think are better than me. I have no idea what their philosophy on rewrite is. And it might be that after my editor reads the book, he’ll ship it back to me with a note that reads “Are you high? This is crap!” — a possibility which I note is even more realistic now, since last night I was rereading the book and I suspect my copy edit forgot to correct the name of one character changing from “Bob” to “Bill” about two-thirds of the way through. As they say: D’oh! (Note to aforementioned editor: It’s supposed to be “Bob Pope” all the way through. Please don’t hit me.)
Be that as it may, I don’t do rewrites — or more accurately, I haven’t done rewrites; I may do them in the future (never say never). Why haven’t I done rewrites? Mostly because I never have, ever (there’s an exception to this, which I will get to). Back in high school, I had a history teacher who would make us turn in our first drafts of papers along with our final drafts; I would write the paper and then write out a “first draft” outline based on what I’d written (suitably messed up so as to show “improvement” from the rough draft to the final). From this undoubtedly bad practice I’ve continued with a basic philosophy of things being done when I’m done writing them.
The only defense I can possibly offer for it is that it seems to work for me. My non-fiction books were sent in to editors as originally written, and were all generally well-regarded by the editors and reviewers (particularly the Universe book, which pleases me to no end). Old Man’s War, which sold to Tor, was essentially the first version of itself as well; I made some minor changes based on comments from a cadre of trusted beta testers, but nothing that qualifies as a true rewrite. The first short story I wrote for sale sold as an original edition (and to the first place I submitted. Whoo-hoo!). And with articles both for magazines and books, editors tell me (usually) one of the reasons they like working with me is that I turn in copy they don’t have to fiddle with all that much. That copy again tends to be the original text. In short, I have no objection to the concept of rewriting, I just haven’t had to. What I do works for me so far.
(The exception to this: Business writing, which is constantly rewritten to suit client needs, which are, more frequently than not, a moving, evolving and — one must say — capricious target. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ll finish something for a client, and they’ll say “Hey, this is great, but we’re changing the focus — can you rewrite?” My response: I get paid for business writing by the hour. Of course I can rewrite.)
I attribute not having to do a lot of rewrite to several factors, which include:
* Years working at a newspaper. You learn to write fast and reasonably good and in a manner which does not require substantial editing. Or your editors and copyeditors stab you to death and hang your corpse in the newsroom as a warning to the other staff writers.
* A relatively high personal crap detection system. I am, thank God, not under the illusion that everything I write is pure gold. I write a lot of crap. I just don’t (usually) let other people see it. Like every other writer in the universe I have a several trash bags full of stories, articles and meanderings that were strangled the very instant I realized how hideously misshapen they were. I don’t tend to spend any time trying to revive these creative abortions through rewriting; I tend to believe (and this is strictly as relates to my own writing) that rewriting these turds would merely end up with me having a highly polished turd on my hands. I don’t mind producing turds, which are a natural and healthy part of life. I just don’t want them to come out of my brain and through my fingertips.
* A relatively realistic assessment of my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. And complementary to that, a willingness to write to my strengths and distract people from my weaknesses through the use of hand gestures and shiny bits of foil while I work on those weaknesses offstage. This is not to say that I only write what I already know; that’d be stupid. But it means I’m generally happy to do things incrementally.
For The Android’s Dream, my big personal innovation is third-person storytelling and multiple storylines. Not a revolutionary advance in the genre of storytelling in general, but a useful and necessary step for me as a writer, and one I could take while still (hopefully) churning out a fun and readable story. I don’t know what the next step for me will be yet, although I have a few ideas. But I’ll guarantee that it’ll be a relatively small advance and that if it works well you won’t notice it because you’re enjoying the story I’ve written. If I do enough of these in tandem, several books down the road I’ll be a much better writer and hopefully will have built a following.
This does mean that there are things you won’t see me do, at least for a while. One of the reasons I love China Mieville’s writing, for example, is that it’s a style I simply cannot do. It doesn’t mean his style is inherently better or worse than mine (although I cheerfully allow at this juncture that of the two of us he is the better writer), merely that I can’t do it. Perhaps after a few more books under my belt, I can try something along that line. We’ll have to see.
* A stint as an editor. Which did two things for me: First, it made me appreciate the pain editors go through on a daily basis, and the pain I personally made them go through with some of my writing, thus forever after prompting me to respect the work they do for writers and to see them as a partner in the process rather than an enemy — and also to try to get them work they could work with (i.e., it added a significant boost to my personal crap detector). Second, it made me rather more aware of what works in writing and why — both in a general sense, and in the sense of my own personal tastes and inclinations.
I don’t say this makes me a fabulous editor of my own work; like any writer, I’m really close to what comes out of my head. I do say it makes me more sensitive to what’s working and what’s not as I write. Once you’ve wrenched your head into an editorial mindset, it stays with you, and that’s a damn useful thing. I will note that I think it is incredibly significant that I only started selling books after I spent time being an editor. Related to this:
* Years as a critic. I’ve spent countless hours watching and reading storytelling and then writing about how and why it works — or doesn’t. Most of this has involved movies, which I think has definitely rubbed off on my writing; when my fiction agent first read my work, he asked me if I had originally envisioned them as movies. The answer was no, but I could see why he thought that. If you spend a significant portion of your life looking at storytelling and having to make an opinion on it — and then having to explain that opinion to an audience — then you learn about structure and story and what works and what doesn’t (or at least what works and what doesn’t for you).
As an aside, I find that being a critic has also given me a tremendous confidence to write the stuff I know I like as a reader. As a critic, I’m not tremendously impressed with writing (or movies or music) that is intentionally opaque or difficult or obscure — none of which is necessarily a synonym for “challenging,” which good art often strives to be — and I also see the value in entertaining an audience for the simple sake of entertaining an audience (especially when I personally am entertained). So paradoxically, I think being a critic has made me less of a snob. This is good for me as a writer, because my novels are not, shall we say, high-fiber brain food at this point. I want them to be entertaining because I like to be entertained. I’m writing the books I’d want to read when I’m stuck in some airport hell, with a flight cancelled and nothing to do until they call my name for standby.
* Doing a buttload of rewrite in my head. I take marathon showers — we’re talking 45 minutes to an hour — not because I’m a filthy, filthy man (or not just because) but because I tend to get my best thinking done there. And why not? I mean, you’re just standing there. Why not think?
And what I tend to think about is: How the hell am I going to get myself out of the corner I’ve just written myself into? I spend a lot of time just standing there, going through plot scenarios in my head, chopping off story ideas that aren’t working, pumping up the ideas that are working and generally wrestling with a lot of the issues that I suspect other writers deal with on the written page. Much of this thinking relates to immediate writing issues, but I also use the time to think up big ideas and then let them accrete in my brain — stuff that has no immediate practical purpose for what I’m writing that day but which will come in handy perhaps later in the book or even in an entirely unrelated project.
I call this sort of thinking “gestating” with the allusion to pregnancy entirely intentional. With gestating thoughts I tend not to do anything with them until I know they’re ready. I gestated the idea of Old Man’s War for a couple of years until it became clear it was time to write it. I’ve got three or four big ideas gestating as we speak, and some are closer to popping out than others. There’s no point rushing any of them. And what the means is that when they’re ready to go, I’ve already lived with them for a long time. I think that cuts down the need to do a lot of rewriting to find the general shape of a story.
Now, having said all this, what will I do when my editors come back to me (as they inevitably will) and say: This part needs to be rewritten? Well, I’ll rewrite it, of course. I know that just like I know how to do my job, my editor knows his job, and we both want the book to do well. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not precious with my text. The words are words, not glistening jewels sparkling in the sunlight. Words are meant to do work. Things that work need to be told what to do and how to do it. Sometimes they’re not doing it right. I did my job getting the work to the editor in as good a shape as possible, but I’m well aware that this only the first step in making it ready for an audience.
Nor do I think I’ll never rewrite on my own. It’s entirely possible at one point or another something I write is going to need a rewrite — I’d be stupid not to do it. I might have some ego wrapped up in not having done rewrites (it is kind of an unusual thing), but I have rather more ego wrapped out in not writing terrible stuff. My ego will get over rewriting something. But if I wrote a crappy book and it escaped into the world, I’d have to live with that for a real long time. If the choice is between rewrite and releasing crap, get me rewrite.
Whatever Everyone Else is Saying