Key points: Your first draft, often, you're trying to find your story. You need to learn how to rewrite to greatness. Start with a high-level triage edit. What's broken and needs to be fixed? What needs to be added? What needs to be taken out? Fix the major problems first. If possible, set it aside and let it cool. Second, do a shotgun edit -- read through and look for anything that needs to be improved. Look for general problems. Third, take a character-by-character look to check consistency of voice, description, etc. You may have several more edits, but you also need to get fresh eyes on it. Let someone else read it. You may be surprised at what you left out.
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, episode N + 1, rewriting.
[Howard] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart. I'm Dan.
[Howard] I'm Howard. And joining us as special guests here in front of this live studio audience...
[Dave] Is Dave Wolverton.
[Tracy] And Tracy Hickman.
[Howard] Fantastic. And a live studio audience that will make some noise.
[Howard] There is a small digital recorder sitting in front of us whose little red lights all blinked and said, "Too loud, too loud."
[Dan] We've been joined by a crowd full of white noise. Thank you. We want to talk about rewriting today. We had a listener request for this topic. As it happens, Dave Wolverton has just taught a class on that topic at this conference. Dave, why don't we start with you? Tell us about rewriting. Where do you start?
[Dave] Sure. Well, first of all, I want people to recognize that when you write, your very first draft, generally, you're trying to find your story, very often. You're trying to discover your themes, you're trying to figure out who this character really is, and so you have a lot of little inconsistencies, you have places where the storyline may be weaker than you imagine, and even very fine writers do terrible first drafts in some cases. To give you an example, I have a friend who is a multiple Hugo and nebula award winner a few years ago. He sent me a copy of a manuscript. He said, "This is my first draft of this book. Take a look at it and tell me if there's anything you like in here." What he sent me was about 40 different openings to a novel. Written from different character viewpoints, in different settings, and different times. He was just trying to figure out, "What in the heck am I going to write about?" I said I like this one over here, and I like that one and that one. He didn't write about any of them. He ended up publishing the novel. It was a great novel. It was up for Hugos and Nebulas once again. But what you have to realize is that you need to learn how to rewrite to greatness. OK? The first step is to recognize that there are all sorts of things that you need to do. The very first thing that you need to do is the high-level edit. It's called triage editing. Triage editing occurs when you take a look at your manuscript and you say, "OK. What's broken? What needs to be fixed?" Maybe the first thing you look at is what needs to be added. What things did I discover about this character, or about his background, that I need to bring out more clearly? What high points do I have in this story? When I get to my climax in the story, what needs to happen that needs to take this over the top and make it even more emotionally powerful?
[Dan] This is by far my favorite phase of revision.
[Dave] It is. It's fun.
[Dave] Is doing this. It's lots of fun to look at a story and figure out... because you get to really play with it. You have all these characters in place, you get to move them around. The book that I just sold to Tor, The Hollow City, after a couple of drafts I realized, "Wait a minute. This needs an all-new character." So I added a completely new character in. Had to fit her into several scenes that had never... she wasn't in, and all-new scenes that were centered around her. It made the book work. But I had to take that high-level, kind of triage concept.
[Dave] You find out, what do you have to put in? What do you have to pull out? Do you have excess characters or excess scenes, or little false starts where you have to change them?
[Howard] I had excess boring. Oh, man. The bonus story that I'm working on right now for Schlock Mercenary, Emperor Pius Dei? The bonus story... I wanted to tell a Sherlock Holmes-ish story in a science fiction setting. There were a couple of characters that I thought would be really fun for this. The planet they were on seemed like a fun planet. I had a nice setting. Then I realized that fundamentally, in a comic book format, Sherlock Holmes is boring, because nothing blows up until the last page. I looked at this and looked at this and looked at this. It broke my heart. I spent three months delaying the release of a comic book that I really need to sell and make money off of. Finally, about a month ago, I said, "Oh. I just need to throw this whole story away, and start again." When I started again, I was able to use the Sherlock Holmes story, the interesting pieces... there are about four of them. I was able to use the interesting pieces as inserts in a story that has many, many more things exploding. But, yeah, this was triage. In this case, the triage was "I can't save this patient, but he will make an excellent organ donor."
[Dan] And now his story has exactly the right amount of boring.
[Howard] That's right.
[Dave] But that's your first level of edit. What do I have to throw out? What do I have to add in? What do I have to change? OK? There's no sense going in worrying about your wording and punctuation and things like that when you have those major, major problems that you've got to deal with. So, first step.
[Tracy] I was just thinking how very much like sculpting that is, at that point. It's... you get to the point in that first draft when you're just hammering on stone, trying to find some form and some shape in there. But when you get to that first pass at it on your manuscript, that is a really fun time, because now you can see the form taking shape and you can... it's... like taking a little bit away here and a little bit away their, much like Michelangelo said, "I just take away the parts that aren't the beautiful statue and that's how I come up with a statue." That's very much what that is, when you get to that point is... that is a fun part, because you do get to see the form start to take shape and can craft it and mold it in little bit in your hands. Then you get to subsequent edits and it gets kind of painful, but that first pass is an awful lot of fun. But you have to have that. There is no one, I'm convinced, there is no writer anywhere that does not need an edit. There is no writer in the world that doesn't need somebody to just pour red ink on the page. Truthfully, as writers, this is a piece of advice that I like to give, as writers you should love people who buy red ink by the gallon. That is because those editors who are going to take your child and bleed that child... those editors who crawl all over your manuscript and pour red ink on your manuscript are the only people who are going to see how bad you are as a writer. Because once they are done, it will be a polished, beautiful piece of work. That's what you want published. You want a beautiful piece of work published, and the editor is going to get you there. The only people who are going to know the mistakes that you made along the way, and the problems that you had writing [there, their, they're] are going to be those... is going to be that editor.
[Howard] Well, and the people following your twitter feed.
[Tracy] Well, yes.
[Dan] This is one of the great things about being in a writing group with Brandon Sanderson. Because... you all love his books, I know, they're great, I love them as well. I get to read his first drafts and they are just as awful as everyone else's. It's so great to see Way of Kings in its 5 inches of titanium binding or whatever and think, "He's so good, and he's so successful," and then read the first draft of his next one and you're like, "Really, dude?"
[Howard] As long as Brandon can't be with us, we might as well tell stories about him. The... he and I were at the gym, and he was talking about the pitch for Way of Kings, pitching it to Tom Doherty. He described the pitch to me. A little part of my brain said, "Really? Really? You're going to try and sell 10 books on that? Are you serious?" Then I read it, actually read the book, and realized that if that pitch that he gave me was an acorn, he managed through rewrite and refinement to grow a mighty space elevator.
[Dan] The best quote I've ever heard on this, and I think it was from Anita Stansfield. She said that your first draft is for what you want to say, but your final draft is for how you want to say it. Those are completely different things. You need to get from one to the other.
[Tracy] That reminds me, my favorite quote on that said that we write from the heat of our passion, but we edit to see the fire through the smoke.
[Dan] Very nice. We're going to break now for our book of the week.
[Howard] Our book of the week is Dragons of the Dwarven Depths, The Last Chronicles, Volume 1 by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. The Companions are back in this first volume which features an untold story from the War of the Lance. Tanis, Raistlan and Caranon, Sturm Brightblade, Tasslehoff and Flint Fireforge, old friends such as Riverwind and Goldmoon and Lorana, old enemies are here as the Companions encounter new adventures and new dangers in the very beginning months of the War of the Lance. Visit audiblepodcast.com/excuse to kick off a 14 day free trial, and you can have a listen to Dragons of the Dwarven Depths, The Last Chronicles, Volume 1.
[Howard] And we're back.
[Tracy] I was so moved by that.
[Howard] These ads, Tracy, are going to have a really hard time living up to...
[Dan] The joke's on him when we put something awesome in there, specifically designed to make that comment just insensible.
[Howard] Tracy, how many of the Dragonlance books are on audio right now?
[Tracy] Oh, a lot.
[Howard] OK. Well, I think we may have our pick.
[Dan] All right. So we have talked about high-level editing, triage editing. Dave, what is next?
[Dave] There's what I call my shotgun edit. That's where I simply go through, I do a read through, and I look for any...
[Howard] You will marry this book!
[Dave] This is where I go through, it's sort of a scatter gun approach, but I look... what is wrong here? Is there anything that just needs to be made better? It may be... that maybe I've got a character who I look at and I go, "OK, this character needs to be consistent in the way that he thinks." OK? I have him being angry about this one thing here, and being resolved with the problem later on. Then I go over here and I go, "You know, I'm using a lot of were's and was's," and "Oh my gosh, there's a dreaded ly adverb." So I go through very often and I start making lists of things that I want to change. Page 246, line 23, fix this. I might get 200 things in it. So for me, that is one level of edit. It's just going through it looking for general problems. Sort of giving it a fresh read at that point.
[Tracy] When I go through that edit, I do it on paper. I don't... I write it on the computer and I pound the keys...
[Howard] That's our audio engineer, Jordan Sanderson.
[Dan] That's why he didn't teach a class on turning your cell phone off in a panel.
[Howard] I'm going to step out.
[Tracy] While Howard is taking his phone call... When I do that edit, I always do it on paper. I write the book on the computer, and I go ahead and do so on the keyboard. But then I print it out. Because a book is a holistic thing. It's a whole thing. It's of a piece. You cannot deal with it just simply one screen at a time, in a linear form. So at that point, I always like to have the manuscript as a whole in front of me. Then I have to have my pen in hand and go through it, and, yes, bleed all over it. The wonderful thing about the physical nature of the book is that I can say, "Oh, here, chapter 8, yeah, this person probably I need here and shouldn't have died in chapter 5." So then I can go ahead and flip back to chapter 5 and make the note that, yes, note he's only wounded, OK, fine.
[Dan] But he has gangrene and will die later?
[Tracy] But he has gangrene and will probably die by chapter 18. But you have to do this, and you have to deal with the book as a whole. The best way to do that for me at least is on paper. To have it physically in my hand. Then I can go back through and make those changes on the document in the computer. But I need to deal with the text as a whole.
[Dave] I'm the same way. One of the things that I do at that point is for example, I will take a chapter-by-chapter breakdown and I'll tell who my point of view character is and I'll put them in one color, and who the other characters are that appear, and put them in other colors, so that I can see visually, make sure I don't have a character who's dropping out, for example. Or a character who's taking too much time in the novel, all of a sudden.
[Tracy] You can visually see it?
[Dave] I can visually see it, yes. There's a couple of different ways to visually look at it.
[Dan] Now, this level of editing, at least for me, I always like to give several weeks, if not a couple of months, while I'm working on some other project before I come back and do this shotgun edit. Because as it is, I look at it and it's still too fresh in my head, and I think, "Well, this? Of course, I don't need to edit it. It's wonderful. I just finished writing it." If I come back later, I can see all of the glaring wounds and horrible things that are wrong with it. OK, so...
[Tracy] It's important that you let the text cool.
[Dave] Yep. Let the text cool.
[Tracy] Yeah, it has to set up. Like your Jell-O molds, you've got to leave it in the fridge for a while before it can actually do anything.
[Dan] All right. Is there another level of revision after this one?
[Dave] For me there are. There's a couple of things that I look at. I might look very closely, for example, at the voices of my characters. Because when I start writing a novel, very often the character is kind of not very firm in my mind. They grow, they change a little bit. So for me, I want to make sure that my characters voices consistent and that their dialogue tags are consistent or if I've got tags about the way that they look, that they're consistent. Their hair color, their eye color. So I go through and onto search for the name of Miranna, for example, in my book, and make sure that she has the same voice, the same kind of... that her character arc is growing and that type of thing. So I do a character-by-character edit. OK?
[Dan] OK. So as a question, everyone here on the panel, how many edits does a... how many different states of revision does a typical book go through for you?
[Dave] For me, six.
[Dan] I think I'm about the same, six or seven.
[Dave] Six is sort of my minimum, sometimes eight or nine, depending on how many times I want to go through it.
[Tracy] Three. I get bored. However, I also do things like send it down to my parents to have them read through it to find the grammatic errors. They've always been really good at pointing out things when I've done them wrong.
[Dave] That's a good point, though, because one of the steps of editing is to get it away from you and start getting fresh eyes on it, getting fresh viewpoints on it. Usually, after I've made my first couple of edits, my triage and shotgun, I'm ready to send it out and start getting real people crabbing about my mistakes, so that I can say, "Oh, yeah. I kind of wondered about that. It doesn't work, I guess."
[Tracy] We all have a blindness for our own text, too. When we look at it, we think it's on the page. We're just sure we've written it. When it really just played out in our head. It's important that you have somebody who doesn't have the familiarity that you do with this story to actually point out the fact that, "No, you didn't put that scene in that you thought you had and that you loved so much." That it is missing. So you need that extra set of eyes, that fresh set of eyes on something that you do.
[Dan] All right. Howard, I don't want to do a revision episode without giving you a chance to say your catchphrase, so...
[Howard] Luxury! OK. I mentioned the bonus story earlier where I actually had the great misfortune of discovering I was trying to tell the wrong story, after I had already... AFTER I had already drawn some pictures! I hate throwing away art. But... I do, because they were the wrong pictures and it was the wrong story. But for the most part, I outline just well enough that I can discovery write my way from beginning to about two thirds through the middle without having to throw anything out, and then I... there is no rewrite. There's just a strong outline, and I'm a genius. But I make a lot of mistakes. I look back at things that I've written and I think, "You know what? It sure would be nice if I could go back and just fix that character right there, because that's... I never would've put that in, if I'd known where this book was actually going to end up." Being read by human beings.
[Dan] All right. Well, I think that we are done with this episode. So this time, we're going to throw the surprise writing prompt at Dave.
[Dave] OK. The writing prompt this week will have to do with rewriting. I want you to take the climax of your story and really look at it. Say, "Do I have all the necessary scenes leading up to this climax to create it so that it's emotionally powerful? What did I leave out?" Find out what you left out of your story. You've almost always left something out.
[Dan] All right. You are out of excuses, now go write.