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Writer's Rules Revisited #8

This month has been crazy with the Redditgifts marketplace monopolizing a lot of my time. Shipping and customs forms are a pain, but it's a pain I'm glad to have. It's great to see my books flying to all corners of the globe at such an alarming rate.

But that's a bit of a sidetrack, we're here to talk about writing.

For those new around these parts, a brief explanation is in order. A long time ago I posted a list of rules and guidelines I've been collecting in my notebook over the years as a writer. I put together the list on the blog and it was fairly popular. (You can read the whole thing here) But there's only so much that comes across in a simple bullet point list. I wanted to expand on it and we've been doing it two or three at a time ever since.

If you want to catch up on the series:

You can read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 herePart 4 herePart 5 here, Part 6 here, and Part 7 here.

We're only going to go over a couple of rules here today, but I think they're important ones to keep in mind as you work, especially coming off the heels of National Novel Writing Month.

26) Never show people your rough draft. Show people your fifth draft and tell them it's your rough draft.

Your first draft is a mess. You might not even know it, but it is. 

You need time to get away from it and forget everything about it you'd written. Then come back to it. You'll find a thousand things wrong with it and have the perspective to fix them where necessary and have the ability to cut things without having knee-jerk reactions to what you felt when you wrote it. 

In that first draft, you're writing every word down that pops into your head that makes you excited about telling the story, but you haven't yet filtered what you actually need to make the story good. Sure, there will be things to salvage, but it's going to take a lot of work and objectivity. 

Showing it to someone that early in the game is going to do one of two things:

1) If whoever you've shown it to loves it and pats you on the back, you're in trouble. You've been given a reason to skip a lot of the hard work of revising because you've been convinced that what you've done is already good enough. That way leads to madness.


2) The person who reads it is going to hate it (probably rightfully so) and make a thousand suggestions about how to fix it and you'll lose all of your enthusiasm for the project.

Perhaps you might come to some middle ground, but I see the two situations above happening more often than not. There's a lot of hard work to be done and you can use the excitement of wanting to show your draft to someone else as an incentive to make sure that draft is readable. 

Writing takes lots of hard work and it's not just the toil of putting the words down on the page in the first place.  Give it at least one or two passes of revision before you show anyone and solicit input. Address what you think are problems that can be fixed and you'll get better feedback from that first round of readers. If your rough is riddled with errors (because no one writes 100% clean copy on their first draft no matter how hard they try) and story problems, many readers will hand you back notes full of stuff you already know is wrong. Fix all that before they see it and make the job of diagnosing your story problems that much easier on them.

If you're going to hand your piece to an editor, you should tell them that it's your rough draft so they give it that extra bit of leeway, but you want it honed and sharpened as much as you can get it before they see it. Editors want to find things to edit, whether it needs it or not. They're clutching a hammer and every problem is a nail. But they also need to be impressed. If you've worked hard enough on your draft and tell them it's your rough and it's that good, imagine how good they'll think it is after they've helped mold you and it into something better?

All of this leads me directly to the next rule:

27) There is no such thing as a final draft.

Once this process has begun, there is no turning back on it. You can revise endlessly. You will always have something you want to fix. There will always be a typo or a grammatical mistake.

You'll want to beat yourself up about it. Fortunately, in the age of digital publishing, some of the more egregious mistakes can be fixed without anyone noticing, but the problem becomes more acute and the pain sharpens when it makes it to print. As someone who's published hundreds of thousands of words in newsprint and in books, typos and errors can sting. Badly. But you have to simply let it go. You can't let it get to you.

I know some people that will endlessly revise their books and stories, never publishing a single one.

They're never happy with it and they're unwilling to stop revising it.

You need to understand that it's natural to want to revise endlessly. We're all constantly learning our craft and growing. If we don't find things about pieces we've written in the past to fix, it means we're not advancing or honing our craft, and that's a bad thing. You want to grow your style and the only way to do that is to freeze your work in the amber of publication and move on to the next piece.

That's what happens with any great writer. Look at Kurt Vonnegut's first book, Player Piano and compare it to Breakfast of Champions. The evolution he took as a writer of those years was astounding, and if you read his books chronologically, you can see that progression. If that progression was absent, if he didn't get better with each passing book, he wouldn't have become a better, more popular writer with each release.

I look back at Lost at the Con and, sure, there's still lots of stuff I love about it, but there are things in it I did that make me cringe. But I had to move on. I've written almost three books and countless short stories since Lost at the Con and reading everything that's come after, I can see that progression. I'm of the firm belief that the progression would not have come if I had spent my time spinning my wheels working on that elusive "final draft" of the first book.

Strive to do the best that you can in a specific moment of your life and your craft at a level of professionalism that is publishable. Then move on to the next thing and forget the last.  Challenge yourself with something new. It's the only way to grow, both as a writer and as a person.

So, yes, there's no such thing as a final draft, no document is perfect. But know that ahead of time and make it as good as you can in the timeframe you have allotted.

With both of these rules there's a balance to strike. You need to work hard enough on your manuscript that it's publishable, as free of errors as possible, and written to the best of your ability. But you need to put it down when it's hit that point so you can move on to the next project and continue on your arc of growth as a writer. It's a fine line and hopefully I've help lay out some criteria here to help you navigate it.

Be sure to check out Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4, Part 5,  Part 6, and Part 7If you want to check out the whole list, you can find it here. 

And while you're thinking about it, feel free to order a signed book from me, or check out my collection of work that's available digitally.


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