Friday, December 16, 2011

Writing and Rewriting

I have been remiss. This has been a long dry spell for the blog and I can only plead that I have been writing every day -- just not this.

I've been doing a lot of preliminary plot work for Conspiracy of Silence, the lead book for season two of Space 1889 and Beyond. I have been nearly consumed by a major rewite project I'll tell you about some day, but suffice it to say it is steampunk. Now I am getting started on my rewrite of the novel Baen Books has picked up (not steampunk). Since all the contracts are signed and exchanged, and the advance is deposited, I suppose it's okay to talk about it without tempting fate. I am not a superstitious guy, but even I hesitate to tempt fate. If harm seldoms come from it, good certainly never does.

The novel was originally titled Bird Song's End. I thought it was an okay title, but nothing special. Baen liked it even less than that and wanted a new one. After floundering around for a week or so, I came up with the title we both like:

How Dark The World Becomes

It is based on a quotation from Leo Tolstoy:

There is something in the human spirit which will survive and prevail, there is a tiny and brilliant light in the heart of a man that will not go out no matter how dark the world becomes.

So now I am rewriting. Rewriting is something just about every writer does differently, and it has a lot to do with approach. I like to get the first draft as close to what I'm aiming for as possible, but I know a lot of very good writers who just concentrate on getting something -- anything -- down on paper for a first draft and then do the bulk of their work in the rewrite. I'm more inclined to rewrite as I go, to double back and fix earlier passages to fit what I've written later, and so I do lots of small rewrites along the way. I've read authors advise against that, but it seems to work for me. If something different works better for them, that's fine.

I think the reason rewiting is so important is that it mirrors the way we learn the craft of writing. We write poorly, then we write better. I've read of people who sit down and write a brilliant novel their first time out of the starting gate, and do so in a matter of weeks. Are these folks the norm? I don't think so. In fact, my immediate reaction is more along the lines of, "Burn the witch!"

I believe that, for the vast majority of us, writing poorly is the essential first step toward writing well. If you are afraid to write because you fear your prose may not be that good, you will never get good. A Russian author (I forget who) once said the first million words we write are garbage, and it's a formula repeated often in the writing biz: be prepared to throw away your first million words. But first you need to write them. If you don't write those first million words of unremarkable prose, you will never get to the point where your prose makes people take notice.

So write. Then rewrite. Then rewrite again. Write poorly, and then make it better, but write.


  1. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell wrote that it takes 10,000 hours of hard work to become really good at anything. The idea was not original to him, and too strict an adherence is probably a mistake. But the idea is essentially the same as yours, Frank, and I think it is true to a substantial degree.

    Which suggests a corollary to me. To put that much effort into something, you'd better love what you're doing. Otherwise the journey is going to be a terrible burden, and likely will be abandoned before excellence is achieved.

  2. Mitch,
    I think that is absolutely true. I think someone whos wants "to be a writer" is almost certainly doomed to disappointment. But I think someone who wants to write, should write.