Friday, April 22, 2011

Revising short stories Part IIb

So, now that the whole issue of revising/rewriting is on my mind (see blog post Part II), I just came across this: American science fiction writer Robert Heinlein's 5 Rules for Writers
Rule #1: You must write.
Rule #2: You must finish what you write.
Rule #3: You must never rewrite (unless to editorial demand, and then only if you agree)
Rule #4: You must mail what you finish.
Rule #5: You must keep the story in the mail until someone buys it.
Yes, Rule 3 jumped out at me! Anyway, one of the blogs that quotes these "rules" carries on to say:
That's it. So simple, so hard to do. The killer are all five rules.
#1 kills those who think they want to be a writer but just can never find the time.
#2 kills those writers who are so afraid of having anything finished.
#3 kills everyone because of the huge myth that rewriting is critical. (Myth fostered by universities and people who can't write a saleable word).
#4 kills every writer with any kind of fear.
#5 kills every writer who thinks that someone else's opinion is more important than their own. 
I find that quite fascinating. Especially, yes, Number 3. These rules were written in the 1940s, but I don't think anything has changed. Perhaps the "rewriting" myth has just become even stronger given the increase in academic creative writing courses? What does it mean "never rewrite"? Does he mean there is no such thing as a first draft, just a written story that's good or no good? Perhaps if we didn't spend so much time "working on" one story we would write much more and "hit" the target more often?

Robert J Sawyer explained Rule #3 in 1996 thus:
This is the one that got Heinlein in trouble with creative-writing teachers. Perhaps a more appropriate wording would have been, "Don't tinker endlessly with your story." You can spend forever modifying, revising, and polishing. There's an old saying that stories are never finished, only abandoned — learn to abandon yours. 

If you find your current revisions amount to restoring the work to the way it was at an earlier stage, then it's time to push the baby out of the nest.
And although many beginners don't believe it, Heinlein is right: if your story is close to publishable, editors will tell you what you have to do to make it salable. Some small-press magazines do this at length, but you'll also get advice from Analog, Asimov's, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

Lots of food for thought, for me at least. What does this say to you?


Marisa Birns said...

Always learn so much when I come over to your place. Love it here.

What this tells me is that I should kick #4 you mention to the curb.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

I think it it is mostly crap.
Unless all you want to do is get published at any cost, that is. Seems to me one of the costs here might be a loss of integrity. Both yours and the creation's.

Sometimes, sure, first drafts are close to 'publishable' - if that's all that's required. Reading round many mags, quality might be a moveable feast - and 'publishable' might just mean zilch. Any Tom Dick or Harry can call him (or her)self n editor, and require changes. OK - so what?

In the end, isn't it the writer who needs to feel, in their gut, that the changes are needed?

But sure, that's the purist speaking, and not the commercial writer.

jonathan pinnock said...

Interesting. I'd say out of all the stories that I've written that have been published or have won something, 80% are very close indeed to how I wrote them in the first place and only 20% have undergone significant revision. Of the rest, I have several that get revised constantly and still get nowhere (and, frankly, may never get anywhere). So I think there's a lot of truth in this. But that may just be the way I work. Your mileage may vary.

Dora Dee said...

First time I see these rules though I'm sure I've read them some time or other during my research phase, when I was reading article after article on how to write. I find them all to be on point. #3 is a bit much because my first drafts are not in any shape to be considered publishable. As I get better at the craft of writing though, I can tell when a story works and needs tweaks here and there and when it's time to move on because I've beaten the story to death. Sometimes I do have to go back and look at my first draft (I try not to delete any old files until I'm 100% sure) just to understand why I wrote the story in the first place. I'm at this crossroad with two of my stories now. That said, I know that I'm super critical of my work and what I've been doing lately is working like mad and submitting my stories to contests as soon as I finish them. If they get rejected, I revisit them (I don't dwell on them too long) and send them off to another publication. I learned the hard way: I had submitted one of my stories that my "inner critic" said was crap while my "inner writer" believe in and lo and behold it won an honorable mention.

Thanks Tania for a great post!

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Jon picks up on an important point, and that is the *degree* of revision. We don't have to completely rip apart a story, undo every scene - rewriting/revision can be a rather delicate process. It is with this writer - that's why I chimed with Jon's post.

It may take a writer ages to revise and correct a manuscript, and the result, to the untutored eye, a person just reading for entertainment, for example - might be very close to the first draft...when to the purist, it is changed hugely.

The tiniest of shifts, a comma or not, a para break, a line of white space, can have a huge effect on the piece. Its not just a case of different words, different plot, different structures.

Tania Hershman said...

Ha! I thought this would provoke a reaction, so I put it up and then switched the computer off for 24 hours and left you to it!

Marisa, you mean you shouldn't send stories out?

v - I expected some strong reactions to this! I don't quite understand it myself, I don't think this can be just aimed at science fiction writers. But I do like the explanation of Rule #3 that writers shouldn't tinker endlessly, there has to be a time to let go.

Jon, that's probably true of most of my stories too, but I feel that maybe all the tinkering made me see that the early version was the right one. who knows? This is all about me exploring this for myself, gathering in views (see Parts I &II) and seeing what might work for me. No clue, really!

Dora - wonderful about the honorable mention! Yes, not always wise to listen to that Inner Critic, but the question is, when is it wise? I don't know...

V - excellent points, all! Maybe what Heinlein meant by "rewriting" was just that, a major reworking, rather than those "tiny" shifts that can actually have such an effect. Maybe he preferred another word?

Vanessa Gebbie said...

My guess is, he is talking edits that change complete plot shifts. As opposed to the nuances. Is that a function of the genre he was working in? Maybe..

Vanessa Gebbie said...

And what would he have said to Carver, who apparently, never felt happy with a story, and changed things after ten years, sometimes. (Lish notwithstanding!)

Tania Hershman said...

V - what this demonstrates is that any kind of "rules" are generally unhelpful, doesn't it? This is what my previous two blogs were designed to illustrate, that there are no rules. I don't know why heinlein felt the need to declare these 5 rules, perhaps he was asked for them. But they are interesting food for thought, rather than some kind of gospel.

dan powell said...

I would agree with Sawyer's take on rule 3:

'If you find your current revisions amount to restoring the work to the way it was at an earlier stage, then it's time to push the baby out of the nest.'

This is exactly how I decide when something is ready. Once I get to the stage where I am taking things out only to put them back only to take them out again I know a story is as close to ready as it is ever going to be.

I would also agree, Tania, with your point about these kinds of rules with these kinds of rules only being helpful up to a point. No single set of advice is ever going to fit every type of writer out there.

It's yet another case of take what you need and leave the rest.

dan powell said...

Just read Chuck Wendig's excellent list of '25 Things Every Writer Should Know.' What I particularly like about this one is firstly, the completely unpretentious take on writing as a craft. Most notable (and most relevant to this post on rules) are his thoughts on writing advice:

'23. No Such Thing As Bad Writing Advice

There’s only: advice that works for you, and advice that doesn’t. It’s like going to Home Depot and trying to point out the “bad tools.” Rather, some tools work for the job. Most don’t. Be confident enough to know when a tool feels right in your hand, and when it might instead put out your eye.'

Thought that pretty much nails the usefulness of writing advice/writing rules.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Such great advice. Its such a hard thing, though, learning what is right for you as a writer, isn't it? When we are beginning (and later!) we listen to those who seem to hold the answers - believing them to have the keys to successful writing/editing/whatever.

It takes a long time to learn that these gurus never had our keys at all, not ours - just their own.