Doing The Story Justice — Redux

My PerNoReMo moves forward, despite some major self-doubts earlier this month. To help me through the mire, I read some of my earlier posts, looking for inspiration. And one that I originally posted on 2 June 2012 reminded me why I’m rebuilding Death Out of Time and not sticking with my original version. I thought it was worth sharing again with readers. Rather than force you to make extra clicks, here are the highlights from that post.

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Doing The Story Justice

Some time ago, I realized writers spend more time editing and revising than we do laying out the initial story. That’s no surprise to those of you who have been at this a few years. If you’re just starting out, well, now you know.

Finishing the first draft is an incredible feeling. Wow. I wrote a novel. Woo hoo! Happy dances and high fives all around.

I don’t mean to burst anyone’s bubble who hasn’t gotten there yet. By all means, celebrate when you do. But now’s when the real work begins.

That’s right. You’re nowhere near ready to publish. Hey, if you’re Stephen King or another good writer and have somehow stumbled onto this post, one round of rewrites after you get your beta reader comments may be all you need. But most unpublished writers, like me, haven’t reached that level yet. We need multiple drafts, multiple reviews, and multiple rewrites.

For me, part of the repeated revision process is the desire to create a well-written book. I don’t want to be embarrassed by critical reviews pointing out all kinds of weaknesses—poorly developed characters, lame plot with multiple holes, passive voice, inconsistent POV, and so on.

But more importantly, I want to do the stories justice. I think the major plot ideas behind both my major WIPs are good ones. The Muse gave me wonderful stories to write about. I know they could be awesome books. In my mind, the main characters are interesting and approachable. I think readers could relate to them. But I have to bring that out in my writing.

Frankly, anyone can have a great idea for a novel. And most people, if they put their minds to it, could write one. But that doesn’t mean the book would be good. Many would-be writers couldn’t handle the work involved in getting the story right. That’s one reason everyone doesn’t write novels.

Can I do it? After several rounds of revisions, will I have a novel that is entertaining and well-written? I refuse to fall into the trap of revising forever and never publishing my books. That’s pointless. But when I decide to publish, will I have done the stories justice? Will I reach the point where I can honestly and accurately answer that question with a yes? I’ll only know the answer when the books are out there and I see if an audience develops. It’s a daunting thought.

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So, nearly 18 months later, here I am. Still revising. And when I finish this rebuild, I’m back with a first draft. If I’m growing as a writer, it will be a better first draft this time around. But at least two rounds of revisions await me then.

My PerNoWriMo has me writing nearly every day again, even if only three hundred words (some days more). That’s the discipline I need to regain if I’m going to get beyond rebuilding and revising and into polishing. That’s a hell of a lot of work—but the story deserves no less.

Fall is heading into winter. Some trees still have some colorful leaves, but you wouldn’t know it from the view from my office window.

48 thoughts on “Doing The Story Justice — Redux

  1. I hear everything you’re saying here (or everything you felt last summer). Rebuilding, though agonizing at times, can also be part of the fun of writing, and every rewrite makes a story stronger and helps us grow as writers. My most trusted critique partner once told me revisions should erase our writing footprints, leaving barely a trace of our original draft behind. I’ve found that to be the case in some of the work I consider my best: the latest draft is very different from the first. Still, sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever make it to the publishing stage of writing. Sometimes I wonder if I even want that. Right now I enjoy writing because it belongs to me. If I’m ever good enough to make it to that next level, will it start to feel like a job, rather than a joy? I go back and forth on this all the time.

    I always love your posts – you never fail to give me something to think about. Things are looking pretty different out the office window. I heard some messy weather is heading toward the eastern U.S. and may impact holiday travel. I’m glad that for once, it will miss Chicago. Happy Thanksgiving. xo

    • I’m still trying to get back to the “fun part” on the rebuild. ;) There was a huge letdown after thinking I was close to being finished with it, but then realizing those “minor fixes” weren’t so minor after all. And the only way I could make things work was to rebuild the story, nearly from scratch. So I’m really hoping I’m on the right track with this version. I think I am, but of course, I thought that before…. And while the story may center on time travel, I can’t go back and give my earlier self the final version!

      I want to enjoy writing, simply for the act of setting down a story I enjoy, whether or not anyone else would think it’s good. But an unexpected part of me also wants an audience, even if it’s a small one, to enjoy my writing, too. I’m not sure where that came from. The two sides “duke it out” sometimes, much to my chagrin. I’d rather they place nice and let me have fun with writing, no matter the outcome.

      We’ve lucked out so far and just have a very cold, steady rain. But no ice or snow. I guess there’s a chance of some before this wraps up tomorrow, but Thanksgiving Day should be dry, although cold! Some forecasters, though, are saying this could be the “worst” of our winter weather, which is predicted to be mild. If that’s true, I can’t complain too much! This beats those frigid, snowy northern Illinois winters, hands down! :)

  2. Writing requires such patience, doesn’t it? Sometimes, it feels like we’re getting nowhere. But then, suddenly, we look at our file and see the words have mounted, and the light at the end of the tunnel might just be visible after all. Bit by bit we crawl closer. Writing is the first thing I’ve done that really made me live day-to-day. I’ve always been an in-the-future sort of person, but with writing, maintaining that mindset is too frustrating. As someone who’s entering her fourth week of waiting to hear back from the first queried agent, I understand that all too well…

    Good luck with your revisions. Glad you’re making some progress.

    • Patience has never been one of my strong points. ;) My word count goals for this PerNoReMo have been met, but they were only 300-500 words per day for an average. Hardly NaNoWriMo numbers. But I also wanted to get more of the story line in place, and that is happening, too.

      I think we’re a lot alike, in a lot of ways—I’ve always been a future-oriented person, too. But I have to let go of that or else I’ll be someone who wants “to have written” a novel rather than someone who enjoys “writing” a novel.

      The too-early querying that I did for Summer at the Crossroads is still too painfully clear. I couldn’t decide which was worse—getting a “no thank you” right away or not until after several weeks. I can only imagine what the wait must be like for a full manuscript!

      Although it’s still too early to make a final call, I’m not sure I can handle that “pass” experience again. Maybe if late-round betas say the story is great, then I’ll consider querying. But if not, I may go the indie route….

      • 300-500 words per day is a good pace when you’re also working on the story line. Luckily, productivity isn’t in word-count alone.

        I can handle the rejection letters–in fact, I’m expecting them–but I just wish he’d hurry up about it. ;) After this agent, I’ll query more then one at a time. Otherwise I could spend a year getting through my list.

        • I would be bouncing off the walls by this point, driving myself crazy with questions like “Is it good that it’s taking longer? Does that mean he’s really enjoying it? Or hasn’t he gotten to it yet? Or gotten around to the stack of “no thank you” emails he sends out once a month? Or … well, you get the picture. ;)

  3. I think writers can truly call themselves writers when they are willing to go the distance. You have proven that you are a writer. It is not an easy road, and only another writer can understand that.

    With my redrafting, I haven’ t been able to keep track of word count, but I do know that I have been averaging about 10 pages a day. Sounds to me like your pace is very respectable, not too much where you’ll burn out, not too little where you feel like you are spinning your wheels.

    • It’s been said writing a book is like running a marathon, right? The distance between starting a story and finishing a good, polished version sure feels like it. That’s one reason I set the word count goals for this month at a lower level, like easing into an exercise program after years of sitting on the sideline. I’m hoping that will build up my “writing muscles” and I’ll be able to increase that word count at times. Even at 300 words a day, a 75,000-word draft could be done in 250 days—well under a year. So if I can find the way to slow but steady progress, I’ll be a happy writer.

      Word counts are tricky because if we go back and delete some words, down goes the total on the Scrivener counter. And yet we still wrote them! They should still count! ;)

  4. Yes, the end is just the beginning and around and around we go! A friend told me writing is really just revising. It definitely feels that way at this point, I know how you feel. It’s incredibly frustrating when it seems like we’ll never be done. But then the more we revise, the better the stories will be. At least I hope that’s true!

    • I would really be bummed if the stories weren’t better after the revisions. :) And I think/hope that as I get more stories under my belt, the fewer revisions the later ones will need. So maybe <Death Out of Time's sequel won’t need a rebuild or take as long to polish up. I suspect that would make one Madeleine O’Brien a lot happier!

  5. I wish I’d known about the amount of re-writing necessary when I started writing my novel. That would have prepared me psychologically. I was so naive that after celebrating the completion of my first draft, I made some copy edits and sent it out to several agents. Roundly rejected by all and now I see the rejections were well-deserved. Ahhh…why must some life lessons come so hard?
    So, good for you to keep on going and keep on believing in your story and characters. Just the fact that your plopping your butt in that seat each day and getting words out is inspiring. You’ll get there. I know you will.

    • Oh, I know the pain of that premature querying. I’m still not sure if I’ll be able to bring myself to try that route again when I have a manuscript that’s truly ready. We’ll have to see how things are at the time, I suppose. But, yes, that was definitely one tough lesson. And there’s no escaping some of them in life.

      Even when self-doubt is in full control, I know Madeleine and her story are good and could be popular. Writing it well, though, is the challenge before me. Much to my surprise, I haven’t given up, despite the difficulty of the work involved. That has been a most unexpected twist in my life!

  6. I relate entirely JM – currently on my one billionth draft and nowhere near ready to send off yet!!! Well, perhaps getting closer. I’ve learned so much from writing this book, I’m hoping the next one will happen more quickly. You’re right though, we could go on drafting forever into over-edit – important to recognise when we’re done. Then it’s time to put the feelers out! (ps my site seems to have been hijacked by hackers hence no post for a while – trying to fix!!!)

    • Oh, no, I hope you can get your site back soon—and unharmed! There are some attitudes and behaviors in life that I will never understand.

      I really hope the “first draft” of this rebuild will be head and shoulders beyond the first draft of the original version. And hopefully there will be fewer rounds of revisions needed to make it a good book. I don’t want to “revise it to death,” if that makes sense!

  7. “My PerNoWriMo has me writing nearly every day again, even if only three hundred words (some days more).” This is a great open conclusion to this post, JM, and I love everything it says. Discipline is key for any undertaking. We associate it with writing and revising because that’s our own art, but it holds true for any experience. Helping my father go through chemotherapy has really shown this to me. Willpower and determination are just as important as that igniting spark – perhaps, more important, in the long run.

    Your dedication will help you create and refine the best stories possible. I can already tell that, even without seeing a WIP or knowing your deep plots or characters. The drive you have just for your updates – and insights like the sentence I quote above – are damn powerful proof you will do this, and do it right.

    • I really lost that discipline early this year. When my self-confidence fled after the last round of beta comments on Summer at the Crossroads, it was all I could do to finish Meghan’s Buried Deeds. And while the idea for a novel for her took shape, I just couldn’t start writing it. Not only did I know it would require some major planning, I just didn’t have the drive to write, either. But slowly, the desire to write came back to me in late summer, and I’m still trying to nurture it carefully—no rushing headlong into the stories or trying to reach unrealistic word counts.

      I know some cancer survivors (including my mother) who have beaten all the odds—in large part due to a healthy dose of willpower and determination to kick that disease into oblivion. Our minds are amazing beasts that we often underestimate. I hope you and your family are staying strong in what has to be such a difficult time.

  8. Well said JM. Having an idea is great. Writing a first draft is a big accomplishment. But it’s just one of several steps along the author path. I was cutting my writing teeth with my first manuscript. I revised and revised because I was constantly learning how to tell a story better. Even now, I’m still learning. Revision is tough. I use a checklist from Margie Lawson to help focus me and make me feel like I am progressing. It’s not easy. But I do enjoy seeing my work improve. :)

    • Thanks, Kourtney! If we’re serious about writing, and that doesn’t have to include a desire to publish, I don’t think we ever stop learning how to do it better. That’s probably true for every creative endeavor, too. On top of that, there’s the potential to approach stories in different ways or to experiment with other genres. I keep meaning to check into those Margie Lawson packets, but I keep forgetting! This long weekend just might be the time to do it. :) Although, I’m also hoping to wrap up PerNoReMo on a high note….

      • Completely agree–sometimes I wish I could pull Six Train back and tinker some more. LOL. Exactly. They are amazing–more like at home workshops. Lots of homework but man does your writing improve with each week you work through her packets. Something for December/January maybe?

  9. JM, I so admire you for finishing! And thanks for this — this advice of just because you’ve finally finished the novel doesn’t mean you’re finished! It’s a big task and as you say, that’s why many people never finish. It is daunting and difficult when to cut those words that were so difficult to come up with in the first place. But you’re well on your way. Think of those of us who have yet to complete the novel. It is a huge project, but worth it. And you’re right, the more we write and listen and rewrite, the better we become. Thanks for passing along your knowledge and advice. Happy Thanksgiving!

    • My husband periodically reminds me that I did write and complete two novels, whether I’m rebuilding them or not. And that’s something I tend to forget—and undervalue when I do remember it. Since the first “finished” stories didn’t really make the grade, I tend to think they don’t count. But, really, they do. Most people never even get that far, so I should take pride in the fact that I did. Of course, I’m always afraid to feel too good about something because I think Fate will knock me down for it!

      Even when I’m banging my head against my desk or despairing that I’ll ever write anything worth reading, that Muse of mine keeps me going at it. I think I’m learning and getting better. Maybe slowly—I’m not quite as quick to learn new things as I was when I was in school—but I keep at it. And the enjoyment of writing for the sake of writing is beginning to come back. That has to be a good sign, right? ;)

      You have a great Thanksgiving, too!

  10. JM, I too wish I had known what to expect after the first draft is done. I’ve learned quickly (and partly by reading about the process from other writers – including you) how important it is to rewrite/redraft. I’m so excited for you that you have worked so hard this November and reached some of those writing goals. 300 – 500 a day is great! I’ve also been very excited that you decided to work on this story again. I’ve always thought the premise was solid and I can’t wait to read it!!

    Have a Happy Thanksgiving!!

    • Thanks, Arlene, I hope you had a great Thanksgiving, too! It’s so easy, when one is starting out, to think that the first draft of a novel is great as-is. But those who take the time to learn more about the craft soon discover the reality. And that’s one of the points on the journey that separates those who are serious about improving from those who aren’t.

      Last year, I thought I was done with large-scale revisions. But when the “small” problems refused to resolve themselves, I ultimately learned that I hadn’t gotten the story right—or done it justice. I honestly hope I’m on the right path with this version!

    • If we’re serious about improving our writing, whether or not we intend to publish, we need to edit, edit, edit. And sometimes, we need to start over. Having started over with this story, I think that means I’m serious about improving!

    • On good days, when I’ve gotten a second wind, I know I’m on a better track and getting closer to the end of the new first draft. Some days, the end still seems so far away. But if I can carry my PerNoReMo momentum through the upcoming months, I should get there. Then I have to be patient and set the story aside for a few weeks before I begin the second draft. Of course, I can use that time to work on Meghan’s novel or the rebuild of the original WIP…. One of the beautiful things about writing is that there is always another idea we can explore—if we’re willing to make the effort!

  11. Don’t we know that editing is a daunting task! You have captured the agony perfectly. But for me, your most important words were ‘I refuse to fall into the trap of revising forever and never publishing my books. That’s pointless.’ I couldn’t agree more. Yes, polish, fix the characters, the plot, the grammar, but at some point it’s got to end. Time to send it out. I recall meeting a writer at four successive years at a conference, and she was still revising and editing that same book. If it takes that long then the manuscript may not have legs. Time to start a new project.
    Best of luck with getting your book ready.

    • On bad days, I’m often frustrated by the knowledge that the idea for this story is a great one but I’m having so much difficulty getting that across through my words. I’ll have visions of reviews that read, “Somehow the author took a great idea and made it boring.” Those are the kinds of thoughts that can paralyze a writer and keep him/her forever revising. At some point, we have to realized that no matter how many drafts we write, test readers will always come back with comments that make us question some aspect of the story. We have to learn when to ignore those comments and send the story out into the world, either through self-publication, querying agents, or submitting to presses that accept unsolicited manuscripts.

  12. Pretend you’re a ’49-er gold miner. Willing to sit there in the cold and wet – forever shaking that pan back and forth – sorting out the gold from the rest. Takes a while, but effort pays off.
    With writing the “easy” part is throwing down the story, but if you want more of it, then you have to dress it and teach it how to dance for any hope of publishing it. Perfection… well maybe not expected, but good construction and solidly done details, characterization, and dialogue pretty much demanded. (and honestly, I don’t know if you ever are done with a manuscript….there always some little thing you think might have been better if….)
    Hang in there.

  13. If Pulitzer Prize and other award winning authors say they would make revisions to their books, then I suspect every writer would. I think it takes real skill to recognize when it’s time to stop nitpicking and get on with releasing the story to the world. But I knew this story needed a rebuild when I couldn’t fix some major problems. I think I have the right one now—if I can just get the words right and the correct supporting scenes for the main action. And the fact that I still want to write, even with the rebuild must say something about my dedication!

  14. Getting the first draft written is a great feeling, its the editing and re-drafting that can be agonising as you decide what to keep and what to delete. That is what makes a good book a great one! You have already achieved what most people haven’t: you’ve written a book! Now that is an achievement!! Looking forward to reading Death Out of Time in it’s entirety :D
    Well done JM!

    • Thank you for that reminder! On those days when I get down about my abilities, my husband tries to encourage me by telling me exactly that—I have written two books. Of course, I want them to be good enough that other people also enjoy them, so I can’t be satisfied yet with where I am. But I’ve learned from those earlier drafts, and I believe the rebuilds will be more likely to attract a larger audience.If I can keep my November momentum going, I should be in good shape for finishing this “new” first draft on schedule. :)

  15. I was listening to a panel of established science fiction writers at a Westercon a couple of years ago and one thing they agreed on was that the idea is the easy part. The hard part is writing it.

    Hang in there. I think you’re doing fine.

    • Thanks, Carol. :) I agree completely with the ideas being easy. Getting them right on the page is a heck of a lot harder. There are days when I push down my self-doubt far enough that I can say of some scenes, “This is not only better, it’s good.” Now to carry that through all of them….

    • Thanks, Scott! It would’ve been easier to stick with the original version. But there was no fixing the relationship issues or midstory lag/too much rehash that were bothering some readers. The basic story is still the same as you read. But I hope the new characters and subplots will really resonate with both you and other readers!

  16. After reading this post, I’m struck by what a wonderful logical mind you have. I think you’d be an excellent creative writing teacher– something you might consider seriously after your books are finished. Many people don’t realize the effort and discipline involved in the creative process: they think you just sit down and a finished product flows out. Not so! My oldest son is a songwriter and there are as many revisions to lyrics and music are there are rewrites to stories and books. The difference between those who succeed creatively and those who don’t is understanding the steps between point a and point z and not taking them 2 at a time!

    • Sometimes I think that logical mind does me in when it comes to creativity. ;) I did teach when I was in graduate school, and I got good evaluations, which was nice. Could I still do it as a more, shall we say, mature adult? Patience has never been my strong suit, and I think it grows even shorter in some areas as I grow older. ;)

      So your son is a songwriter? Honestly, I think it must be more difficult to sum up the ideas and words for a song than for a novel. I have 60,000 or more words to get my ideas across. Even though a song may deal with a more narrowly defined idea, condensing it down to fit a, say, 3 to 5 minute piece is hard! On top of that, the lyrics and music should blend together in a way that emphasizes the desired feelings from the listener. Definitely your son has the more difficult challenge! :)

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