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bear by san

February 2017



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spies mfu illya all wet

and what we had don't mean a thing

Well, I'm not sure I can get a column out of techniques for revision or collaboration, because honestly there's not a lot to say about either unless I start making stuff up, but I can talk about them here a little bit.

There's this thing I say to people, over and over again, at conventions and workshops, until it stops having any meaning at all. If there were one piece of artistic advice I could leave the world, it would be this:

There are no rules. There are only techniques that work or don't work.

If you are a writer, people are going to try to sell you their books of rules. Some of these people may be the ones who make their living writing how-to-write books. Some of them may be successful authors who have discovered a set of techniques that work for them. Some of them may be opinionated blowhards, like myself.

Don't listen to any of them.

See, here's the thing. The only thing that matters about what you're doing is whether it works. If it doesn't work, then the only thing that matters it is either fixing it, or doing enough else right that it doesn't matter than you got some things wrong.

Storytelling is too hard--and to subjective--to do perfectly. There will always be trade-offs, things you sacrifice for other things. And there will always be things that aren't important to some writers--and readers--that are important to others.

So, I was asked about my revising process. I've talked about it in detail here before, with examples, and I'm honestly not sure how useful it is to anyone to go over it again. Besically, revising is the process of identifying the parts that don't work and fixing them as best you can--on a sentence level, on a paragraph level, on a meta level, on a story structure level. You fix the prose and the characterization and the plot and the theme, remove stray bits, add linking bits. Make sure the structure works. Take out or fix the confusing parts.

Some people have very careful and precise processes they go through for this work. (Holly Lisle has an essay on her site about her one-pass revision process.)

I don't. I do all sorts of things you aren't supposed to do: I revise as I go. I stop in the middle and go back and restructure the first third of the book. I write out of order. I revise out of order. When I do my final revision passes, I do them any which way. When I find something broken, I either fix it, or I leave myself a note to fix it later.

I suspect the question really is, how do you identify something broken? And that's a hard one.

The only answer I know is "experience."


The other question was, how do you collaborate?

And well, you just do. You write something and when you get bored or stuck, you send it to your collaborator. And they revise what you wrote and write their own bit, and when they get bored or stuck they send it to you. And you revise their revision and their new contribution and then write the next bit--

Until you have a story.

And while you are doing this you fire a bunch of emails back and forth brainstorming and sharing your brilliant ideas, and if you disagree about something, one of you caves.

And when you have a complete story, you do a few more revision passes and send it out.

I dunno. Does it have to be more complicated than that?


It seems to me that I get as much good advice out of reading published writers' journals as I have from most writing books, if not more.

There are still a handful of how-to books I keep around, like Terry Brooks' and Stephen King's...but not, mainly, for the advice. Both of those authors infuse such enthusiasm about writing into their works that when I'm feeling down on the craft (or my attempts at it), they always serve as shots in the arm.
See, I think calling anything "rules" is a bad idea, in that it makes people thing that these strictures must be followed. "Those are the rules" means "do it this way."

Do you honestly believe that most people consider "rules" to be "advice that usually works?"

Because I don't.
It's not a sense in which I'm familiar with the word being used, anyway.

Dictionary.com gives me...

1. a principle or regulation governing conduct, action, procedure, arrangement, etc.: the rules of chess.
2. the code of regulations observed by a religious order or congregation: the Franciscan rule.
3. the customary or normal circumstance, occurrence, manner, practice, quality, etc.: the rule rather than the exception.
4. control, government, or dominion: under the rule of a dictator.
5. tenure or conduct of reign or office: during the rule of George III.
6. a prescribed mathematical method for performing a calculation or solving a problem.
7. ruler (def. 2).
8. (initial capital letter) Astronomy. the constellation Norma.
9. Printing. a thin, type-high strip of metal, for printing a solid or decorative line or lines.
10. Law.
a. a formal order or direction made by a court, as for governing the procedure of the court (general rule) or for sending the case before a referee (special rule).
b. a legal principle.
c. a court order in a particular case.

Re: P.S.

Well, too many people say, "You must do this!" or "You must not do that!" (No first person! No omniscient! There must be a single protagonist who is sympathetic in the following manners!"

And that's just full of nonsense.

Re: P.S.

Good lord. You might accidentally do something innovative.
somehow, I would hope that it would be evident that I am using it in the sense of "law" rather than "customary practice," since that wouldn't make a lot of sense in context, would it?
I wouldn't say don't listen. If someone is looking for techniques to try, that's a good way to find them. It's the following them slavishly and feeling like a failure if they don't work for you that's the problem. Voice of experience here.

I agree completely about the rules thing and I wish advice givers would call their advice suggestions or techniques and be clear that they aren't offering up rules.

There are techniques of collaborating. In one case, we each had our tasks. She plotted, I drafted, she revised. In other cases, we take turns writing scenes, each of us having pov characters, and I revise/edit. My collaborating techniques vary depending on who I'm collaborating with.
Yes, exactly - the part about techniques that work and ones that don't. But for me at least, it's good to hear about other writers' techniques because I may be stuck in a rut and getting to take a look at a technique that works for someone else may help me find one that works for me.

As for the collaboration bit, that's pretty much what I was looking for. I've read of some partners where one person will right the entire first draft, others where it's more like what you describe - again, basically, I'm just trying to get a feel for what's out there.
"But for me at least, it's good to hear about other writers' techniques because I may be stuck in a rut..."

Holly Lisle's revision process fascinates me. I vow I'm going to try it...someday. Next book. Or maybe the one after. I really would just about sell my soul to be able to revise faster.

To Ariel's point, taking off from Lisle's system, rather than slavishly sticking to it, might help. I agree that you can't use a rule. A technique is useful.

PS. I got a writing rule quoted to me the other day. The irritating thing was, it's by a writer whose work I don't care about.

Rules are for people who don't understand how the system works.
Yeah, but... what does snrch mean?
Just what it sounds like. It's a snort of laughter.
I think of writing process techniques kinda like recipes -

Some people can make cinnamon buns. But the recipes may be slightly different, or drastically so.

The recipe someone has just isn't quite right for some reason - so she asks around to find out what recipes others are using so she can try them and see if she likes the results better.

Right now, I'm still in the process of trying to make my first cinnamon bun. I hope it's a good one, that's just the right consistency once it's baked, with lots of cinnamon (I like lots of spice) and gooey icing on top. The kind of cinnamon bun that makes you lick your fingers a lot.
alas, I don't use a recipe.
Musing on rules. It's hard to imagine a set that would be anywhere near universal.


I've found it valuable to let work sit awhile (allowing me to approach the work with a forgetfulness that might nearly match a reader's first impression).

I've found it valuable to do a work little on a project every day (keeping the back burner items bubbling).

I've discovered that the first day back from a layoff will always leave me wondering whether something has gone terribly wrong with what little creativity I possess.

I've found that writing things by hand can give me the sense of achieving something while leaving me with some of the most horrible prose I've ever recorded by the species.

I've found that it can be useful to let other people take a look at a piece (so long as their opinions don't override your own completely).

Oh. And writing in parks. That's terrible. You think you're going to escape the distractions of your own domestic space. But then there you are sitting in a park trying to write something when a flock of helicopters and a 17th century English merchant ship appeared before you. Bastards.

Perhaps these things could be rules. Avoid 17th c. English shipping. Do not hand write. Don't stop. But I'm not sure.

Handwriting is my best means of getting unstuck when I am stuck. *g*
It sounds as if the bottom line for revising is the same as for writing: Just sit down and do it.

Thanks for the post!

I <3 you.

I have been a member of writing communities for years, some of which have been worse than others about "the rules." Including one community where people spouted some really weird rules, like "You can only have one villain in a book."

Even some of the commonly used rules, like the ones about "wandering body parts," aren't rules; they're guidelines. Most readers aren't going to care that you used an adverb, or a form of "to be," or any of that crap. Will it make your story stronger?

Maybe. But you know what? I've seen way too many people in crit groups and writing communities hyper-focus on perfection according to the "rules" that they lost sight of their story. And they still aren't published, even though their critiquers are telling them they're doing everything right.

I know other folks that don't pay attention to the "rules" and have been lambasted by such critiquers that are published and doing quite well, thank you very much!

The rules are guidelines. Some of them have a good basis, but none of them are set in stone. There is a time and place in which to break them, and if you are anal retentive about following them, your story is going to suffer just as much as it would if you completely ignored them.