heinlein's rules, sexified 3: you must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order



warning: I had this whole master/slave thing going but abandoned it for reality: this rule is too important and needs to be beaten into the heads of the stubborn.

I'll tell you up front I'm an obsessive compulsive drafter. A misspelled word? I'm on it. A line of dialogue that needs to be planted in the previous chapter based on what I just wrote in this chapter? Scroll it back, baby.

I don't trust myself to remember to fix it. As evidenced by tomorrow, I'm not getting any younger. The old brain cells are fogged by motherhood, age, alcohol, and my hubbin's sexy voice. (he should be in radio; he just doesn't have the face for it). But srsly? Have you ever tried to fix a fucking mess of a manuscript?  I have. Never. Again. I do rolling revisions, which mean I go back and roll through my writing as I'm drafting, fixing stuff. I rock the rolling revisions. But only to a point. I have beta readers and editors, you see. I do what they say and move on with my life.

If you're in some sort of revising loop lasting a year or more... especially with no one else seeing the work...I hate to break it to you (lie: actually I LOVE to break it to you) there are only two reasons you need to revise a book fifty times.

1. You're a pussy. (More on that tomorrow)

2. You don't have the craft. (More on that now.)

Yeah, you read me right. If you're on draft fifteen with way more to do, you need to take a good hard look at why. Actually, I'd submit that if you're on draft FIVE with no end in sight, you need to take a good hard look at why.

Hey, man. I was there. I started the SENTINEL series. It sucked. I wrote on it for years. And then the lightbulb turned on and I realized I wasn't savvy enough on craft to do this fucker justice. SENTINEL is a big story; it's got tons of people and twists and manipulation and broken rules and side angles and other people doing stuff, and...all those technical terms I never use but I know what I mean so fuck you. I dropped it and wrote EXILE, which besides eventually changing the trope portal device, is still quite a lot the way I wrote it back then. Cuz I'd learned, you see! I could write fresh stuff that didn't entirely suck! And when it did suck, my critters told me and I fixed it! (That book went all the way through my crit group, start to finish.)

Can you learn from revising a mess? Um, well, yeah. You can learn from nearly drowning, too. What do you learn? Don't go in the deep water until you can swim.

You can't change Mr. Wrong, no matter how righteous he is in bed.

But you can learn a whole hell of a lot by writing something new. How do I know that? Cuz I did it, over and over, before I went back to SENTINEL. A couple three books. A couple dozen short stories. And then when did finally return to SENTINEL, I rewrote the whole damn thing from scratch.

So here's the rule: Stop. Revising.

Fix the glaring plot holes, run spell check, make sure your grammar isn't all wrong and stupid. And then start on rule #4, right quick-like.


Anonymous said...

I have a bad tendency to overcompensate. So, if ONCE I had a manuscript that I didn't revise enough, now I feel like it can't possibly have too much polish.

Rolling revisions slow me down seriously, but if it's bugging me, I'll take care of it right away. Another trick I've been doing lately is using comments to myself as I go (Like "Expand this to several paragraphs... show why this is true.) and I can go back later with a fresh mind.

It's the first round of edits after finishing a story where most of the magic happens for me. Seeing the words on the screen makes it much easier for me to see how they can be tweaked to make it sound how I want it to sound.

My biggest pet peeve? Friends who "edit" by changing a couple tiny things, then ask you to read the entire 70k word novel a third or fourth time to see how those tiny changes made a difference!

sex scenes at starbucks, said...

Heh, Amy, that is annoying!!

But I feel bad for people who revise the same bad book over and over and over and won't let it go. They just don't realize how much they can learn by moving on to something fresh!

Jenny Maloney said...

Yay! I want to hug you for this post.

(And your other Heinlein ones too...I LOVE these rules, they've been uber helpful for me.)

sex scenes at starbucks, said...

Aww, thanks, Jenny!

This one is tough love for writers.

Anonymous said...

Most excellent advice, Bets. Oh, and I'm using your "Mr. Wrong...righteous in bed" as my email quotation.

sex scenes at starbucks, said...

Heh, Renata! I'm honored!

sex scenes at starbucks, said...

Heh, Renata! I'm honored!

stacy said...

I think five drafts is about the maximum I'll give a piece before I give up on the notion that an idea has legs or that I'm just not good enough for that story yet. I've had stories I went back to years later, too, and finished or rewrote as a better writer.

Anonymous said...

When Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein were both working at the Naval Observitory during WWII, Isaac complained about the cost of paper, to make a fair copy to send out to the publisher. Heinlein said: "You mean you type it twice!!!?"
--William Brock

sex scenes at starbucks, said...

Heh. Hence the old return or discard option in the right hand corner of mss.

Giles Hash said...

That's a good rule. If I didn't have bills to pay (and the job that lets me pay them), I think I could bust out a first draft in two to three weeks, followed by a handful of revisions (by handful, I mean two or three places where I need to make a few changes, not a handful of passes at the entire manuscript). The bottleneck for time is my critique group since we meet every other week. And beta readers. Apparently they have jobs, too. And schoolwork.

Giles Hash said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter Dudley said...


I have a friend that drives me nuts. She writes BEAUTIFUL PROSE and has a great ear for story. But she just can't stop revising her first three chapters. She falls into reason #1, unfortunately. And it breaks my heart because she really does write beautifully.

I think there's a maturation process for most of us writers. Some are born great, of course. Others think they were born great but really just suck and don't know it. The rest of us have to slog through this maturation process. It goes a little like growing up:

1. You are proud of anything you produce because, well, you produced it.

2. You write something and believe it to be good. But it is only okay, really.

3. You write a few more somethings (or rewrite that something from #2 a few times), each time learning something new that makes you understand how crappy that thing in #2 really was.

4. You write a few truly good things, but you doubt how good they are because now you understand what "good" really is.

5. You cross that line between arrogance and confidence, and now you know that what you produce is good because you know what "good" is and you know how to produce it.

I'd say you're way past step #5. Unfortunately, the slush pile (and self-published books) is 90% of that crap from step #2. I think I finally hit #5 myself about a year ago. And I, like you, revise as I go for the most part.

Actually, I pre-revise. I'm always envisioning the next few scenes before I write the current scene, which means that I have fewer plot-changing discoveries down the line.

sex scenes at starbucks, said...

All good points, Peter!

Plotting and accepting my need to rolling revise changed the way I write. But I waver between thinking my words are crap and loving them. Wish I could find a steady middle.

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