Friday, September 28, 2007


Writing fiction is almost always a process of successive approximation. In fact most of the goodness in most people's writing comes from rewriting.

One of the most valuable skills a writer can learn is how to rewrite aggressively. That is, how to go through a piece and make every word in every sentence in every paragraph justify its existence. If it's unnecessary, it comes out. If it doesn't convey exactly what you want to say, you need to change it. Write it and then rewrite it and rewrite it and rewrite it until it's as good as you can possibly make it.

This is a difficult concept for a lot of beginning writers. Our society teaches us to think of inspiration as golden and that we don't want to stifle our creativity. As is so often the case our society is, if not utterly wrong, then seriously misguided.

The hard fact is that we tend to try to substitute creativity for almost every other virtue in everything from art to business. However there are a lot of other factors which are at least as important as inspiration. One of them is the ability to work with that inspiration until it gives the very best results you can manage.

People who are overly concerned about stifling their creativity by reworking what they do are usually doomed to failure. In the case of writers they're typically not very creative either.

Of course the other, unstated, reason for the bias against rewriting is that rewriting is the pick-and-shovel labor of writing. It is unglamorous, hard work and often frustrating. It can ultimately be extremely satisfying, but that's frequently difficult to see at the time.

Now granted, some days it just flows. Everything that appears on your screen is golden and you wouldn't change a word of it. I'm here to tell you that such days are extremely rare. If you get one or two paragraphs like that in a day you're doing well.

The other characteristic of successful writers when is comes to rewriting is that they're ruthless about it, more ruthless than most other people are prepared to be in dealing with their prose.

Once, a number of years ago in an online discussion group, three of us edited a paragraph of fiction. One of us was a copy editor, one of us was a book editor and one of us (me) was a writer.

The book editor made a few changes that made the piece a little better. The copy writer made a few more changes and the result was even stronger.

As for the writer, I butchered it. I reduced the whole paragraph to two short sentences and it was a lot stronger for it.

The lesson is that as a writer you bear primary responsibility for writing and re-writing your work. You can't depend on other people to fix it for you.

People sometimes ask me how many rewrites I do. Depending on definition the answer is anything from 'none' to 'hundreds'. For me rewriting is an integral part of the process, not a separate step. Whenever I hit a flat spot, I stop creating prose and scroll back through what I've done so far, rewriting as I go. Similarly if I need to make major changes I tend to do them before I finish. I may not do a second draft as such, but by the time it leaves my hand every word in every pieces of fiction has been gone over multiple times.

Books on writing often warn beginning writers against the dangers of excessive rewriting. In my opinion such advice is misguided. First, the problem most writers have is that they don't rewrite enough. They leave their sculpture rough and unfinished because by the time they get to the end of the project they're so sick of it they just want it to be over.

The second reason is even more important. The problem with 'excessive' rewriting is not excess; it's quality. Bad rewriting is just as deadly as bad writing.

The mark of bad rewriting is change for the sake of change. In other words, the inability to critically evaluate what you're looking at and see what will make it better, as distinct from what will merely make it different.

Always, always, the question is "does this change make it better?" If you can't honestly say yes, then don't make the change. The exception is when you're taking things out. Because so much writing is overly verbose my instinct in considering a questionable cut is to make it. Similarly if the change makes the piece longer, I am very cautious about making it. I want to make sure that the added words will carry their weight in the piece.

This kind of critical thinking isn't always fun. In fact sometimes it smacks of strangling a baby in its cradle. But whether it's fun or not it's essential to produce a finished work of fiction.

Thursday, September 20, 2007


As most of you probably know by now, Robert Jordan, author of the "Wheel of Time" series, died recently. The saga had stretched on through 11 books and Jordan was as work on the 12th and last in the series at the time of his death.

While it probably isn't important to Jordan's legion of fans, the question such a record raises for a would-be writer is "what possesses someone to write a 12-book series of novels?"

Several years ago I shared an autograph table with Jordan at a Southern California science fiction convention and I asked him how the "Wheel of Time" had come to encompass so many books. The reason, he told me, was that he simply wasn't able to wrap up the story he wanted to tell. The series had originally been intended to be much smaller, but it kept growing as the plot kept expanding and mutating. He expressed a certain amount of frustration at this, despite the series' popularity because it kept him from working on other projects.

The truth is that no sane person sets out to write a 12-book series. (How many writers are eliminated by that qualification, sane, I'll leave as an exercise to the reader.) You aren't so much possessed to write a bunch of books set in the same universe using the same characters, it just happens. And it isn't necessarily a good thing.

Broadly speaking a multi-book series comes about in two ways. One of them is to plan out a series of books from the beginning, which is what Jordan did. (I gather he was originally thinking of it as a trilogy, but that's only an impression.) The other is to write a single book and just have the damn thing grow.

In my case, the Wiz series, about a computer programmer stuck in a world of high fantasy and low puns, was originally intended to be a single book. When I planned out "Wizard's Bane", I had no intention of writing any sequels. In fact the third book in my three-book deal with Baen was originally intended to be a modern horror novel about the ghost of Dracula visiting Cleveland -- which was the most horrifying thing I could think of at the time. That book never happened. Instead I did the second Wiz book "The Wizardry Compiled" and a series was launched. However in the course of writing the first book, and afterwards, I discovered why so many books become series - and why some series seem to go on far too long.

The reason is that both publishers and fans like series. They let the publishers compound their marketing expenditures by spreading the benefits out over several books. Fans like series because they want to read more about the characters and situations they enjoy.

So a series is a win all the way around? Not hardly. There are a lot of problems with series for everyone involved, writer, fans and publisher. In my opinion the science fiction or fantasy series is something that needs to be approached with both caution and restraint, especially by the writer.

The first thing to understand is that the series will only continue for as long as the publisher finds it profitable. If sales start to fall, the series is going to end abruptly.

This can be pretty traumatic for the writer. One fantasy author of my acquaintance had her series summarily canceled by the publisher at about book six. She was especially bitter about this because up until about book four the publisher had been encouraging her to lengthen the series and they'd worked out a verbal agreement for the series to run to nine books.

Based on the (non-binding) understanding with her editor, she had started working ahead and actually started writing portions of the last three books in the series. She'd invested a good deal of time and energy and she hated the fact that her readers would be left hanging by the abrupt termination. She had also been counting on the income from the series, although she wasn't foolish enough to spend the money before it arrived.

This last point probably takes a little explanation. Because of the way fiction is published. An author doesn't see income beyond the advance for about three years after he or she starts on a new book. Needless to say, the advance is never enough to live on for three years or so.

A smart author who is actually trying to make a living writing fiction (Okay, so that's an oxymoron) tries to have two or three books in various stages of completion, collecting at least one advance a year for signing a contract for a new book. The exception is an author who is working on a series, where all the books in the works are part of the series. So my acquaintance not only lost the expected immediate income, but her entire work schedule for the next several years was disrupted.

The thing that really made her mad was the books were still profitable. Sales on the last one were down, but it was still on track to earn out its advance. However her long-time editor had left in an editorial shakeup and there was apparently a new direction at the publisher and her stuff just didn't fit any more. So with sales down, she was cut off.

While the situation can be bad from the writer's standpoint, it can be even worse for the readers. For the readers, the problem is quality. Even if you've got a story arc completely worked out for the series, it is extremely difficult to keep the quality consistently high. In fact most series go wandering off in the weeds after two or three books.

This isn't so much that the author runs out of ideas, although that can happen, as it is hard to keep working to a consistently high level when you're working the same ground over and over. The fire goes out of the concept, you find yourself starting to repeat and the series goes into exhaustion.

The other thing that happens is that editorial attention tends to slack off in a successful series. This is a problem because nearly every writer can benefit from good, tight editing. However as a writer becomes more popular, editors are less willing to ‘interfere’ with the writer’s work. No matter how desperately it needs it. To see what I mean, compare the latest Tom Clancy novel to “The Hunt for Red October” or “Red Storm Rising.” Both those novels taught me a good deal about action writing. The latest Clancy novels can’t even hold my interest. They are sprawling, loose and in desperate need of good editing and being cut by at least a third.

What is worse, a series is usually contracted for several books out. That means you're not only meeting a deadline for one book, you're committed to deadlines for two or more with not much break between them. In general publishers want to see one or two books a year in a series. That puts extra strain on the writer.

The slipping quality is usually what causes series sales to fall off, which leads to the publisher canceling in mid-series. But that has an even worse effect on the writer's career. Poor books damage the market for the writer's other work. Readers, not unreasonably, base their opinion of a writer's work on the last thing they read. If you lose readers it's awfully hard to get them back.

For all that, it's awfully difficult for a writer to turn down a series deal. For as long as it lasts it means a certainty that's hard to find in the often-chaotic life of a writer.

Friday, September 14, 2007


Okay, I'm a wine slob. My palette for wine is pretty hopelessly under developed. To me a burgundy tastes good, but in a sour, alcoholic sort of way. I can't detect the nuances and undertones a connoisseur finds in a good wine. In fact I can barely tell the difference between the plonk that comes in a box and a bottle of an excellent vintage.

This is true in fiction as well. Some characters are naturally keener observers than others. This is natural, but it's something you have to consider when you put words in a character's mouth. What a character sees and reports about the world around him/her/it (because this is SF and fantasy after all) says nearly as much about the character as it does about the world.

(And how do you know which characters are keener observers than others? If you don't you need to back up a couple of steps and work some more on character development.)

That's because what a character reports is an important way of defining the character to the reader. Authorial summation ('he was a thug') is the weakest method of establishing character. Reader experience, including what the character reports, is much stronger. If you call someone a thug and then go on for pages about his aesthetic tastes you're sending the reader a mixed message. Unless you're doing it intentionally, say for purposes of dramatic irony or to illuminate complexities of the character's society or personality, this is a bad thing.

Keep in mind character-reported observations, like any observations, divide into two classes. There are experiences and there are classifications.

Experiences are what characters notice in the around around them. They are sense impressions and summaries thereof. Often even crude and stupid people can observe closely. A psycho mountain man with an IQ of 90 who's spent years holed up in the hills may be a keen observer and sensitive reporter of the world around him. In fact a mountain man, no matter how stupid or how crazy, is likely to have an intimate awareness of the wilderness. To take another example, incarcerated mental patients and prisoners are often very keen observers of their keepers and even subtle differences in the world within their walls.

Classification is based primarily on knowledge and experience. Even very smart, sophisticated characters are likely to fall short where what's being described is outside their experience. A 13-year-old fan of whatever is being observed is likely to be able to classify much more clearly.

An unsophisticated character might say that another character is driving a "bright red car". Someone with more knowledge might recognize it as a "classic fire-engine red sports car. A buff might describe it as a "beautifully restored Mercedes 300 SL gullwing in the factory red paint job." (And guess what I lusted after in my youth.)

So what do you do if you've got a character who's a rough-and-ready type, or even a little stupid, and you want to convey a complex, sophisticated description?

This is where you switch to the omniscient narrator mode. You as the narrator don't have the limits on what you can perceive that hamper your characters. You can put a mindless animal in a breathtakingly beautiful setting and convey the beauty without breaking character.

Again, this is a small part of the thinking that goes into successful fiction. You not only create your world, decide how much of it to describe to your reader, choose how to describe it, but you also decide who will convey the information to the reader.

Hard? Yes. But anyone who says fiction is easy is a lair.

Thursday, September 6, 2007


Just as you can exercise to improve your muscles, you can exercise to improve your writing.

The point of writing exercises isn't the exercise, any more than the point of exercising your muscles is lifting weights. Like weight lifting, writing exercises increase your abilities and build capacity you need in real life.

While there are a lot of these exercises, games almost, that writers can do, only about half of them involve actually writing. That's because writing is, at best, only half about writing. The other part of effective writing is seeing. Like a painter, a writer has to be able to see before he or she can reproduce. Often the seeing is as hard as the writing. And like the writing you need to build your capacity to do so with exercises.

There's one exercise I'm particularly fond of builds skill in both seeing and writing. It doesn't take much time, it doesn't require equipment, not even a notebook and you can not only do it anywhere, it's actually better for being done anywhere.

The essence of the game is simple. Describe something or someone in just a sentence or two. It doesn't have to be less than 25 words, but capture the person or the thing in prose while it is in front of you.

This does two things. First, it teaches you to observe and second it tests your ability to put those observations into evocative prose. Additionally, it lets you check your observations while the thing or person you're describing is still in front of you.

Fiction writers are usually very close observers. They have to be. Even if the characters, places and situations are completely made up, they are stronger for being based in real observations.

You should try this game on everything: Objects, scenes, buildings, trees and most of all people.

Remember character counts. With people try for observations that capture something of the inner person. Do they seem happy, sad, preoccupied, self-satisfied, what? Now, what are the physical characteristics that give you that impression? Is there something about the set of the mouth, the slant of the eyes, the way they hold their bodies? What is it exactly?

After a while you'll find this gets a lot easier, often almost automatic. Then you can ring in changes. For example you can do a description of a person that's intended to convey a positive impression. Then you can turn around and create a description of the same person that's negative.

Above all, try for the particular and get away from generalizations. An 'old car' isn't as descriptive as a "dusty 76 Chevy with big patches of gray primer on the rear fender and a skirt of pink Bondo along the bottom."

The purpose isn't to capture these people or things for use in a story. Instead you're honing your skill to capture something and describe it concisely. It isn't easy, but like so many other things, you improve with practice.

And if happens that one day you can pull out bits and pieces of what you've seen and described and use them in your fiction, so much the better.