Bottom of the 4th. Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Revision.

I’m a writer. I’ve been writing on the Internet for about 15 years, and I’ve said a few smart things, and a good number of stupid ones. I “was there” when a number of notorious Internet phenomena happened, and not all have been connected to me. I self-published a card game called Ambition in 2003 that I still get emails about. I’ve had mediocre blog posts get 300,000 hits, and I’ve had great ones get double digits. How? What determines which posts go viral and which don’t? To be honest, if I knew the patterns, then I’d sell said mysteries to people who value attention more than I do; so in full disclosure, I don’t.

I’ve probably pumped 30 million words of writing into the Internet. Good idea? Smart idea? Eh, not so sure. Not all of it has been of high quality. If I do come out with a literary masterpiece one day, I also must accept that stupid Reddit posts from the Bush Administration may also outlive me. It’s an upsetting thought. What if someone, a century from now, took the 100,000 stupidest words of Internet writing that I’ve ever done and made it into a book? Oh, it’d be full of howlers. I’ll probably be cremated, but even that wouldn’t stop me from rolling over in my grave (ash particle by particle) if that nonsense were to live.

For example, I used to get a lot of negative attention related to a bizarre hate page on Wikipedia that asserts I am responsible for some double-digit number of accounts (I shan’t go back and count; it’s not worth it). Some of those Wikipedia accounts never existed. The guy– and I have nothing against him at this point, because he didn’t intend long-lasting damage to my reputation, and because I might be the only person who’d care at this point– just made up accounts and claimed I created them. I did manage to figure out who he is, and what I know about him would discredit him, but I’d be the bad guy if I said more. That whole experience, now 12 years in the past, was just weird. The lesson? Fuck if I know. Stay off the Internet? Did not learn that one. Don’t write? Well… same.

Somehow, I became a successful tech blogger. I got death threats! More than one! At my peak, I was one of the top 10 independent bloggers in the technology industry. Yes, “tech blogger”. Throwing up in your mouth? Good. I am, to think that I once was “a tech blogger”. So, if you’re throwing up, and I’m throwing up, then… we’re “on the same page”. Ugh. I can’t believe I used those words. They came to me and I wrote them. “At the end of the day”, sometimes we “fire off” terrible snot-strings of office-coffee verbiage like we “shoot” emails. Ugh. Fuck this shit; let’s move on.

I burned down my platform in 2016. There are a lot of reasons for this. There are others that I haven’t disclosed. Doesn’t matter here. I decided to start writing fiction. Since I’d managed to get a boatload of attention just my writing here, and for a while I was the most-read non-celebrity contributor on Quora– a sleazy website run by an unethical company that everyone should stay the hell away from, but that’s another topic for some other time… I figured it’d be easy to write “my novel”, eh?

Spoiler: no. Fiction, if you want to write it well, is a much harder game. The standard is much higher.

March – April 2017: I was in between contracts (I had a $250/hour consulting gig, but the ethical ramifications of the work… I’ll just stop there). With the free time, I sat down, then I fucking wrote and wrote and wrote. Eleven days, 134,159 words. At that time, I titled the book Farisa’s Courage. Sent it out for beta reads. Not close relatives, not non-reader friends, but people I knew who read a lot of books and could offer critique. Overwhelming consensus was… it was a Six. Not put that way, not numerically rated, but… publishable, reasonably good, could be a lot better. Not great, not what I wanted. Back to the drawing board.

In truth, I sent that first version out to beta readers too soon (and I thank them, all of them, for having offered useful critique). Well, maybe. Quick feedback is a nice thing, but the book… turned out to need more work than I thought it did. If it was an Eight, I’d only need one round of beta reading, I wouldn’t need to do a complete rewrite, etc.

Something learned: writing 10,000 words per day is totally possible. It’s not even always a bad idea. Sometimes, a great chapter comes out of a 17-hour writing binge. It’s not sustainable to write that way, but it can work for short bursts.

When you revise, however, you need to be well-rested. I did perform a revision pass (after several days at a five-digit pace… whoops) before I sent the first version of the book out for beta reading, but I was naive to think that that was enough. For a blog post, one revision pass suffices and you can do it after you write the last word. For a nonfiction book, perhaps two: one organizational pass, and one line edit. For a novel, if you want to write to a literary standard? You gotta be fucking kidding me. There really is no shortcut. Not only do you need multiple revision passes, but you need time to pass so you can edit with a rested brain.

I once thought that great writers didn’t need to revise heavily. The more accurate assessment seems to be that great writers can revise heavily. I mean, anyone can; but great writers are the ones who can perform six to ten rounds of revision with the work’s quality increasing, whereas an average commercial writer wouldn’t get much utility after a certain point. They both start in the muck, the slush, the first-draft munge; but one group has a bullet’s chance in a butt of the 7th draft being better than the 3rd, while the commercial authors might as well stop at three and send it off for line editing.

 

Like I said, I was between jobs that spring, and I wasn’t satisfied with what I had written, so I spent about 100 hours per week reading books on self-editing, narrative structure, literary criticism, and even the publishing industry. When I needed a break from that, I’d pull out a favorite novel and try to get deeper into what about it worked and what didn’t. That was fun. I wish I got that opportunity more often.

So… I realized how much I had gotten wrong the first time around. Not grammar issues. A copy editor can fix those; a traditional publisher will assign one, and if you self-publish, you must hire one. Mostly, missed opportunities. Places where treasured characters (or loathesome ones) could “come out” more. Late-dropped reveals that were better placed earlier. Conversely, back story given up too soon– you shan’t give back story till you suspect a reader craves it, or because the story would be unreasonable without it. A weak beginning, and a sagging middle-of-the-middle. Opportunities for symbolism and thematic strengthening.

Now it’s November 10th, 2017. I’ve got about 110,000 words written in my rewrite (which uses about a third of the old scenes, though many have been fully rewritten). Surprisingly, while I thought I had nearly mastered prose composition– although I knew I lacked quite a lot about narrative construction and characterization, until about a year ago when a lot of things clicked at once and I started to understand fiction– I realized, after reading several books on line- and copy-editing, that almost everything I wrote last spring can be improved. Massively. So, I must.

I have a spreadsheet of where each segment is my revision process. I also use Scrivener. For me, it’s invaluable. I don’t know how I would organize my revision process without these tools. Not wanting to repeat my mistake of last spring, I don’t send anything to beta readers until the 4th draft. Yep, four. They still find typos and mistakes. I don’t know who said this, but there’s a law I’ve heard that 90% of work exists to counteract other work; that seems right. Revision corrects errors and creates (one hopes, a smaller number of) new ones. Anything newly added in the 4th draft is going to be rough-draft material… you can’t get around the fact that your 4th draft has improvements over the 3rd– otherwise, there’d be no point in doing the 4th– and that those revisions, themselves, live in a first-draft state. So, yeah… it’s humbling (if not a bit disappointing) to realize that even 4th- and 5th-draft material will have an error or few.

The key realization is that Sturgeon’s Law (“90 percent of everything is crap”) applies to everyone. Taste seems to be the key differentiator, and the thing that every writer must refine. The difference between great writers and mediocre ones isn’t an immunity to Sturgeon, but the ability to “de-Sturgeonize” themselves. Not 90, but probably 70 percent of the sentences in my first draft look like something that slithered out of a slush pile– publishable if commercial, but not literary. Second draft? 49 percent. Third draft? 34.3 percent. Fourth draft? 24.01 percent? Who’s happy with “75.99 percent good”? I’m not.

Writing well takes lots of work. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy,” Camus said.

At any rate, right now my model predicts that my novel will come out to 174,300 words and that I’ll finish on June 19, 2018. I think it’s optimistic by a month. This work includes the total rewrite of last spring’s version, several passes of revision, beta reader feedback, multiple targeted revision passes (e.g. dialogue, mood, diction) and a line edit. I’ll probably do a self copy-edit, in part because I’m likely to get a better quote if I use a professional editor (which, if I self-publish, I will).

Will all of this work be worth it? We’ll see. Perhaps I’ll finish my book and it’ll still be a Six. Obviously, I don’t think that to be the case.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s to embrace revision, up to and including the total rewrite; sometimes, you just have to make whole-book, tear-the-world-out-and-put-it-back-together changes. The only sentences and scenes that can’t be touched are the ones you’d remember if your hard drive died and you had no backup. (You should still back up your work; less-than-memorable fourth-draft prose is a much better working material than a year-old outline on a coffee-stained napkin.) Editing is part of the game. And it’s fun. It’s a different kind of fun from pantsing out a 7,800-word battle scene at 2:37 in the morning, but it’s just as worthy an endeavor as the original writing. In the first draft, you get to watch a movie in your insane little mind and write down what happens. In editing, you get to make it look like a real writer rather than an insane person wrote it.

A truth about writing is that excellence comes out intermittently. You can’t force it. You take risks and some of your sentences surprise you on the second read, whereas others make you want to throw your computer at the wall. Jokes are especially volatile; I’d guess that 30 percent survive revision; the other 70 percent served a purpose– paying myself for busting my ass– but don’t belong in the final product. Sometimes, you have to keep driving through the thick and accept that you’ll re-work everything in revision, more than once. Oh, much more than once.

It’s humbling, to realize that with four revision passes, I’m a better writer than I could ever be in one pass. I look at something I’ve worked on several times and I’m like “shit, I don’t know if I could write that again.” In one draft, I couldn’t.

My first draft, as I said, looks like upper-tier slush. My second draft (minus typos and spelling errors that’d come out in a copy edit) is mid-level commercial-quality prose: gets out of the way, with flashes of almost-goodness, but it’s not something I’d be proud of. My third draft starts to look slightly literary-ish; and by drafts four and five and six, I’m starting to have something that, five-and-a-half days out of seven, I wouldn’t mind seeing in print.

Perhaps, after revising and editing and continuing to read books written by experts on what-the-fuck-I’m-trying-to-do, Farisa’s Crossing will only be a Six. Or an Almost-Seven. That would suck, but one doesn’t write without knowing that disappointment is a possibility. Nine-tenths of the blog posts I start, I don’t finish, much less publish. We’ll see. But I’m going to fight hard against the abyss of non-prose, the blank page (the empty string, to a computer scientist) from which anything is possible but nothing emerges without force, as hard as I can.

This ongoing experience– which I am writing this as a break from, because for as much as I enjoy it, I need to do something else sometime– gives me a perspective on a common flamewar within fiction: the topic of “genre fiction”. Ask a bitter creative writing teacher about “genre”, and you’ll hear about how publishers only want to publish “genre trash” and celebrity books– while advances for “real writing” (and real writing, they say, is never self-published, but that’s another misconception in this tangle of buttfail) are low because no one wants to buy literary fiction.

There’s so much wrongness in that complex that I don’t know where to start. First of all, the often-cited claim that genre authors garner huge advances is off the mark. Most genre authors get crappy advances and the same negligent treatment by their publishers that non-bestsellers get in the literary world. If publishers offered $100,000 for every shitty romance novel, supply of shitty romance novels would increase and the price would crater. Second, literary novels often do get major advances and sell well. It’s rare that it happens, because it’s rare in general for any book to get that treatment, and it has more to do with agent clout and auctions than with the quality of the words themselves… but the idea that literary fiction is somehow maltreated is off the mark. Literary authors do get on Oprah and Charlie Rose sometimes. Third, the notion that contemporary neorealism is a superior genre is a bit silly. Its constraints are different, that’s all. When you create your own world, you give up the need to give verisimilitude to that small town in Ohio in 1895; but, in exchange, you have an equally hard job of creating an engaging world that you just made up.

I like literary fiction. If you presented me with a random critically-acclaimed literary novel versus a random self-published epic fantasy novel, I know which one I’d be more likely to pick, and there’s perhaps a bit of irony (although not hypocrisy, since I have no intention of writing an average or “random” book) there, since I’m writing epic fantasy that I’ll probably self-publish. However, I also have to say that the comparison is unfair. Why? Well, because we’re comparing the best contemporary neorealism– the stuff called literary instead of mainstream— against the whole genre of fantasy.

The notion of literary fiction conflates three notions:

  • (P) Fiction in a difficult but beloved (by writers and critics) and often popular genre: contemporary neorealism. No magic, no dragons, no interstellar travel.
  • (Q) Fiction where the prose is polished using an expense of time at least 3 (and often 5-10) times what’s required to make a novel commercially viable.
  • (R) Fiction that does not follow templates that, while often commercially reliable, are sometimes trite: boy-girl romances, murder mysteries, spy thrillers.

If you have P and not-Q, we call that mainstream fiction. If you have P and Q, and the talent to make Q show through, it might be literary fiction. R is a weird turn card here, because a lot of great literary novels have not-R, but generally you need P-and-Q-and-R to be considered fully literary.

If you have not-P, then you’re writing speculative fiction and not literary.

So, what do we call the (not-P)-and-Q writers like me? Well, you can just call me a fantasy author– once I finish the damn thing. Until then, you can use the word “aspiring” and I won’t flame you because I’m busy with, uh, writing. Still, I think the notion that fantasy and science fiction writers can’t be literary is misguided.

As I see it, the distinction that matters most of the ones above is Q. As for R, I think it misses the point. Plots and characters shouldn’t be cliche, predictable, or one-dimensional. Can one write a book of literary quality in a time-worn genre, like a murder mystery or a romance? Of course. There will usually be more to it than the template, just as Farisa’s Crossing is about a lot more than magic, dragons, and steam-era technology. The truth is: every book has a genre. Great books, arguably, tend often to have more than one.

I will say that there is a valid distinction between commercial and literary approaches to writing. Here, literary is divorced from the “literary versus genre” debate, and I’d like to pull out a different word, but I’m at a loss to come up with one that isn’t worse. (Artisanal might work by its original definition, but that word has become so commercialized that I’m going to gag just at the fact that I suggested it.) This distinction tends to be ill-formed in pre-professional writers, who don’t yet know what they want to do with their careers, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not going to say that the literary approach is superior from the commercial one. It’s just different.

Once a writer is established enough to sell books with minimal effort– i.e., the years of rejection and the stupid agent querying process are behind him– does he stop revising at “good enough”, or does he push himself into new territory, wanting each book to be the best he can do, and better than the last?

Some people want to write six books per year. Others want to write one great book every six years. How hard is it to write a book? It can quite easy, or it can be astoundingly difficult. The truth is that, once one can write at the minimally publishable commercial standard– which, to its credit, less than 1 percent of adults reach– it’s difficult to make an economic case for writing great novels. It’s not that mediocre novels invariably sell better than great ones. I don’t think that that’s true. I think that literary quality is positively correlated with sales performance. Average readers might not be able to perceive superior prose, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they still respond to it. It has value; just not enough to justify itself on economic terms alone. You do 10 times the work, and you might get a 50-percent bump in your advance.

An author who is optimizing for income, especially if reliable income is the goal, will crank out potboilers, set up a diversified portfolio of work, and eventually have enough exposure and readership that, even if individual books backlist poorly, the total income will suffice. That’s how commercial writing works. What’s wrong with it? Nothing. These books entertain. Then, there are writers who want to play with prose, create memorable characters, play with the form of the novel, and have a shot at being remembered after they die. Some of them pursue contemporary neorealism (the “literary” genre) but not all of them do; I consider them (whether in that literary genre or not) to be literary writers. So, Tolkien and Jordan wrote literary fantasy; Orwell and Huxley wrote literary sci-fi, and I’m writing literary steampunk fantasy (and almost certainly not the first person to do so).

It’s important to note that I make no distinction of one being superior over the other. If I had to rely on writing to get a stable, monthly income, I’d be inclined to spend more time on commercial work than trying to write the Great World Novel. Given that I’ve spent close to 15 years between finance and private-sector technology… let’s just say that I’ve done far, far more distasteful things for money than writing airport books.

I’m writing epic fantasy, to a literary standard, not because I’m better, but largely because it’s what I want to do (and because I believe I can). Could I make a living writing commercial potboilers? Probably. I don’t look down on people who do. What I intend to do with Farisa’s Crossing— the first book epic fantasy series that’ll probably take me 20 years to finish, and that I have no idea whether it will sell– isn’t necessarily better; it’s different.

I’m in excess of 3,000 words, the point at which the revision intensity of an essay (on that topic) seems to increase… and I think I’m done, and time’s scarce. Back to writing.

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Short Story “Puckle” for Release in Dec. 2017

I’m still working on Farisa’s Crossing, but I’d like to get a short story out there as well– in part, to try out the self-publication process, and in part, because I think it’s a neat short. It has nothing to do with Farisa; it’s sci-fi rather than epic fantasy.

The title’s “Puckle”. I’ll be giving away 144 copies for free, and then selling it for 99 cents.

Patent Weight in Publishing

I once worked for a large company that acquired another large company. Why? Patents. The goal was to reach a “mutually assured destruction” state with other software companies that held patents and were fixing to sue. What was in the patents? No one had, or took, time to read them. How would they play out in court? It didn’t matter; most were unenforceable, because most software patents are ludicrous and over-broad, but that was known. The number was what mattered. If all the major software companies hold patents (most of which are unenforceable bullshit patents) in approximately equal number, then they are in a stalemate and no one gets sued.

I bring this up because it’s relevant to the state of the traditional publishing industry. In 2017, many writers find themselves locked in terrible contracts and cannot extricate their rights, even long after their publishers shat the bed and their books went nowhere. The book might be selling three copies per month, but the writer can’t get it back.

As I write Farisa’s Crossing, I’m also thinking about how I’m going to publish it. And the more I learn about traditional publishing, the more I find myself turned off by the entire industry. They dangle a sweet carrot: you too, Unknown Author, could become a Somebody overnight; all you have to do is write your next query letter so well it’s practically made of blowjobs, then get signed by an arm-twisting power agent who can take your book to auction, then get a lead-title deal with a 6-figure advance and have golden-ticket reviews like New York Times delivered six months before your book even launches, and then repeat the process four or five times and get to the point where people get fired if the press doesn’t punch your book. No one thinks the odds are good, but they’re nonzero. It’s that epsilonic nonzero-ness that keeps agents receiving query letters.

And… plenty of authors find themselves so exhausted by agents and queries and the waiting… waiting… waiting… that when things finally snap together (sort of) and the industry coughs up a $5,000 advance and a contract cleverly designed to have the book never go out of print (and, therefore, rights never to revert to author)… enough of them have been beaten down enough to take it, even though they’ve probably realized that the publisher isn’t going to do jack-shit to sell their book.

They ought to hire lawyers. Just as every self-publisher needs to shell out for an editor, just to have a second pair of eyes, you cannot get by in trade publishing without an experienced copyright attorney. Your agent will not do that job. Unless you’re a 6- or 7-figure client, you’re of low priority to your agent– he really just wants to get your deal done as fast as possible, so he can focus more time on his major clients. Yes, I realize that many writers can’t afford to hire lawyers… but if they’re getting $5,000 advances, they can’t afford traditional publishing either and should consider taking up a skilled trade with strong unions.

On snapping up the rights, though… why would the Manhattan brontosaurs do this? What’s their angle? What value is there in rights to a book that they’ve under-published and that therefore died out? Why would they spend $5,000 (it’s still not nothing) to acquire a book they don’t believe in enough to promote it properly? The answer: writers are earnest and careers are long. Writers will keep working, for years, even if the world loses faith in them. Also, there are more ways for writers to reach readers directly: they can now self-publish. If the author’s fifth book ten years from now hits the New York Times Bestseller list in the crotch, it’ll prop up her backlist, and the publisher gets 75 to 94 percent of the revenues.

Those shitty deals are given to writers who seem plausibly talented (and many of them are quite talented, and a few will go on to succeed) by publishers who view the rights as out-of-the-money call options. Most won’t pay off. A few will hit big.

I used to call the bottom-tier trade deals VIT, or Vanity-In-Trade. It’s a catchy acronym, and I’m not ready to give it up, but I don’t think that vanity press is the best metaphor. Vanity presses collect upfront from unsophisticated writers who are unlikely ever to succeed, and that’s not the case with VIT; it only works because some of these authors actually are good and one can predict that some have backlist value. It might not be clear which authors will pop up 15 years from now, but the portfolio has estimable value.

So, patent trolling might be a better analogue. The publishers buy up rights from young writers who think they’re worth next to nothing– and who rely blindly on their agents, even though they’d do better to hire actual lawyers to vet said agents. A decade or two later, when those writers have reputations and careers and they want to do something with their backlist– perhaps edit and republish an old book, or perhaps write a new book using characters and setting from an old one– they get trolled.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch does an excellent job of summarizing these changes in trade publishing. It’s no longer about improving, marketing, and distributing books. It’s about financialization: the acquisition of intellectual property for less than it’s worth. From an expected value perspective, a debut novel written by anyone persistent enough to suffer literary agents’ bullshit (the long waits, the finicky submission guidelines, the aggressive negging that agents deploy in order to get authors to accept bad deals) and land one is probably worth $5,000.

Writers suffer, but so do books. Often these low-advance titles are shipped out with minimal care, because it doesn’t matter to the publisher if the book sells poorly, since it invested so little. The rights are a call option on work the author will do for herself (because publishers, these days, aren’t going to wipe sweat off their balls to publicize a midlist author) in the future.

I wonder, though, if the publishers acquire rights not only for their (perceived) long-term financial value, but in preparation for some kind of IP war. Perhaps it’s the bulk number of copyrights they hold, much less than what is copyrighted, that they care about. I wouldn’t know, because I’m not party to those conversations, but it wouldn’t surprise me.