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Max, I hear a lot of authors talk about “fresh eyes”. How long is it after finishing a first draft until you go back and begin the process of revision?
Fresh eyes are very important. I like to wait between one and three minutes. Not really. That was a joke. I actually don’t wait at all. I go back and re-read and revise everything all the way through while I’m writing a first draft. By the time I finish, my first chapter is actually draft thirty-nine, my fifth chapter is draft twenty, and so on.
I don’t recommend this. The better method is to bang out a first draft without looking back and only then discover how bad it is. Then at least you have something to improve. You can’t abandon that thing. You’ve invested too much.
But I can’t do that any more because I know it’s bad. I mean, I like to think of it like I’m developing higher standards. But really it’s just that there’s too much counter-evidence to maintain the delusion that I’m capable of writing brilliant first drafts. I’ve seen them. They are not great.
This exacerbates the “fresh eyes” problem, of becoming too close to a book and losing touch with how it appears to a new reader. That’s definitely a real thing, and critical in rewriting. If I could truly re-read drafts through fresh eyes, I could make them a lot better.
But I don’t think the solution is to put it aside for three months. It’s helpful—I have a couple of unpublished novels that I go back and re-read every few years and the fallow period does show me things I didn’t notice before. Usually how something I thought was pretty great actually isn’t. But it’s not enough.
Most writers, including me, need to think about how what they’re writing will play to a new reader all the time, every sentence. There’s some small technique there, clearing your head and forgetting what you already know for a moment, that you need to develop in order to write well. You’re scratching marks on a page; you need to consider what those marks will do inside other people’s brains. It’s better to become good at this and do it often than to wait until you have a finished draft and hope a few months away will do it for you.
The hardest time I have is during feedback from early readers. These are people who are reading something like a fifth or sixth draft, before it goes to my agent or editor. Often I find someone’s feedback truly mystifying, and it won’t make any sense at all until I manage to crawl out of my head and into theirs. That process of figuring out how someone might feel a certain way about the book is tough and confronting but always valuable, even if I do then decide that they’re insane and we should stop being friends. Because at least I’ll have fresh eyes.
I started writing a book and I’m at about 13,000+ words so far two years ago. Then after that I got busy with schoolwork and other stuff and couldn’t go back to it. Now, I revisit it and realize that, well, it’s total crap and that my writing style essentially changed. Now I’ve got to do a major re-edit and I haven’t even finished it yet. Should I abandon it and start writing other things?
Yep. Definitely. One hundred percent. I know this is the right answer because you said “and start writing other things.” If you had stopped at “should I abandon it” I wouldn’t be sure. I often feel like abandoning a book just because sometimes I can’t figure out how to get everyone from A to B without characters acting like soulless automatons so it’s not feeling at all like it did in my head and everything sucks and why am I even doing this. But that’s just writing.
I also often re-read the start of a draft I’m only part-way through and decide it’s terrible, because back then I had no idea what I was doing, so now everything feels a little off. Or a lot off. This is why it’s actually a bad idea to re-read a draft-in-progress. You ideally want to save that inevitable disappointing discovery until you have a complete manuscript, at which point you’re too invested to walk away. But I can’t help myself.
So getting cheesed off with your book can manifest as one of two feelings. The first is an urgent desire to start fixing it because you know it can be better. That’s good. The second is an urgent desire to throw it in a fire and go do something else. That’s also good if the something else involves writing. Because it’s never a mistake to write something. I honestly think you can find something like 50% of a great book in the first sentence, just because occasionally you stumble across a line that gives you tone and character and world in a way that immediately suggests the next 20,000 words. Starting something new can be a great reminder for me that I’m not not actually a shitty writer, I’m just stuck in a difficult narrative.
Write what you feel. Everything is better, faster, and more fun when you love it. So when it’s a choice between writing something you enjoy and writing something you don’t, that’s easy. Just as long as it’s something.
I just read “Misinterpreting Copyright” by Richard Stallman, found the points he makes very convincing and am curious about your opinion as an author and someone who writes about piracy, DRM, and such things.
Stallman is right about everything. It’s just that the logical conclusions he reaches are so uncomfortable, it’s easier to pretend he’s wrong. It’s like PETA. There’s no way what we’re currently doing to animals is moral. But burgers are awesome and you can enjoy them better if PETA is a bunch of hypocritical wackos. So we’re all ears for that narrative.
Stallman is the guy saying, “You know, instead of buying that coffee, you could have given an impoverished third-world child safe drinking water.” You can’t fault the logic. But no-one wants to take it to that extreme. So you never hear people criticizing Stallman’s arguments. Instead, it’s always how he was late to a lecture or dresses badly or was rude to someone once.
So what Stallman is right about this time is that copyright was created for the benefit of readers, not writers. This is a foundational principle of capitalism in general: that the purpose of production is consumption. It’s not to create jobs. Jobs are a side-effect, a byproduct of having more stuff available more cheaply. Ideally, the stuff would be free and unlimited, in which case we wouldn’t need jobs at all. The stuff is the point, not the jobs.
The goal of copyright wasn’t for me to give up my day job selling Unix computer systems and live a luxurious life of working naked from home. That was just a side-effect of a system designed to encourage me to write more books. And frankly I’m not sure how well it’s working. It’s been a while since my last novel. Sure, it’s helpful to have time and freedom for writing, but I found being trapped in a corporate sales job pretty motivating, too. I can’t for 100% certain say that I’m producing more words today than I would if forced to sit under fluorescent lighting in a suit for 8 hours a day and given a laptop and freedom for one hour in the middle. Or threatened with waterboarding. There are lots of ways to incentivize artists, is my point.
But copyright isn’t even about that any more. At first it lasted for 14 years, after which anyone could sell copies, write a spin-off, or adapt the work; now it usually lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years, so just forget about doing anything ever unless you buy the rights. That’s not because we think we’ll get more books if dead authors’ estates can get paid in 2116; dead writers can’t write faster, and no-one ever decided whether to write a novel based on their prospects for postmortem royalties. Instead, we have adopted the idea that copyright is a moral thing, which artists deserve. If you make something up, you should be able to control it for the rest of your life, and then some, because it’s yours.
Personally, although I totally get the proprietary instinct (you’ll never treat my kids as well as I do), I think stories are bigger than authors. There’s no doubt to me that if copyright still lasted 14 years, we would be a lot richer for random artists and companies taking James Bond or Superman or Star Wars and doing what they liked. There would be a lot of dreck, yes. But from that hotbed of competition and evolution there would also be some truly great stories.
And copyright today financially benefits companies more than people. The vast majority of writers wouldn’t be affected at all if copyright was radically shortened, because the vast majority of books don’t generate royalties for decades. They do it for a few years, if at all. Only the mega-blockbusters have that kind of tail, and if you’ve produced one of those, you’re not starving. So in practice, the nice idea that artists should enjoy creative control forever translates into a small number of media companies cranking the handles on a couple dozen money-printing machines that no-one else is allowed to touch.
I’m a lot less idealistic than Stallman, though. Of course, everyone is.
In the inevitable event of a zombie apocalypse in Australia, what would be your plans to ensure your survival? Will you still write books for the non-infected population?
I don’t think so. It’s hard enough to make a living as an author without the undead clawing at the windows. I can barely work with metaphorical monsters trying to consume my brain.
That raises a good question, though, which is why I write. Some of my reasons over the years, roughly chronologically, have been:
Expectation that brilliant words will change world
Hope of fame & fortune
Hope of seeing book on shelves one day
Better job than telephone sales
Story trying to crawl its way out of my brain won’t let me think about anything else
Just published novel and too young to retire
It’s never one thing, of course. But I used to be very motivated by the idea of getting attention while today I’m not at all. That probably happens to everyone as they get older. Or else I’m disappearing into an elaborate fantasy world where my characters are the only people I really care about. One of those.
Today, I mostly write because when I sit down and read back what I wrote yesterday, it seems interesting but also not quite right, so I feel the urge to fix it and also see what happens next. It’s actually not that different to reading any book, only with more self-loathing. Also it takes longer. But I think readers and writers are fundamentally trying to do the same thing: find out what happens.
Post-zombie apocalypse, I don’t think I’ll write novels, but I will tell stories to children. I think that will be important.
Hey Max! I’m sure writing has highs and lows. Have you ever had a point where you thought about packing the whole gig in? What was that point? Why didn’t you?
This morning. I thought I knew what I wanted to write. But when I started, it sucked. The words felt stupid. In the past, when this has happened, I have told myself, Just push through, but now I know that when I do that, I wind up with a lot of stupid words, which I have to delete the next day. It’s always a mistake to think I might be underrating my words; that if I just slap them down there, it might turn out that other people like them better than I do. THAT NEVER HAPPENS.
So then I stopped, because it wasn’t working, and felt sad, because I couldn’t write. I had forgotten how to do it. My career was over.
Fortunately this is a frequent occurrence so I knew it wouldn’t last long. What I have learned is that being a complete failure as a writer is not my fault. It’s the book’s fault. If the book was good enough, it would make me enjoy writing it more. Working on a good book is great fun. It’s joyful. Words come easily. It doesn’t make sense that I would be able to write plenty of good words one minute and no words at all the next. I’m still the same guy. So it must be the book.
Therefore I just need take a break and change something when I get back. Have an idea. Try a different opening. Delete someone. And tada! Words. Sooner or later, words.
Are you a “knows-the-beginning, knows-the-end, so-now-let’s-write-the-middle” kinda writer, or are you “let’s-start-with-one-image-in-mind-and-see-where-that-takes-me” kinda writer?
The second one. The first one makes a lot of sense in theory, and it’s what I’d do if it didn’t inevitably lead to me sobbing over a tub of comfort ice-cream. But it does.
I don’t know whether anyone has made the first one work. I know some writers claim to have done it. But I think they must be lying. That would mean you can figure out almost everything you need to about a book before you start it. That’s not my experience. My process is more like this:
Day 1: “That’s a great idea.”
Day 5: “That idea was terrible but this character is interesting.”
Day 20: “I hate everything about this book except these two lines I just wrote.”
Day 40: “What was that original idea again, it wasn’t so bad, was it?”
Day 41: “OH RIGHT, YES, YES IT WAS.”
Day 50: “Ha ha this first chapter is great now that I changed everything I used to like about it.”
Day 150: “The later chapters are so much better than the first. The first one makes me want to vomit with anger.”
And so on. I also like to throw out the entire second half of a draft at some stage. Well, I don’t like to. But it’s what usually happens.