There are two approaches to writing, both of which drive me batshit insane.
The first is put forth mainly by author agents and, when they bother to talk to us, publishers. They will tell you that a book is never ready, that you need to edit and re-write and polish and prune and fluff and buff that book over and over again, and then, when it’s in absolutely the best shape possible … start all over again.
I’ve heard people proudly – proudly – state that they’ve spent the last ten years on a book that no one else has read yet. And I’ve heard agents tout these writers as examples of dedication to the craft.
And if that’s all you want out of this, if your only goal is to produce art, then that’s fine. You’re achieving your goal. But if you actually want to tell stories – to someone other than yourself, that is – at some point you have to let that manuscript out the door. And if you actually want to pay your electric bill, well, unless you’re getting seven-figure advances, you’d better be putting out more than one novel a decade.
It’s insulting to me, this idea that a novel is never ready, that a mere author is incapable of producing work that is worthy of being read.
But then there’s the other extreme, the “one and done” crowd, who claim that editing will “scare of the muse” or “frighten the word nymphs” or “quench the creative spirit.” These folks like to quote one of Heinlein’s Business Rules: “You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.”
There’s actually a lot of good advice in Heinlein’s rules, particularly numbers one and two: “You must write,” and “You must finish what you start.” You will never tell a story or sell a book if you aren’t writing and finishing. But, “you must refrain from rewriting” is one of Heinlein’s business rules, not one of his writing rules.
If you’re trying to pay the bills, it makes sense to have as much content on the market as possible. Short stories, novells, articles, collections … get them out there and get paid. And it’s possible, especially if you’ve been doing this for a while, that a lot of what you put out there will actually be good. But will it be great? Will it be the story you’re trying to tell?
I believe that in most things, the truth is found in the balance between two extremes. I don’t think you should spend a quarter of your life polishing one manuscript, but I don’t think you should assault your readers with the first thing that dribbles out of your brain, either, at least not usually.
Debutante took me a week to write, and it required very little rewriting to get it ready for print. But it was a very simple, straightforward, and short story that dropped into my head fully-formed. I knew what story I was trying to tell when I started.
On the other hand, there’s the next St. Troy novel, which I’ve already finished twice. That’s two whole novels sitting
in a drawer on my hard drive that no one will ever see, because they aren’t the real novel. Oh, they’re complete. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They hit all of the plot points that a novel is supposed to have. There are characters, and they behave true to themselves.
But those two novels just weren’t right. They weren’t right for me, and they weren’t right for my readers. But this third draft? This third draft is the story I want to tell. It hit me like a bolt of lightning, and now I’m writing five thousand words a day, easy. I’ll have the third draft done within a month, and it will be right, I can feel it.
That’s the balance, for me. I could have sold the first novel, and the second one is even better. But the third draft, that one is right, and once it’s done and copyedited, any further editing would make it worse, not better.