Tag Archives: high-level revision

Myselves in the Bottom Drawer


“Be what you are. This is the first step toward becoming better than you are.” -Julius Charles Hare

“To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly.” -Henri Bergson

I would think it a great shame, and a waste of life, to mostly be who I was at, say, twenty. Some of the seeds of who I am were there, largely unknown to anyone but me. Other parts of now-me came out of experience or friends or the changes in the world that I accept or reject.

This, perhaps, is a problem with revising one’s older works. I’m not that person any more, including for the changes in me that writing that novel wrought. It’s almost an advantage, like editing someone else’s work, except all the issues are so personal and all the images were long ago burned into my brain. The story seems old because I’ve known it so long.

So that’s why I keep writing new novels. It’s not to pay the rent. It’s to capture the now-me the way those novels preserved in amber bits of former-me. Some things will remain the same, reappearing book after book. Others come out of so specific a time that after a few rounds of glacial editors, they’re no longer marketable. (There’s a reason I never write contemporaries any more.)

This isn’t the issue I hit before on having “outgrown” a story. That was a matter of your plotting and story-telling skill, maybe your handling of tension and pacing, maybe a learned aversion to cliche. Here, I’m trying to talk about changes in self, not skill. Maybe you’ve become more or less spiritual, and it shows in everything from your plots to the advice given by mentor characters. Maybe you’ve swerved toward Hemingway in style leanness and writing some required scenes for your old heroic fantasy done in the style of Eddison is like trying to write a pastiche.

That’s probably just the way to think of it. Unless you are willing to take it down to bedrock and rewrite it in you new persona — redescribe everything in the herofy and grey out characters, or reboot the characters and maybe themes of the other — your only way to get older books out of the bottom drawer is to pastiche your old self. Depending on what the differences are, it may be a fun little trip down the Memory Lane of yourself. Otherwise, think of it as editing work for the estate of a dear old friend.

The Bottom Drawer and the Back Burner


Authors frequently refer to things in “the bottom drawer.” It may actually be a box in the closet or a CDR in the back of the box, but it is where we keep our projects that are dead in the water. Maybe we got partway through and something horrifically just like it showed up on the book racks: these evil accidents of fashion happen. Maybe the idea didn’t work out, and we decided not to throw good time after bad, so we walked away from it. Maybe it went around to every possible publisher and just didn’t sell. The problem may not have been in the book, but in publishing fashion. Sometimes we are writing the books of ten years ago, and sometimes the market isn’t ready for what we’re writing and sometimes it’s just the wrong spot in a cycle.

The bottom drawer is a place of cobwebs and dust. The “back burner,” on the other hand, is a place to keep things warm and bubbling. It’s often where we keep ideas that haven’t quite jelled yet, possibly for decades. We may have gotten interested again in the idea from reading our own idea books, and this may be the project to work on after the current one. In the meantime, we collect some research now and then or draw some maps or do some conlang work for an invented world. We may have written nothing on it, or it may be a partial needing more thinking-out.

As a writer, your ideas and words are what you have to sell. It makes good sense both economically and emotionally to leave only incurable juvenalia in your bottom drawer.

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Revision 03e: The Story You Outgrew


Save your first stories. Twenty years from now, you will find their forgotten box. A silly smile will cross your lips to read that title, see that opening …

Then the cringing starts. Wince. Groan.

You’ll find a mixture of the horrible, trite, and posturing with unexpected virtues and beauty. You can actually find a paragraph here, a description there, and even one or two concepts worth recycling. I wrote better about snow in the days I slogged through it than after many uninterruptedly tropical years.

Today, though, you’re stopped dead on a story that may be worth saving, but …
You wince right now.

Congratulations! In the process of writing even this far, you have learned so much that you have already outgrown the story.

Can revision of basic concepts can save this?

Usually, it can. Obvious Mary Sues can turn interesting, fan-fiction sheds its derivation, and stereotypes grow so you can’t tell they were ever cardboard.

You need to pinpoint problems to find solutions for each. They may include…

  • Arch or overwrought writing. If it makes you wince, you’re already past this stage. *Keep scenes and structure, but rewrite the way you can now.
  • Characters all sound alike: no one is more or less clever, more masculine or feminine. Characters all act alike, except for being good or bad. Any “different” characters are vaudeville stereotypes. Character motivations are thin or confused: the characters don’t have their own motivations, just obey author motivations to make the plot work. Characters act on or react to author knowledge they shouldn’t have. *These may take only cosmetic fixes, or may require a ground-zero plot revamp. You can characterize better than this now.
  • Plot secrets are obvious, or will be to anyone reading the cover blurb. Fan-fiction and self-publication admittedly have the merit of avoiding this major fault of regular publishers.
  • Pacing is slow, or all at one high level, or bumps up and down regularly as a metronome rather than building to a climax. Pacing keeps falling flat, lacking in excitement. You need high-level revision, dropping, adding, or changing scenes. A major problem like bead plotting needs plot rebuilding.

If you have to make bone-deep changes, unfinished is good: less to throw out, and you can feel revision leads to a first rough draft.

You may also decide this is too deeply flawed to be worth revision. You can start a new project fresh, freed by putting this effort in the Bottom Drawer. Sometimes “finishing what you started” is throwing good time away.

(Underlined items will some day be links when I get those blog items up.)