John Walters currently lives in Greece with his Greek wife and some of his five sons. He attended Clarion West way back in 1973 when the instructors were Harlan Ellison, Terry Carr, Peter Beagle, and others. A lot of life intervened, though, and he didn’t start publishing until the late 90s. Since then he has published over a dozen stories in magazines and anthologies, and four books: a novel, “Love Children”; a memoir of his hippy travel days in the 1970s, “World Without Pain: The Story of a Search”; and two story collections. Four more books are upcoming this year. His website/blog can be found at www.johnwalterswriter.com.
Every parent knows that it is difficult to let the kids leave home, even when they are grown up and ready. When is it the right time for a writer to let go of her literary progeny?
When I complete a piece of work I read through it quickly for any obvious mistakes and then set it aside. I don’t look at it or even think about it again for a few months. Instead, I concentrate on new work. I need this time away. Often while I am in the midst of the writing I have this nagging voice telling me it’s no good, but I slog ahead anyway to finish it according to one of Heinlein’s mandates. Later, when I can see it as a reader, I am usually pleasantly surprised. After I have let it sit, I read it carefully and often find little things to patch up which I missed in the heat of creation. I teach English grammar; I can usually catch my errors. But grammar is not always the most important thing. Continuity of style is most important: pacing, ambiance, the ability to lead the reader on from point to point, emotion to emotion. I long ago turned off the grammar check on my computer; it was annoying and I trust myself more.
However, the process is still not over. Sometimes I let it sit again for a while, but sometimes I format it right away for submission. After it is complete and ready to send off I read it through carefully one more time, scanning for anything amiss. Call me a perfectionist if you want, but this is what works for me. I constantly have stories in various stages of proofreading, and the ones I send out for the first time have usually been written at least six months before.
All writers are different, otherwise the literary world would be incredibly boring. What works for me may not work for you, but I offer my own example in case it might be helpful. What’s your system?
5 thoughts on “Writer’s Craft #64 – Letting Go”
A topic I can relate with, although it may have been for different reasons. If I’m halfway serious about a piece, I do indeed set it aside. There’s a rule in engineering; never check your own work. It is a fool’s errand for me to even proof read for a fortnight and I leave continuity to my intrepid (long-suffering) reader editors.
Thanks, John. One reason I set things aside is because I have no reader editors. A significant amount of time passing enables me to look at it with new eyes. Happy writing.
Yeah, time away from the material is an absolute must. You simply cannot view the work with an editorial sensibility when it’s fresh from your fingertips.
I’m currently trying something new, which mashes up my usual schedule. I’m working on a serial project so each month goes like this: First two weeks, I draft, say, chapter 3 in my schedule. Then I spend two weeks editing the piece that will appear in the upcoming issue–chapter 2. The next month starts–chapter 2 is out the door. I write chapter 4 for two weeks, then I edit chapter 3 and put it out the door. This gives me a month drag time in which I gain distance from the material. It’s worked out for six months but we’ll see where I am after a full year.
I couldn’t live without critique partners which helps with a lot of the continuity and voice issues. It takes me so long to write a complete novel that by the time I’m all done a finished/polished draft ready for the fine-tuning I’ve forgotten what the beginning looks like anyway, LOL! I print out my entire manuscript and read a hard copy – I find more errors that way than on the computer screen. If there’s no substantial changes, just typo type things, I then read it a second time, this time out loud (I catch a LOT of things that way). Then it’s to the beta readers and if there’s more edits needed I lather, rinse, repeat. But the time I’ve got something read to start sending out I’m so sick of it I don’t bother looking at it again.
This matches my method quite closely. I always finish a first draft, even if it is a sketchy infodump. Then I go back later, after at least a month or two (unless I’m on a deadline) to reread and create a second draft. Depending on the story, it may take three or four of these sessions to “get it right”. When I can read it through fresh, and be satisfied with only a minor tweaking of a word or two, I judge it ready for Prime Time.
Every time I get a rejection (one always does) I revise the story again before sending it out. Sometimes this has to do with any feedback I’ve gotten (if it seems valid; sometimes it isn’t — the editor just didn’t “get it”, and yes, this does happen; editors aren’t gods) and sometimes I just reread it and see something else I could do to improve it. Hell, sometimes I look over something that was published long ago and still see stuff I wish I could go back and change. Fact is, no story is ever perfect. There’s always something.
And yes, since I do copy editing, I edit my own work. Doesn’t mean I don’t welcome the help of a competent editor. Fresh eyes always help.