Monday, May 11, 2009

Don't Let The Little Ones Slip Away

When I first started critiquing, I used to look for things that were wrong: inconsistent character actions, awkward language, bad similes--you name it. I'd also tend to make notes (and happy faces) around what I thought was great: beautiful imagery, lively dialog, perfect endings. The trouble was, there was a lot of writing that didn't fall into either category. I couldn't find anything wrong with it, but I also didn't love it. It was simply "good enough".

But, is good enough good enough?

I've since changed my critiquing style. Nowadays when I review, I try not to let any sentence slip by me, no matter how inconspicuous it tries to be. Lines that are not wrong and not great could probably still be revised. Why? Because no one wants to read a book that's just good enough. We want to be consistently impressed. We want every sentence to be a gem that plays an interesting role in your story.

So, check it out the next time you're reviewing your work or someone else's. See how many sentences fall into the "not bad, not great" category. At some point, everyone here is going to be able to write a competent story. It's not the major elements that will separate the greats from the less-thans. It's the little differences, the seemingly trivial decisions.


Note: I really wasn't planning to do any self-promotion today, but I just found out that Opium Magazine is doing something incredibly cool. They've printed a nine word short story on the cover of their next issue that will be revealed one word at a time every hundred years over the next millenium! Check it out.


  1. Typically, that's what I try to do, too. If I do a full ms read, I do line comments and I keep a running page of "big picture" ideas. I find that much more helpful than only one or the other.

  2. I agree and disagree with you, Davin. If I hand over a rough draft to someone, I don't want a line edit at all. I want suggestions on the major parts of the story. This is what I've wanted with Monarch so far, and it's been so helpful to discover the icky things I've done with characters, plot, etc. (the BIG things).

    The problem with line edits in a first or second draft is that half the time I end up rewriting whole chapters, paragraphs, scenes, etc. so the line edits won't help me much if I'm just deleting all of that anyway. Does that make sense?

    However, when I handed over my partial to you, your line edits were exactly what I wanted, and they were so helpful!

    I'm not saying that some line edits on a whole manuscript (rough draft) aren't helpful. They are often great to see because they show some recurring problems that you can fix later. Say, a writer has an "I infection" that you pointed out earlier. That's very helpful to know about up front.

    Am I just rambling? Sorry. I just see line edits as more essential in later drafts. Am I crazy? I'm very open to discussion on this. *grins*

  3. But is it typical, Michelle, for a writer to ask people to critique a rough draft? I expect to revise my current novel once, if not twice, before letting others critique it.

    Side note: Man, I love this novel, and maybe I just love writing in general. Thank you for the tissue. Boohoo!

    Now, back to work. Or food. Yeah, I eat.

  4. Justus:Didn't you read my post with all the butterflies in it?

    I talked about sending out my MS way too early. Mistake on my part, but it has turned out to be a good thing with all the feedback I've received. It's just embarrassing, that's all, to have sent out something so rough.

  5. When I have people read my work, usually I know what level of finished it is (or so I tell myself) so I ask my readers for a pretty specific level of critique. There is only one person I let read first drafts, and she knows that I just want to know if the story/characters/plot/themes etc work (big-picture stuff). Later drafts demand attention to details and I welcome line edits to them.

    All that having been said, I've just finished my fifth draft, to send to my agent in a couple of weeks, and I know that there are passages that get the job done, but they aren't my best work. Do I accept that they're competent passages, or do I rewrite them so they shine with the best of my work? I think that's more what Davin's getting at here. Naturally, I want every line of prose to be my best, and at some point it's good to have the merely workmanlike stuff pointed out to you.

    When to have it pointed out is another question.

  6. Scott:Yeah, you're right. I'm missing the point of what Davin's getting at. Whoops. In that respect, yes, I agree with you all the way, Davin. This is a layer I work on in later drafts.

  7. Good things to think about. Learning the art of critique is its own challenge and something I am still working on.

    Oh, and you won the contest on my blog, Davin!

  8. Michelle, I do agree with you about this depending on the stage you're at in your writing. I should have made a little note about that, actually! I often feel bad when I give someone a rough draft (which I do all the time) and they spend a lot of time line-editing work that I end up never using again. Like Scott I try to be very clear with people about where I am in my writing process. And, from the reviewer standpoint, if someone gives me a novel to read and they tell me it's rough, I usually only look at big picture things.

    Tess, that's exciting news! I just checked out your blog! :) Thank you!

  9. Personally, I think "good" is good enough. Why? Well, is it truly possible for any writer to write a completely (every word, every sentence, paragraph, chapter, ending)brilliant novel?

    My personal opinion: no! I make notes of passages/sentences that I think are brilliant. Unfortunately, not every sentence/passage gets the 'brilliant' notation. I don't think any writer is truly capable of sustained brilliance, only 'moments' of brilliance. We need to notate these 'moments', and strive for more of them; but we also need to understand that, in the end, we are only human. We are not capable (designed?) for everlasting brilliance.

    If we aim to far for perfection (i.e. brilliance), aren't we then acknowledging that we'll never be done with our writing since perfection allegedly doesn't exist? So, if I go back, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, day after day throughout the endless years of life, when will the editing process be complete? Will it ever be complete? Do I take the MS as a whole, with moments of brilliance, or do I take the MS as individual parts that all must be brilliant?

    I have no clue. I only do the best that I can.

    Of course, none of what I've just written means that we, as writers, should be lazy in our writing and not try to do the best we can with every word that we write. We should always, always strive for brilliance, but understand that we may not be able to reach those heights with every word we write. I'm proud of the brilliant moments in my writing. Would I love an entire manuscript of brilliance? Heck, yeah! I just know that I have yet to find a published author who sustains their brilliance with every word they write.

    In the end, we can only do the best we can and hope that, with time, with perseverance, we can increase the brilliant moments in our writing so that they far outweigh the 'good-enough' moments.

    Thanks for the post, Davin. It definitely gave me food for thought. Speaking of which, I think it's lunchtime somewhere . . .


  10. Scott:

    "none of what I've just written means that we, as writers, should be lazy in our writing and not try to do the best we can with every word that we write"

    Certainly we shouldn't spend the rest of our lives trying to make one story or novel "perfect" (I have a friend who's been working on her novel for about 15 years, and I know she'll never--ever--get it off her desk and to a publisher), but if I see passages in my own work and I know I can do better, then I should do better. I owe that to my reader, at least.

    I also would argue that, on some level, we should strive for perfection.

  11. Scott - I agree 100%. "if I see passages in my own work and I know I can do better, then I should do better. I owe that to my reader, at least." I didn't mean to imply that I just ignore bad/clunky writing because it is surrounded by brilliant writing. I examine every sentence I write. Sometimes, the sentence stays the same, and sometimes it is tweaked to make it just a little bit better, oh, and sometimes the sentence disappears entirely.

    I also agree with . . . "I also would argue that, on some level, we should strive for perfection."

    I think all writers strive for perfection. There comes a time and place where, perfect or not, we must step away from our writing and begin the query process if we truly want to follow the yellow-brick road to publication.

    Every time I sit down to write, I aspire to write the best story I can possible write. Sometimes, I write crap. Sometimes, I write brilliance. Sometimes, I just write.

    Thanks for your insight.


  12. Scotts, I agree with both of you. No, I don't have the stamina to keep working on the same book until it's as perfect as I can make it. Well, I've been doing pretty well, but not I'm in my sixth year with book one, and I'm about ready to call it quits. Have I gone line by line, making every sentence as perfect as I can make it? No. But, I've tried really hard. And, whenever I do revise another section of it, I push myself to look harder. I think the key is to not think that, if you can't find anything wrong with the story, it doesn't necessarily mean that it's successful. Your story has to rise up rather than not sink, if that makes sense.

    And, I admit that I AM trying to reach perfection. I'm trying to be better than Tolstoy and Updike and Kawabata and Faulkner. Am I? No. Do I think I'm close? No. But, I get better every day.

  13. Davin: Yes, exactly. My literary idols are the standard to which I uphold my own work. I fail every day, but I keep trying. "Rise up rather than not sink" is good.

    Also, as Scott said, at some point you have to call it and move on. I'm fortunate(?) to have hard deadlines, so I have essentially two more weeks to polish what I can.

    And, you know, there is the law of diminishing returns. I'm at that place with the first book that it all looks like it's been written in Martian, and not well. So there's a real limit to how much I can improve it now. Besides, I'm ready to turn my attention to the next novel.

  14. I think this is another area where genre plays a role. I know a lot of you write literary, and if I read something that's literary, every sentence does need to be a gem. More to the point, I don't mind the sparkle.

    If I'm reading an action story or sf, however, I prefer the sentences to be less like gems and more like glass. Maybe this is also asking for perfection, but of a different sort. If I can read a book and not remember a single word the author's written, but have a live video feed of the action in my head, that to me is excellent writing.

    For some stories, I think the words should be like rollar blades. They should just glide by, unnoticed in and of themselves. It's only when they're left on the top of the stairs and you trip over them that I get frustrated and have to tell the writer, "Your words came between me and your story."

  15. I agree with Scott (except for one sentence because simply being good still isn't good enough for me!).

    I used to agonize endlessly about writing perfection, then I realized that I'd never read a perfect book, a perfect story--just maybe a few near-perfect ones. Perfection is likely an ideal, not a real. Good Morning, Midnight is the closest great novel to perfection I've read. But then Rhys already wrote that one--I've got my own stories to write, and in my own way.

    In my opinion at least, the world generally doesn't appreciate quality much anymore. After having written eight novels, after having endlessly revised them (though usually over the course of a year, not years), I got tired of working my butt off to little appreciation while what I thought were inferior same-old same-old works got endless praise. I also got tired of polishing my writing so much--works can lose their shine so easily then. They can also lose their individuality. The little imperfections are sometimes what make written works unique, just like with people.

    Now I just write the story I want to tell. My focus has always been and will always be on contents, not style, not sentences, though I work my sentences like crazy nonetheless. Both must be at a certain minimum competency level. But I'm more of a "wholistic" writer: the whole work, its flow, structure, ideas--that's of utmost importance.

    A building can be built of strong individual blocks, but if the blocks are simply piled onto each other in a haphazard incompetent way, the building will fall down. Sentences are the building blocks of written-work structures; sentences must be high-quality text blocks, but they're not the end-goal; how the sentences are arranged and relate to one another is the goal, what goes on between the sentences is the most important story aspect, the whole written work's "working" well is the goal--or at least is my goal.

    Several years ago I realized that the more I write, the harder writing becomes. I notice more problems, I'm less satisfied with what I write. So I've been actively cultivating an attitude of improving my imperfections rather than polishing toward perfections. Or else I just won't get any writing done.

    I deliberately write in a conversational style (not easy! maybe harder than a "paperal" style as conversational is a direct translation from spoken language to written language). I'm not interested in impressing others, am only trying to reach goals I've set inside my head before the words fell from my fingers onto pages.

    That's my only real goal: does the story on paper closely match the one inside my head? Again, I long ago realized that creating a perfect match between the two is probably impossible. Now I strive for as close a match as possible. The more I write, the more I find the two match more closely.

  16. Tara and Reason Reanimator,
    In my mind, you are both sort of talking about the same thing. I'm all in favor of the invisible author. the definition of a great sentence for me doesn't mean it has to be poetic or flowery. Each sentence should serve its purpose of contributing to the great goal of the story. If that means the sentence is doing it's work invisibly, that makes sense. What doesn't work is when a sentence lies flat, being there just because it happens to be there. I think sometimes these sentences end up staying in the story just because no one thought to bring them up. Looking line by line helps you to catch these. Glass sentences, as Tara puts it so beautifully, is almost always my preference. I want someone to forget that they're reading. That's the highest compliment for me. But if that's my realm, then I want it to hold true even when you break it down to a sentence-by-sentence view. If I'm trying to be invisible, then I want all my sentences to be as invisible as I can make them. It's an ideal, most definitely.

    Reason Reanimator, in your comment you're talking about both what a reader can appreciate and what you want to do yourself. I think it's true that a lot of readers will gloss over things that I've slaved over. I'm okay with that. It's self-indulgent, which is what I always try to be with my writing (not to say that I'm successful.) Having the story you write match the story in your head would be a huge accomplishment. It's something I've only recently started to strive for, and I find it much more satisfying than the way I used to write.

  17. I'm going to add to Davin's comments and say that while each individual sentence needn't be a work of art, it does need to reflect our craft. As Tara says, it should be like glass. Writers should always say exactly what they mean, and that meaning should be clear to the reader. What I consider sentences that are "good enough" or maybe "not good enough" are the ones where the reader pushes through to get to the rest of the story. We writers should pick the reader up and carry them along, and when it becomes any sort of foot-dragging, we need to do more work because our craft is failing us. I think this goes beyond genre; it seems like pretty basic craft to me.

  18. Davin, will you turn into a rutabaga if you stop revising one novel and start working on another? You make the rules for your own work ethic. As far as I can tell, you're not writing on a work or school deadline, so why the stressing, why the pressure?

    Some stories are dead on arrival. Some written works are inherently flawed, aren't fixable, especially by the author; they are the best anyone is capable of making them. If after working for extended periods of time and revising sessions, the author still feels those works aren't good enough, it's probably time for the author to move on.

    My earliest books--I have no plans to publish these some day. My first novel I submitted to two places, got back one rejection and one no response, then suddenly realized the book was crap, so promptly sat down and wrote another one. And then another and then another. But that original work hadn't been for nothing because all novelwriting is probably practice, just like any other writing.

    I'm on my ninth novel now, but I've started others in Number Nine's place, in Number Eight's place, Number Seven--and so on! Started but never finished. Novels normally take much longer to write than short stories, say, so I think writers tend to not want to toss any novelwriting effort away. But sometimes a writer must--at the very least, toss one novel away temporarily while the writer works on a new one, and this is why spending year after year on one novel is not ideal. It will then take decades to write to completion repeatedly.

    Novels must be a repeat phenomenon. I think that when a writer gets a single novel published, and that's the only novel the writer's written, and everyone starts referring to that writer as a novelist--PUHleeze! One novel does not a novelist make.

    To me, novelist = repeat phenomenon. I think every person on the planet may have one novel in them. So what? I want to see at least three completed and then I'll call the person a novelist. Of course the writer may nonetheless be a bad novelist (or a good, great and so on), but said writer's still earned the novelist title.

    I've written more novels than a good deal of the so-called novelists being lauded today (and some not-yet-published writers have written even more than I), yet I can't wear the title because my books haven't been traditionally published? If so, then let's apply this elsewhere and I guess van Gogh wasn't a painter. It seems he only sold two paintings to his relatives while alive. Productive van Gogh--the nonpainter!

    If someone completed only one short story ever, I think very few people would refer to that person as a short-story writer even if the story had been published, which lack-of-short-story-writer title is correct, in my opinion, and probably should be applied to every writing format.

    All these years of writing, only twice did I match the stories in my head--two short stories. That's it. Two stories. Frustrating! Like writing is in general. Oh well. Onward I write anyway....

  19. Hmm,line editing is okay if someone asks specifically for that. But what about plot holes, too much detail or not enough? I think that is what I try to do I crit for someone.

    But as for line edits. it's useful when asked for. I love Beth line editing for me because she IS QUEEN OF PUNCTUATION! It's useful to comment on certain words in sentences that just aren't working. And to tell if the author is being redundant. Just my two cents and probably worth less than that. :)

  20. I will check out the link as soon as I finish this comment but, you're kidding, right?! "one word at a time ... every hundred years...over the next millenium!" How many will stick around for that? Impatience is now the order of the day.

    It "is" a cool concept though, just the sort of thing I would participate in, if I were not already so close to a hundred years old myself.

  21. Reason Reanimator,
    No rutabaga, I just want to make this book enjoyable for myself to read, and it's getting very very close. The ten people who have read through it in the past have been urging me to call it done for about half a year, but I'm not ready. Close, though.

    This is actually my third novel. My first two ended up being throw aways. And, I tend to work on multiple things at once. I've probably written twenty short stories and 20K words of a second novel while I'm still working on my first.

    Yeah, I think I've only come close to matching the story in my head once. And it was recently.

  22. I think everyone has their own strengths when it comes to critiquing. I'm good at seeing technical errors, pacing problems, repetition, and punctuation.

    I usually don't comment much on the actual story elements unless they don't make sense or I feel more information is needed. The writer had a reason for going with that particular plot and someone else might love it even if it's not my fave.

    And, yes, some of the little ones have slipped by me. I wasn't sure why the sentence didn't sing, but I decided not to comment on it. Maybe I'll be more vocal in the future...and maybe I won't! Ha! Ha!

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  23. Davin, I want to ask you something, and the same to other writers sometimes struggling to stop tweaking their novel sentences: did you write short stories first before writing novels?

    In my opinion, novels typically are stories, but they're not very long short stories; novels are their own medium. I think too many writers start (and some don't start) with short stories and then think they can just expand these formats and--voila!--they've written novels. They think novels are simply extended short stories--not so!

    A short story is shorter, so every word must count more and often count a lot. That isn't the case with novels. Not every word must count as much as the next. That would be impossible in a long work and would constipate the novel-reading experience. In a novel the WHOLE must count the most.

    Of course this is my opinion, but this is also why I rarely come across novels I think are any good. When penning novels too many writers focus on prettying the parts as if they're turning in a school project and will be graded on those parts.

    Novels must have somethings "other" going on throughout the long works; sentence showboating should be minimized, ideally. The sentences themselves are less relevant than the glue that binds them. Not sure how else to explain this. I've tried in various ways over the years (and in this comment thread...). On my blog recently I said that I don't enjoy talking "about writing" anymore, and I usually don't. At this point, much of it has become more instinctual. And I think that writers who've written multiple novels probably know what I'm talking about w.r.t. novelwriting.

    The Horned Man is a good book I enjoyed reading years ago, but I ultimately found it flawed. I think Lasdun was a short-story writer first and it shows in THM. To me, it reads like an extended short story, and the work peters out at the end because of this. He either should have added more flesh to the story, or he should have ended it sooner and called it a long short story or a novella. It does not read like a novel, it reads as if it's trying to be a novel when it should have been a short story. I doubt this was Lasdun's intent.

    In my opinion, for what it's worth, writing novels versus writing short stories requires being in different writing modes. While a writer's still very much in the learning stages of novel-writing but wants to pursue novelwriting primarily as a writer, short stories should be put aside. Once a certain level of "instinctual novelwriting" is reached, THEN work on both concurrently more.

    I guess the same could apply to a novelist now trying to write short stories--do one at a time till you feel very confident writing in both formats.

  24. My strength in critting others' work is in line edits. I'm good in catching typos, inconsistencies, and awkward/unclear wording. (I spotted a typo in the previous post, which is why I deleted it.) However, my concern with critiquing every single sentence is that it could overwhelm the author or worse, interfere with her personal voice. We can't write others' books for them. I'm all for improving my writing and helping others with theirs, but you can't tackle every possible issue with craft at once.

  25. Reason Reanimator,
    When I started to write for more than just time-killing purposes, I started with the novel form. I've always liked novels more than short stories. I don't think a novel necessarily has to be different from a long short story, but for the things I create, they are.

    As far as every word being more important in a short story, I understand what you're saying, but I disagree. For better or for worse, the value of a word in my short stories equals the value of a word in my novel. That doesn't mean that I've labored over every single word in my novel, just that I didn't put any more effort in my shorts.

    You mentioned on another blog today the idea of ending up with a bloodless novel. I think for me that's more of the danger. I can see that happening sometimes, and in that case, I usually have to take a few steps back. Sometimes I do things to get the spontaneity back into a story. Usually it means starting a Word file from scratch and rewriting the book from memory rather than copying word for word. That's energy-consuming, but it has been good.

    I can understand focusing on one type of story as opposed to doing multiple things at the same time, but for me personally, I find mixing things helpful. And, I do believe it has to do with the way a person learns. I'm not very good with specific lessons. I tend to generalize things and try to formula all encompassing formulas. (That's not right or wrong for me, it's just how my brain works.) So, for me, doing multiple things at once helps key ideas to sort of rise to the surface. As a bad example, if I read short stories while reading novels, I'll notice the commonality of having a strong character and not get distracted by something like chapter labels.

  26. Reason:

    "That isn't the case with novels. Not every word must count as much as the next. That would be impossible in a long work and would constipate the novel-reading experience. In a novel the WHOLE must count the most."

    I disagree with this. The story must work as a whole, no matter if it's a short story or a novel or a ten-book series, but stories are made of language, of sentences and words. The writing in a novel needs to be as good as the writing in a short story. They should both be of the highest quality the writer can produce, because as writers, our primary tool is the writing. We tell the story with our writing, and with nothing else at all. Language is our tool, our medium, our craft.

    While we have to let go of our stories and novels at some point and move onto something new, we shouldn't let go of them until we've done our best with them, given the level of craft we possess. "It's a good story" doesn't excuse prose that's not as good as we can write. That's a cop-out.

    Writing a short story and writing a novel are different undertakings certainly, but writing is writing, and we should give it our best no matter what the medium. If the prose stumbles, we should be more than willing stop, revise, and make it dance.

  27. I try to find issues big and little. If the little issues are the big issue, then that's my focal point. I've offered a few critiques that had a somewhat compelling premise, but had so many mechanical errors in punctuation and basic syntax that they needed to be corrected before the story could have any hope of formal presentation.

    If someone catches a lone typo in a heavily revised draft, I'm always thankful and usually surprised that I didn't catch it in one of the 384 prior readings I did.

    Awkward phrasing should always be pointed out. These are the little roadblocks that make you stop reading and say "huh?" when the real goal is to compel you to read the next sentence. As long as a sentence does not make me go back and re-read - or even worse, make me stop reading - then it's a good sentence.

  28. Sandra, I agree with you. This type of thing can be overwhelming. I do fear that sometimes. Maybe if Justus is checking in he can comment on whether or not my critiques are overwhelming. I know he's mentioned that I do give a lot of comments!

    Michelle (Lady Glamis) often mentions revising in layers. Whenever I can, I try to be in touch with the layer that a writer is on so that I can critique on that layer. In many of my reviews I'll give hardly any line-by-line comments in favor of overall comments. But, I'd say before a work is "done" it needs to go to the line by line level. At least I do that for my work.

  29. Davin, I love layers. It's so helpful to me. The problem I had this time 'round was that I wasn't clear to my beta readers what I wanted. I've learned my lesson, and I feel guilty because I'm afraid those who spent time on line edits did such a great job, but many of the edits I won't need or use because I either cut the line or scene, and start all over.

    So yes, it's very important to communicate to your beta readers what stage you are at in the piece.

  30. "The writing in a novel needs to be as good as the writing in a short story."

    I've considered changing my writing style and preferred genre when switching from short-story mode to novel mode. What do you think about that?

  31. Justus:

    Style isn't quality. Genre isn't quality. Literary form isn't quality. We should write well, no matter what we're writing, and not allow ourselves to say, "Well, I could make that better but it looks like work, so it's good enough." What do you think about that?

  32. I just wanted to say that you guys are doing a fabulous job with your blog! The layout, the content, the discussion, everything is top notch. So, great job!

    I took away a great movtivation from your blog post today to make sure every sentence and word has a place in the novel. When we're in a hurry sometimes we just slap something down, usually cliche (i.e. his heart raced). Those are the parts we need to go back to and polish and make them fresh and original.

  33. Jody,

    You are so right about using cliches as filler while we're in a hurry. This weekend someone pointed out to me that at some point or another during the course of my novel, every character narrows their eyes in anger or suspicion. I had no idea. Tonight I'm going to do a search for "narrow" in Word and narrow my eyes at the results.

  34. Ha ha. I like that you put smiley faces next to good similes!

    I always save my original work (even if I think it sucks), just in case:)

  35. Wow, this has sparked quite a discussion. I think even the greatest authors have sentences that are "good enough." I've read them, but proportionally they have more amazing sentences and some completely mindblowing ways of putting things. That's what makes them great. If we worked our novels until they were perfect, we might never finish. I'd much rather have a slightly imperfect novel that I can read and enjoy than a perfect novel sitting in someone's computer that never sees the light of day.

  36. Well, we disagree then; I think I'm basically not doing the same thing as the purpose of Davin's blog, and there it is...for me everywhere, pretty much. Davin comments at my place, I've just jumped in here occasionally, partly as a courtesy to him--my commenting won't last. I'm really doing my own thing and I'm generally not a good team player.

    I don't know where it's written that language is more important than story. Is there a Ten Commandments Of Writing somewhere, carved on the Mount Sinai of literary society? To me for fiction, both language and story are important. And I question whether they can even be separated--where does one end and the other begin? If a piece of fiction is really "whole," both parts should become indistinguishable. This is especially important in a novel, but I think that many writers ignore this is why so few can write great novels.

    I'm not interested in writing anything to writing rules--talk about cliches! Which, by the way, if people stopped using, they'd never understand each other's communications. I think whole languages are giant cliches. And thinking you (impersonal) are writing anything truly new is arrogant.

    Probably everything's been done before in some fashion, both language-wise and story-wise. YOU are the only thing that probably hasn't been done before; a you has never been born before and raised in your unique way. Writing from that personal perspective is more important. I'm interested in reading and writing uniqueness, not necessarily newness.

    Where I worked in (nonfiction) publishing, we had an acceptable-number-of-mistakes rule because every time you go into a manuscript to fix something, you run the risk of introducing new errors and usually do. You will likely never wind up with below a certain number of mistakes. Accepting that and working with it is necessary, or else manuscripts will never go to press.

    This same thing should apply to writing.

    In a novel, because the whole is most important (in my opinion only, apparently), every time you nitpicky fix a sentence you must look at all the other sentences related to that sentence, and if those sentences must now be changed, and then sentences related to those sentences must also be changed, and so on, for a long novel especially, this nitpicky revising runs a great risk of ruining that novel and introducing even more mistakes, inconsistencies, and so on. That acceptable number of mistakes should apply to a novel's sentences; otherwise, the writer often winds up with even more mistakes; otherwise, the writer loses control of the novel.

    When writers don't follow this method, they wind up taking much longer to finish. Their works are in revision forever for the wrong reasons. Much work could be saved by relaxing while writing and accepting the physical and mental limitations of being a writer that Scott mentioned above--and the physical and mental limitations of language and publishing language.

    Stageplays are the only medium I haven't written in, but I must say that I think ruining a novel is easier than ruining any of the other mediums I've written. Treating each medium as if it's all just writing is fine, but then don't call a long short story a novel. It just isn't. Don't write a novel as if it's a long short story. You just can't. Or else you won't wind up with a novel. You'll wind up with a really long short story posing as a novel.

    If you want to write a novel, write a novel, and pay attention to the peculiar needs of novels. Ignoring the supposed delineations between mediums is silly if you're claiming you're writing in those mediums. Too many writers are short-story writers but think they must be novelists--why? Not everyone is a novelist. Not every writer should be. But that certain snobby esteem attached to novelwriting propels most writers to tackle novels when many probably shouldn't.

    Nothing wrong with short stories or short-story writers--many of my favorite works are short stories and collections of short stories. Why has this seemingly become a lesser pursuit? I think it's a money thing in large part: making money on novels is more likely. Few short-story writers make much money.

    Novelwriting is my favorite medium, but when I pen a story I think doesn't fit any medium, I now avoid claiming it's part of one. It's its own entity then, its own kind, and I write it as such. I wish more writers would do this and quit posing as novelists or short-story writers or essayists or whatever. Know your medium or don't write in that medium.

    One last thing in response to: “The writing in a novel needs to be as good as the writing in a short story.”

    --Yes, but the writing in a novel and the writing in a short story should be a DIFFERENT kind of writing. That's my main point. If a writer attempts both mediums but can't recognize the different demands of these DIFFERENT mediums, the writing in at least one of those probably won't be very good.

    What you implied about language being Number One for writers--computers "think" and can even write in languages if programmed to do so, but can they create intelligible great stories simply by being competent in languages? Stories are more than their languages. Novels are more than their languages, are more than their sentences. If you don't believe this, invent a "random sentence reorganizer," take your novel and put it through that invention--and watch the mostly gibberish you get back story-wise and novel-wise.

    I've gone on too long here--I leave you all to hash this out. Good luck!

  37. Reason Reanimator:This late at night has been the first time I've had to read through all your comments here. I just have to tell you that I really appreciate your honesty and insights into this topic.

    I also have to say that I agree with you on a lot of points. I don't think a short story is a novel or vice versa. They can't be. Just as a piece of flash fiction differs from a short story, every unique medium of writing is in its own category for a reason. I know this because I still don't know what medium I write best in. Right now I am trying my hand at writing novels. I'll see where it takes me.

    I also don't believe that language transcends writing as a whole. I used to think it did. When I was in college and learning how to write and read poetry, many of my professors focused so much on language and words and the craft of stringing it all together that I feel they often forgot to stress the importance of the larger parts of writing - the other things that bind and glue it all together. In poetry, I believe language and words may have a larger focus than in a novel, but that language should by no means draw more attention to itself than the meaning and idea of the poem. Unless, of course, that's the entire purpose of the poem, which I have seen before.

    I love the word you use to describe your writing - "wholeistic". I strive for that every time I sit down to write, but unfortunately, I'm very new to this craft, and have much to learn.

    As far as Davin's post goes, I agree with him in the fact that we should look closely at our writing, even on the sentence and word choice level. But I don't agree that we should rework and rework until every sentence is perfect. That's madness. I've tried it and never made it very far. It's almost so frustrating to me that I wonder where all the passion and spark of writing has gone (and I love technical editing, so that's saying something).

    In a novel, because the whole is most important (in my opinion only, apparently), every time you nitpicky fix a sentence you must look at all the other sentences related to that sentence, and if those sentences must now be changed, and then sentences related to those sentences must also be changed, and so on, for a long novel especially, this nitpicky revising runs a great risk of ruining that novel and introducing even more mistakes, inconsistencies, and so on. That acceptable number of mistakes should apply to a novel's sentences; otherwise, the writer often winds up with even more mistakes; otherwise, the writer loses control of the novel.This quote of yours up above one of the most brilliant things I've read in awhile- mostly because it makes perfect sense to me. It describes perfectly what I've been doing with my manuscript - trying to make every sentence the picture of perfection. And it just doesn't work. Don't get me wrong, I really do try, but I cannot do it over and over or it's simply pointless. Reworking things over under a microscope is maddening. I save it, as I said to Davin in another comment up above, for a specific layer of my writing. And when that layer is over, it's over unless it reaches a point where it doesn't flow with the rest of the novel. There are other layers that mean more to me in the scope of the novel.

    Maybe this is wrong and bad of me to not pay enough attention to the sentences, and I'll never make it as a great writer because of it, but I do feel that paying too much attention to any one aspect of a novel is never good. It does have to be "wholeistic" or the sentences and the words are simply skin-deep.

  38. Hi Lady Glamis--thanks for the very nice compliment and very nice post! I think we're in agreement on this issue, definitely with your skin-deep description. And I also think that if you're new to writing in general, you're doing very well so far. I thought you'd been at it a long while; your posting voice sounds that way.

    Writing does take much time and much effort. But maybe you could somehow try relaxing more when revising? Maybe put on some soothing favorite music or white noise CDs or something, to help break yourself out of revision tics? Getting stuck in these I-must-revise-nonstop tic ruts in the ways I've implied above is all-too-easy when writing long works.

    I know I've written so hard, I've literally made myself physically sick. And the point of that was...what exactly? I've yet to answer that to my satisfaction. I've typically responded to myself with (yes, I do sometimes have conversations with myself--doesn't everybody?), "Well, what else would I have done?" Now I finger-tick off possibilities: 1) I could have taken more walks under the sun, 2) I could have worked harder at getting more editing work, 3) I could have worked harder at getting a job, PERIOD.

    Years ago I was living in the backwoods, got laid off by that publisher, only to find I couldn't get more work then; freelance work wasn't available anywhere else. So while I had the free time, I decided to focus on my writing exclusively. ...Only for years I could never end that focus; writing has been an addiction for me. No addiction is good, in my opinion. Basically, writing has both saved my life and ruined my life--all rolled into one craziness! Oy.

    And here I am again, up much too late WRITING, when I should be getting much-needed rest as I've been sick....

    I've just always tried sharing what I've learned so maybe others wouldn't have to go through things the hard way I have. But I usually do not get positive responses. I then get frustrated, tired, and, ultimately, disgusted. And then I don't share at all, at least for a while.

    But that's me.

    You keep at it if writing moves you--maybe you'll soon find your perfect medium to write in. I couldn't resist that perfect word again ;o). I admit it can be so seductive!

  39. Reason Reanimator:Thank you for you kind comment back. I've actually been writing since I was 10, but not as seriously as I am now. I've only been writing novels seriously for a year (I've written 3). I wrote 2 in high school, but I'm not sure I should count those, haha. The first one I wrote this year is a re-do of my first novel in high school. An interesting experience to say the least.

    I studied English and creative writing in college, and wrote poetry seriously, and some short prose, but not any novels. Then I took a 5 year break from writing altogether, and now here I am again. Sometimes I feel like you say: that writing will or already has changed my life for the better and for the worst. It has led me down some interesting paths, that's for sure. And I have also made myself sick over it. Literally. We must be nuts.

    I think all one can do is try their hardest to find the right balance.

    Davin's post holds some very key insights and ideas into the craft of writing that I love to study. Knowing that I've gone over every sentence and made sure it's the best it can be is a goal of mine. But reading over your comments and discussion with Davin and Scott, I see how any writer can overemphasize certain things and end up making themselves crazy. I'm not saying anybody has done that here - just that I see how it's possible.

    Anyway, thank you so much for your participation here on The Literary Lab. This is the kind of passion and discussion we WANT going on here. It helps everyone learn and grow and see things from different perspectives. That's the whole idea. So please keep interacting if you can. We do appreciate it!

  40. Hi again--then you've already demonstrated you're capable of repeating the novelwriting phenomenon and should keep going. You're a novelist, you're just a new one. Keep going and you'll be an old one someday :o)!

    I started a bunch of novels as a child and then another when I was 20, but I never completed one till I was 27 and had finally begun writing seriously and regularly. Everyone's writing path is probably unique.

    I totally admit I've driven myself crazy over writing for various reasons, not just in my revision work!

  41. I agree completely. One of the best notes I ever got was a critter telling me a sentence didn't wow him. The process of revising that sentence helped me amp up the rest of the chapter.


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