Posted in Publishing, Writing

Sometimes You Need to Throw Out Your Revisions

There’s a lot that can break your heart when working on a novel.

Trust me, I know. Since 2010 I’ve written twenty-one novels (three middle grade, four adult, fifteen young adult), and I’ve had my fair share of heartache as a novel writer that I wouldn’t be able to fit inside of one Medium story, that’s for sure.

Writing the first draft can break your heart because oftentimes you realize during the drafting process that the book you held for so long in your head just isn’t quite coming to life on the page, and you’re not sure if you’ll be able to fix it.

You can revise your novel two, three, four times, and still not feel like it’s ready to go out on submission to agents or publishers.

You might feel really positive about your novel, but you send it out to a few beta readers, and they all bring you loads of feedback that make you understand it’s nowhere close to being ready.

Oh, and there’s the querying of a novel to multiple literary agents after working on the book for many months or even years, only to come up empty.

There’s so much that can go wrong, and that’s sadly the name of the game.

You write a novel with the best of intentions, but there’s no guarantee that people will like it, that it will find you a literary agent who believes in you, that the manuscript will ever be published.

You have to be ready to put in the time. You have to be ready for that book you’re working on right now to potentially go nowhere.

Another thing you have to be ready for that I feel isn’t talked about very much?

Sometimes you need to throw out your revisions if your story is getting worse or headed in the wrong direction.

It’s so hard to throw out a revision you’ve put dozens, more likely hundreds of hours of work into. You’re not getting paid to write a novel at this stage. You’re working for free, keeping the faith that the book might work the more you revise it and copyedit it and tinker with it.

And yes, sometimes after you’ve worked on a novel for six months or longer it’s hard to take a step back and see what your novel is and where it’s come since you completed the first draft. There’s no such thing as a perfect first draft, and so you have to revise, revise, revise. You have to let your manuscript sit for awhile, then revise again.

Beta readers often help you find the major flaws with the novel, but not every piece of advice should be taken into account, especially when you feel deep down it’s actually making your novel worse. Sometimes you’re not sure. Sometimes an idea strikes you as interesting, and so why not try it out in the next draft. You can always delete it later.

This is why I always believe in saving every single draft you do just in case you want to go back.

Just in case there’s a scene or character or moment that somehow got lost from one draft to another, and you need to go retrieve it. Just in case that newest draft is a step down from what you had months before.

Just in case that latest revision is nothing close to what you originally set out to do when you wrote draft number one.

This is the state I’m in right now with one of my manuscripts. And I’m not just throwing out one of my revisions. I’m throwing out four of them.

Let me tell you a story…

Throughout 2018 I felt inspired to write a middle grade ghost story novel. An image entered my head of an elderly female ghost pointing at a trembling twelve-year-old boy in a cemetery, and I couldn’t shake it. I had a literary agent at the time, and she was excited about the idea and what the book could be.

So I wrote the first draft in early 2019. I felt it was the best first draft of a novel I had ever written. I did a second draft, and then a third draft (more of a polish, really). I sent it to my agent in April of 2019 super excited. I thought we had something great.

Her letter and line edits she sent back to me a few weeks later was depressing to say the least. There was so much wrong with the manuscript, she thought. Wrong point of view. Too many characters. Wrong choice to have one of the parents be dead. I agreed with some of her thoughts and not so much with some of the others, but I wanted to do right by her, wanted to get the novel to a place where she could be excited by it the way I was excited by it.

So over the next eight months I revised my middle grade novel four more times. I changed more than sixty percent of the story. Cut out thirty thousand words. Deleted two major characters. Changed the point of view. Had three outside beta readers give me feedback.

And the craziest thing happened during those eight months… I started to hate the novel.

Something I had loved in the beginning maybe more than anything I’d ever written, certainly for middle grade readers, had turned into a story I barely recognized anymore. It was no longer scary or spooky. So many of my favorite scenes had been cut along the way. The motivations of my main character were confused at best. And the last scene, so mysterious and satisfying in the first couple drafts, now was a talky, uninspired mess.

The day I decided to part ways with my agent, she sent me a long letter giving me more advice how to make the novel better, and most of what she said went against what I wanted to do with the story and certainly what I initially intended when I first started working on it. We went our separate ways. I started working on another book. I didn’t think about my ghost story for a year and a half.

At the beginning of June 2021, it was time. My teaching year was winding down, and I was having major withdrawals over this middle grade novel I hadn’t set eyes on since before the pandemic began. But here was the million dollar question: should I revise the seventh draft — the last one I worked on — or the third draft — the last time I actually liked the story?

During the weekend of June 4, I hunkered down and read both versions. It was an incredible few hours, let me tell you. When you read your own novel after not having looked at it for eighteen months, it’s like reading the work of someone else. But what made this experience so extraordinary is that the third draft and the seventh draft read like two different novels. The pacing is different, the point of view is different, dozens of scenes in the third draft aren’t in the seventh draft, and vice versa.

And you know what? It became clear to me early on: the better book is the earlier draft.

This is not to say the seventh draft is a disaster. There were a few scenes in the newer draft not in the earlier draft I loved and that I’ll be transferring over. Those eight months I spent revising that middle grade book four more times wasn’t a complete waste of time. I did some cool things that will have their places in the new draft — the 2021 draft, I like to call it.

But still, there’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears that went into four revisions of a book that for the most part are being tossed in the trash. Time is so precious as a fiction writer and we want those hours we spend at the keyboard to be worthwhile. We want them to mean something.

Well, you know what? They do mean something.

They always mean something, even if the end result is only ever seen by you and no one else.

You’ve probably read this or heard this before, but it’s true: any time spent writing or revising teaches you something. Even if you have to throw out your work. Even if you have to throw out scenes and characters and entire drafts you spent weeks and months on.

I’m throwing out 95% of four drafts of my novel, and I am thrilled about it. I started the new draft this week, and I’m going back to the book I loved in those early weeks. Yes, it needs a lot of work. Yes, some scenes, potentially even a character or two, will have to reworked or cut from the manuscript. I have tons of revising and editing ahead of me before I started querying this one to literary agents in the fall.

But it’s all for the best.

I’m listening to my gut on this one, and my gut says to go with the third draft, not the seventh. When the book was still working in a way I knew it was working and had promise to become something scary and memorable for younger readers.

Revisions are essential in the process of writing a novel, but don’t continue with another revision if the last one didn’t feel right. If you’re changing things and doing things for what you deep down believe to be the wrong reasons. It’s going to be your name on that cover, after all.

So do your best always to improve your latest novel through revisions and help from beta readers, but always remember it’s okay if you have to throw out one or more of those revisions.

Tell the story you want to tell, and make it your own. However long it may take.

And if you mess up somewhere along the way? Don’t panic. Those early drafts are always right there waiting for you.

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Posted in Writing

4 Quotes by Tobias Wolff to Make You a Better Writer

Tobias Wolff (born in 1945) is the author of Old School, This Boy’s Life: A Memoir, and the fabulous short story, “Bullet in the Brain.”

Here are four of his terrific quotes to inspire your writing!

1. There’s a joy in writing short stories, a wonderful sense of reward when you pull certain things off.

Even if your primary focus is writing novels, you should take the time here and there to experiment in short story writing. I love writing a short story for many reasons. It allows you to do something radically different you might not be afforded to do in a novel. It allows you to write something fast, in a week or two. And, as Tobias Wolff says, it allows a wonderful sense of reward when you pull certain things off.

I’ve been teaching English at the college level for many years now, and one of my favorite works of short fiction to teach my students is Wolff’s electric short story, “Bullet in Brain,” which has been heavily anthologized throughout the years. It’s so great because it starts one way, you have a pretty good sense as to where it’s going, and then about halfway through, Wolff takes you in a totally unexpected direction that could have flopped hard but instead works beautifully, like a minor miracle. Wolff took a chance with this story, and collected a huge reward in the end. Try to write short stories when you can. They can be so much fun to do, and so very satisfying!

2. I try to help people become the best possible editors of their own work, to help them become conscious of the things they do well, of the things they need to look at again, of the wells of material they have not even begun to dip their buckets into.

Wolff teaches English, too, and his dedication to his students is apparent from this quote. It’s not enough as a teacher to tell your students what’s working in their latest story and what isn’t working. It’s not enough to say what they’re good at and what they stink at. You have to dig deeper than that to bring good, thoughtful writers out of your students. Helping people become the best possible editors of their own work is a great place to start since at many points during a project the only editor you can truly rely on is yourself.

But going beyond editing, you want them to discover what talents they hold buried deep, down down and what kind of material that can slowly rise to the surface. Some writers, especially young ones who haven’t written much, are scared to tap into their secrets and fears and dreams. Some want to just work at the surface level of things and not offer us anything more than that. These writers won’t get far in their work, but if they have a teacher or a mentor who can help them recognize what they do well and what they can improve on, and then bring out the wells of material they can use for future work, that’s always going to be a great place to start.

If you’re an aspiring writer, it might be worth your time to seek out a teacher or a mentor who can help you. Inspiration, as you probably well know by now, can go a long way in your long writing life!/media/c701c4f3f089fca628d78c0b395a8953

3. There are writers who do start doing the same thing again and again and almost inevitably fall into self-parody.

One of the things you have to be especially careful of as a writer is not repeating yourself to the point where the things you fall into self-parody. It’s so hard because many writers get put into a specific kind of box, especially when they’re successful. They finally write a break-out bestseller, and they write a similar title to that first book that’s an even bigger hit, one that wins an award and is adapted for the screen, and so that author chooses to keep writing more books like that one. It makes sense, after all. You don’t want to write something that will alienate your fans.

But at the same time, there is something to be said for the pitfalls of doing the same thing again and again. After awhile you’ll get bored what the stories you’re pumping out, and your readers will eventually see that. You have to keep surprising yourself and taking chances in your writing, even if you’re writing in the same genre every time. Just because you write ten horror novels in a row doesn’t mean you have to keep repeating yourself. You can take the genre in new spooky directions and do a hundred nifty, unpredictable things with it. Once you begin veering into self-parody territory, that’s when it’s time to try something different or put down your pen once and for all.

4. When I was about fourteen or fifteen I decided to become a writer and never for a moment since have I wanted to do anything else.

Many writers are the same way. They knew from a young age that writing was something they had a gift for, enjoyed doing, looking forward to doing, and they haven’t looked back since. The truth is that writing has to be this way for you to stick with it. If you just sort of like doing it, or think of writing more as an occasional hobby than anything else, you won’t get very far. You have to have the writing bug in your blood as much as possible.

I’ve been that way for the longest time. I’ve been voraciously reading and writing since I was in third grade, and I haven’t stopped. There was a period for a few years where I only wrote screenplays, but even during that period I was writing all the time and loving the process. And in the past ten years I’ve been writing and revising fiction almost every day, and what a joy it has been. I absolutely love writing, and I can’t wait to see what I end up doing in the next ten years.

You want to feel the same way. Sure, it’s okay if you didn’t know at fourteen or fifteen years old that you wanted to be a writer. It’s fine if you didn’t get serious about writing until your twenties or thirties, or even older. Better late than never, as they say. What’s most important is that you’ve found your calling now, and you want to give yourself over to it as much as you can. You want to love writing so much that you don’t really want to do anything else.

Make writing the greatest joy in your life and give it everything you have!

Posted in Writing

Why You Should Just Omit Needless Words


Recently I tweeted the following writing tip:

This tweet goes beyond the advice that a single word should be deleted from your manuscript. Yes, the word “just” is almost always useless, a placeholder in a way for an otherwise solid sentence.

What this tweet was really about was the necessity to be ruthless in your editing of your manuscript, not only cutting the scenes that need to go and re-shaping the moments that still need revision, but going through your work one sentence at a time and cutting the words that do not, under any circumstance, need to be there. Stephen King talks about this in On Writing, and the advice first came from the great Strunk & White craft book, The Elements of Style: Omit needless words.

This advice sounds so simple. And also kind of meaningless. In the large scope of things, is your writing, especially in your novels, going to be rejected due to an overuse of one single word or the occasional sentence that might run too long?

Yes, it will. Or, at least, there’s a stronger possibility of rejection.

Donald Maass has a great quote in his book, Writing the Breakout Novel: “To write a breakout novel is to run free of the pack. It is to delve deeper, think harder, revise more, and commit to creating characters and plot that surpass one’s previous accomplishments. It is to say ‘no’ to merely being good enough to be published” (12). That final line is clearly his main thesis of the book: in this cutthroat industry, where so many talented writers are trying to break in, it is not sufficient enough for any writer to simply produce a publishable piece of work. Of course it’s important to start with something great, but Maass wants authors to take that solid manuscript that gets an 8 out of 10 and bring it to a full 10. And one way to get to that 10 is to pay attention to a single word like “just” that may be everywhere in your manuscript without you even noticing.

So think of this as two steps. Whether you’re revising a short story or a novel, when you’ve hit a point where you feel like it’s ready to submit or query, go through it one more time looking only at the sentences themselves, the way they look on the page and transition from one to the next, with specific focus on any words you feel don’t need to be there. If a word makes a sentence sound awkward, or if a word looks perfectly fine but doesn’t add anything to the sentence, delete it. Now’s the time to cut, cut, cut. Don’t be precious with your words. Don’t leave something in a paragraph because it sounds pretty. The idea is to omit those needless words, and keep only what’s necessary to make your manuscript truly spectacular.

The next step, once you’re as done as done can be, is to search for a few of these problematic words and cut them from the manuscript. Read the sentence before you cut them, of course. Sometimes, yes, the word “just” can be appropriate for a sentence, and of course it’s perfectly fine in dialogue, up to a point. The other word to look for is “very.” My journalism teacher Mr. Halcomb taught me years ago that the word “very” can in every single circumstance be cut from a sentence, and so I’ve committed to that practice in each piece I write.

You also want to avoid, as much as possible, the dreaded adverb, oy, yoy, yoy. But I’ll leave the adverb discussion for another post.

Now, to be clear, when it comes to the practice of editing your manuscript closely like this, remember that indeed this should be one of your last steps before submission. Nothing’s more annoying than spending an hour closely editing a scene that three months later you end up cutting from your manuscript completely. It happens, of course. There’s a scene in my recent novel I probably revised and edited fifteen times until I ultimately deleted it from the manuscript. But for the most part, you want to try to hold off on this editing practice until the scene is as strong as you’ve been able to make it from a character and story standpoint.

At the end of the process, though, don’t slack and submit your writing before you’ve done the nitty-gritty editing work. It can be tedious at times, and not always the most fun, but this essential part will help make your writing stand out from the crowd!

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Posted in Writing

Taking Breaks From Your Writing Will Improve Your Writing

Recently I tweeted the following writing tip:

It seems so contradictory, doesn’t it? To write well, you have to allow for periods of no writing, or, better yet, a halt to the writing of your current project and the beginning of writing something completely different. It sounds unnecessary. And sometimes you love a project so much the thought of abandoning it for a month or longer seems impossible.

But trust me. This works.

I’ve written many novels over the years. Eighteen, in fact. The first half or more I would work on nearly every day for months, through revision one, revision two, and on and on, until I got the manuscript to its best possible place. I queried these novels… and nothing happened. My problem was that I wasn’t really revising the books. I was so close to the story, and to the characters, that the revisions were basically glorified copy-editing, changing words and sentences around, but never really addressing problems with the big picture.

What’s changed me a lot, along with a kick-ass MFA program, a helpful thesis advisor, and an unbelievably smart literary agent, is taking long breaks from my works-in-progress so that when I return to them I read them with fresh eyes. I’ve made a practice of late to write a first draft of a novel, let it rest for at least four weeks, and during that break time, write a new short story. I’ll do this after the second draft, too. And the third. And the fourth.

You should try to turn your attention to a new creative project, preferably something totally different from your novel. Maybe a story of a different genre. Or a non-fiction piece. Or a group of poems. Something to keep your creative juices flowing at the same you’re able to remove yourself from the world of your novel.

I’ve used this practice for the last three years or so, and now I’ve written both a middle grade novel that got me a literary agent and my MFA thesis novel my agent loves and wants to work on. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I kept up the practice of never giving myself breaks. I’d probably still be perfecting a previous manuscript that had no shot at being represented by an agent.

In his amazing non-fiction work On Writing, a craft book I try to read once a year, Stephen King recommends you take at least six weeks between drafts. This is even better than four weeks, but I do still think a month is enough to do the job. That’s enough time to keep you excited about the next revision of your WIP while you still have room to play in a different creative project.

Granted, I understand you might not always have the luxury to rest between drafts. Sometimes there’s a magazine contest that’s perfect for your story, and the deadline to submit is twelve hours away. And of course there are deadlines in the publishing world, like when you’re under contract and have only so many days to get your manuscript to the editor.

But if you have the luxury of time, take breaks between drafts, at least four weeks, if not longer. I once let a novel of mine sit for 14 months, and when I came back to it, it was like looking at the work of a different writer — I was able to approach the book as a ruthless editor, and I had a blast. You probably won’t have 14 months, but at least give yourself a few weeks, and your fiction will be all the better for it.

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