But before I get to the disagreeing: I’ve been so brain-deep in finishing A Star Shall Fall, I overlooked the fact that Podcastle’s audio of “A Heretic by Degrees” has gone live. So go, listen, enjoy.
Right, so, the disagreeing.
I find it interesting that Dean Wesley Smith begins this post with the assertion that “No writer is the same” — and then proceeds to make his point (on the topic of rewriting) with such vehemence and absolutism that it could easily be mistaken for divine, universal law. Which is a pity, because I think he has a good point to make; but the force behind it drives the point way deeper than I think it deserves to go, and as a result, people who find themselves disagreeing with the full version may miss the value of the reduced version.
I think he’s right that rewriting can hurt a story. It can polish the fire out, like focus-testing a product until it’s bland pablum that doesn’t offend anybody, but doesn’t interest them, either. Sometimes you get it right the first time.
But. He seems to be arguing (with the force of an evangelical preacher) that your critical brain will never be useful to you as a writer. This works because a particular rhetorical trick:
The critical side of the brain is full of all the crap you learned in high school, everything your college teachers said, what your workshop said, and the myths you have bought into. It is also full of the fear that comes out in “I can’t show this to friends.” Or, “What would my mother think?” That is all critical side thinking that makes you take a great story and dumb it down.
So he defines the critical brain as “crap,” and then declares it’s useless. Well, sure, when you put it that way.
Reading his article, this is the chain of logic I felt I was being led down: you can never see the flaws in your own work because you’re too close to it, but there isn’t much use in showing it to other people because the changes they suggest (beyond minor things that can be fixed in a day) will only make the story worse, and even if they make the story better it’s a waste of your time because you might as well apply what you’ve learned to the next piece instead of the one in your hands.
Which is one thing when it’s a short story that you can knock out in a day. But I believe two things: first, that the critical brain is not crap, but rather one part of a two-horse team; and second, that when you’re talking novels, there is a HELL of a lot to be said for trying to fix what’s broke in a novel, because of the time investment required. Done judiciously, it will increase the odds of you selling the thing you’ve spent time on, and it will train your creative brain so it does better next time.
A two-horse team is probably a bad analogy, because the horses are doing different jobs, both of them necessary. The creative brain, poor thing, is doing all the heavy lifting; it’s dragging the carriage of your novel along the road as fast as it can. This is the horse that carries the weight and knows where it’s going. But the critical-brain horse is the one watching that road, making sure its partner doesn’t send the whole affair flying off a cliff. It keeps the speed down just enough that the carriage doesn’t break an axle or lose some important piece by the side of the road, and sometimes as a result, the creative brain sees a neglected little path it would have careened right past, that leads somewhere even more awesome than where it was trying to go.
And then — just to stretch my metaphor to the breaking point — after you’ve made that journey, the critical brain goes back and picks stones out of the road, smooths out the potholes, and adds signage along the way, because it understands much better than the creative brain does that other people are going to try to follow you down that road, and they may not follow that hairpin turn you made in Chapter Nine. Sometimes it even spots a shortcut, that gets to where the creative brain was trying to go by a better route.
Because your critical brain is useful. It has perspective. And even if your process is different enough that my horses-and-carriage metaphor doesn’t fit what you do, at some point along the way, you need perspective if your story is ever going to communicate to more people than just yourself. Slush piles are filled with the output of people who let their creative processes off the leash without any perspective whatsoever, and contra Mr. Smith — or, more fairly, pro his initial statement, lost in the ensuing shuffle — a lot of those people would benefit from rewriting, so they practice not making the same mistakes in everything they write.
I suspect he pulled another trick, in this paragraph:
As a putter-inner, I write thin (my poetry background still not leaving me alone) and then as I go along, I cycle back and add in more and then cycle again and add in more, staying in creative voice, just floating around in the manuscript as I go along. Some people of this type make notes as they go along and then go back in a touch-up draft and put stuff in.
Maybe what he’s putting in is all really small stuff, that fits his own definition of a touch-up draft being maybe a day of work at most. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some of what he’s doing as he “cycles back” is rewriting-level work. He may do it before he’s finished his draft, and I certainly hope he’s keeping his creative brain engaged as he does it, but there’s still some part of him recognizing that the story as it currently exists doesn’t work, and I call that part the critical mind. We all need it, and it does writers a disservice to pretend it’s an obstacle instead of a tool.