things I have a profound disagreement with

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.

0 Responses to “things I have a profound disagreement with”

  1. owldaughter

    Oh good, I’m not alone.

    I had issues with it too, namely that it sounded like he was bashing rewriting, but then went on the describe his process… which sounds like rewriting to me.

    I also bristled at the “no one else can tell you to rewrite… except an editor who has accepted your work” assertion. So essentially, everyone else is blind to your faults except someone who offers you money for it?

    • Marie Brennan

      Not that, I think — more that you shouldn’t spend your time on the advice of anybody who can’t offer you money. Which makes sense if you believe rewriting is a waste of time in its own right, but completely devalues advice from anybody.

  2. rj_anderson

    If I couldn’t rewrite, obsessively, all the time, I would get no pleasure or satisfaction out of the writing process at all. The times in the past when I’ve attempted to bypass my critical faculties, telling myself that my Inner Editor is being unreasonable and that I just need to go full steam ahead until I’ve got that “crappy first draft” out of the way, have invariably ended in unhappiness and disaster for me.

    My firm belief, based on this experience, is that every author and every writing process is different, and as long as what comes out of it is a finished book with which the author is satisfied, that is perfectly okay. It doesn’t matter how you get there, or who you involve in the process. You just have to do what works for you.

    • Marie Brennan

      Technically, Smith acknowledges that point. It just felt too much like lip-service to me, when weighed against the rest of his evangelizing post.

      The Inner Editor has a useful contribution to make. It only becomes a problem when its voice grows so loud that you back off or stop working.

  3. stormsdotter

    What I took away from his post was that he’d gotten some really awful criticisms in the past, and is distrustful of all criticism now.

    I have been there: my degree is in Architecture and we have tests and final exams by way of pinning up drawings, commenting on them, and then letting the professor and his friends bash them. I never sat through a final where one of the students didn’t cry, but I also did not go to the best school. I have received every criticism from “I like your ideas but–” to “I would be embarrassed to show this to my boss!” to “Your thesis is just a veritum” (my Latin lessons saved me that day!)

    Personally, I think a blog post on how to weigh criticism and decide what to pay attention to and what to ignore would be far more valuable. After I’ve had a half-dozen or so literary works critiqued, I may write something of that nature, but right now I don;t have the experience!

    • Marie Brennan

      I wouldn’t presume to speculate on the motivations of somebody I don’t know at all.

      Weighing criticism . . . hmmmmm. For all that I’ve done workshops and even taught a creative writing class, I don’t know if I could articulate how to filter feedback in that manner. It’s something I still do on instinct, without conscious understanding.

  4. matociquala

    Horse and rider, is what you are describing.

    And yes. That’s exactly how it works for me.

    Left brain and right brain are a team, and when one or the other gets the upper hand the process comes to a halt until I get their feet sorted and get them pulling together again.

    before I developed my critical faculty, I was not a publishable writer. now I am.

    • Marie Brennan

      I was thinking of you as I wrote this, actually, because of what you’ve said about learning to translate your own narrative processes into a form more easily read by other people.

      I went with two-horse team rather than horse-and-rider because the latter makes me self-identify with the rider too much, when I’m just as much the horse — but yes, that does smooth out the distinction between the two roles. And you need both to get anything useful done.

      • matociquala

        I would tend to self-identify with the horse. *g* But then, Barbara Hambly made me cry with that bit in Dragonsbane where Jenny tells the girls she could turn her into a filly.

        And yeah. I mean, I ought to post something I wrote when I was twenty-five, just to show people what I mean.

  5. kateelliott

    My response to that Smith’s blog post goes like this:

    Whatever, dude.

  6. dynix

    Its funny, this post reminds me so much of what a friend of mine once said, “keep making films, don’t polish them over and over and over again and don’t pay too much heed to critics, because your first efforts might not be brilliant but it’s important you do them because thats how you learn. It’s important you let go of them and do the next thing straight after, because that’s how you learn.”

    The difference is that the point my friend was trying to get across was that its hard to get started and to learn, so degrees of bloodymindedness are in order, in order to get anything done at all. He wasn’t saying that things couldn’t be made better by working on them more or learning from them.

    Where as from the post in question I get a massive sense of “The world is wrong and I am right, and there are no truths other than the ones I am presenting here, one of which being that you never need to critically evaluate your work for yourself”. Even if the content were correct (and I think some of the sentiments behind it are probably partly useful) the attitude is offputting enough that I regret reading it.

    • Marie Brennan

      Sorry for linking to it, then. <g>

      Letting go of something and moving onto the next thing is definitely an important piece of the approach. It’s all about the balance, though.

      • dynix

        aw thats ok:)

        (NEVER DO IT AGAIN *seriousface*)

        I actuallywish writers would sotimes write making-ofs in the same way filmmakers make them. Here is a story & here is astory about how I made the story.

        Not a how-to kit or instruction manual or something that takes it apart and helpfully breaks it for you. Just a story.

        • Marie Brennan

          I like that kind of thing, too.

          Tell you what — if there’s any one short story or novel of mine you’d want to hear that kind of thing about, let me know, and I’ll post it.

  7. c0untmystars

    Late to the party here, but I just now got to reading some of the comments on DWS’s post and my head damn near exploded over “never do anything in critical voice” even when adding or deleting in the touch-up draft. There seems to be, for lack of a better term, a cult of the creative mind that says that pure creativity straight from the artist’s brain is always best, and all outside opinions or critical thoughts do nothing but obscure the creator’s genius (the fine art world is full of this). I can’t decide if it’s worse than or just different from the idea that rewriting always helps. (Having both studied art and worked in Hollywood has given me a low tolerance for both extremes.)

    I also think pushing the idea that real pro writers don’t rewrite (as DWS does) is dangerous, because, first, I think it’s a broad generalization, and second, I can imagine young just-starting-out writers buying into the idea, comparing their work to their favorite author’s, saying “my first drafts don’t look like that” and despairing. Now, I’m sure some would see that as a good thing based on the “if you can be discouraged you should be” philosophy, but I think “pros don’t rewrite” invites MORE comparison to others and MORE internalized critical voice and thus is ironically counterproductive to the idea of being confident in your own first draft.

    • Marie Brennan

      Good points in that second para.

      The extremes are both a problem. “My genius cannot be improved upon!” is trouble, but so is “I have to rewrite this eight million times!”

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