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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Dean Wesley Smith: Current Object of My Ire

Let's dish out some ire. I read this article by Dean Wesley Smith and cannot figure out whether he's just one of those writing rogues whose method works for a smattering of people, or if there's any value in it.

Now let me preface this by saying I'm an unpublished author, so I could, and should be, considered full of shit. But then, so should everyone.

The basic premise of this article is that there's a big myth in the writing industry: rewriting makes something better. This isn't true. Why? Because you can polish a giant turd as much as you want, but it remains a giant turd.

Exsqueeze me? Baking powder? No rewriting? My story would suck ass if I didn't rewrite it. I need feedback to see what I got wrong. I need revisions to make sure what I said was what I meant to say. Every teacher teaches rewriting since fifth grade -- you're telling me they're all wrong?

Maybe it's true that a great writer can write without rewriting -- Ellison, Clarke, Faulkner -- sure they can do it. But that's because they're geniuses. Fortunate freaks. They're at where they're at because only they can do what they do, and if they could bottle it up and sell it at $19.95 a pop, they would. These people are born, not made. The rest of us can only hope to be competent, publishable writers. Maybe some of us will become great if we work really hard at it.

"I never hear it from long-term pros (over 20 plus years making a living)." That's cause they're 20-year veterans. They know what they're doing. Does Michael Jordan need to do drills and practice shots? No. Did he have to when he was eighteen? Yes. Does Coco Chanel have to throw away whole dresses and start over from scratch? No. Did she have to when she was first starting out? Probably. Did Eminem send out every song he ever wrote to music producers? No. He looked at what he wrote, revised it, changed it, and then sent out a "demo" - that's a small collection of his best work. That's why they have easy modes on video games - because you don't quite know what you're doing at first. You don't know which button does what or when to use it. Rewriting is practice. Newbies have trouble getting the bridge from their mind to the page to work right. So they should look at what they have just done.

"So, what is the new writer to do at this point with a finished novel? Simple. Mail it to editors who could buy it." Are you kidding? Send something full of misfired thoughts and 'just-get-through-it' scenes? Should I send out first draft after first draft, based on my stream of consciousness? A story is like a resume - its a demonstration of your work, and you don't just send out the first version to everyone with a help wanted sign. You analyze, target, track, and give them what they want to see. Then you wait to see if you got the job.

The idea that what you wrote is good enough? I don't think so. "There is no perfect book." Sure, but there is a perfect version of your book - at least as perfect as you can get it (no work of art is ever completed, only abandoned). And your job as a writer is to make it as perfect as possible.

"Rewriting is not writing. ... Putting new and original words on a page is writing. Nothing more, and nothing less." Writing is two different things - composing and rethinking. It doesn't matter whether it's perfect, it matters whether it's right. And it's right if what you thought equals what you wrote. Rewriting is a form of writing. I don't see how it couldn't be. You could compose sheets and sheets of music, but if you never listen to what it sounds like all together, you're shouting into the wind. It would be like installing a program and never running it.

"You must not rewrite unless to editorial demand." Some of this makes sense - you have to keep your story flexible to changes desired by the publisher. That's why I'm going to send out draft 3 of Black Hole Son, instead of doing a further fourth revision, which might clean up some artifacts and typos. But he's saying that rewriting takes time away from composing, and no one is worthy of revising your novel: not your friend, not your agent, not even you, the guy who wrote the damn thing in the first place. Only the NEW YORK editor is capable of giving you feedback, because he is paying you and he knows what he's doing. Unless you disagree, apparently.

Then he talks about how Harlan Ellison would go into a bookstore, get an idea from someone or something, then proceed to write story after story, never revising, never rewriting, never rethinking. Then he'd tape the pages to the window for everyone to see. First, I can do that too. They do it all the time on FanFiction.net. Second, this is Harlan Ellison. Look at his Wikipedia entry. He's won multiple Bram Stoker awards, multiple Hugo awards, multiple Locus awards, multiple Nebula awards, multiple Edgar awards, and one Bradbury award (come on, Harlan, only one?). He's like Ernest Hemingway or Charles Dickens - unreplicatable. Does Smith think all we need to do is stop rewriting and we'll be ranked with Heinlein and Ellison? Plus, given that he's got a whole section dedicated to controversies, I don't think he's someone I'd like to emulate.

"And when you win as many awards in science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and mainstream fiction as Harlan has, you can argue with him." Oh, yeah? Watch me. James Joyce considered himself lucky if he got ten words out a day. BTW, Smith, I don't see any awards in your camp, just a lot of licensed works (which we call fan fiction in the real world).

"In pure skill level, the critical side is far, far behind the creative side of your brain." There's more on top and bottom of this, and you can read it if you want, but basically he's saying that since you've been creating far longer than you've been criticizing, your creative side is at a higher skill level than your ability to critique. First, this may not be necessarily true. I was working Critters about as long as I've been writing and my skill has improved since I've been both critiquing and been critiqued. I don't think Smith is up to date on the resources available for writers these days. Second, I've been talking longer than I've been singing. Does that mean I'm better at delivering a speech than singing a song? You can't be so objective with such a thing. Writing takes skill and practice, like anything. And there's lots of things rookies do when they start that signal bad writing (adverbs, dynamic dialogue tags, stilted dialogue) on an otherwise good story. You must revise to catch these things. I know I do.

He equates courage with shrinking down into a shell, saying "It's not ready, I need to revise it", when what you're really saying is "I'm too scared to send it out." Bullshit. Yes, it takes courage to send it out. But courage has nothing to do with revising. The only thing I'm scared to send out is something I can't stand behind. I could sell a hundred stories, and that might make me happy, but it wouldn't make me satisfied that those were the stories I wanted to write. That's why some authors only write one book (J.D. Salinger) their entire lives.

"[T]he creative side... is your two-year-old child. ..[I]f you let the child just play and get out of its way and stop trying to put your mother’s or father’s voice on everything it does, you will be amazed at what you create." Let me tell you about my two-year-old child (well, seventeen months, but let's not split hairs). She climbs up onto the couch, then climbs back down, then climbs up, then climbs down. She laughs maniacally when I hide a puppet from her, then slowly reveal it. She will cry the second she isn't getting something she wants, even if she doesn't want anything. She yells at photographs. She reads books upside-down. She smushes her face into her stuffed toys, then bites them on the nose (I think she thinks she's kissing them). In short, my two-year-old makes no sense. Just like a first draft would.

Of course, you can't argue with results. Smith claims he's gotten a hundred novel deals and short stories (of course, he seems to be more well-known for his licensed works – Star Trek, Aliens, Men in Black, and the like -- which we all know make a difference in salability). where he gets his students to write a story in a night and send it out, and has gotten good success from that. Then he makes a thinly veiled attempt to accuse all writers of lying when he says one author tells fans that he makes ten drafts, when he only does one. When prodded, he says he gives the fans what they want, what they expect, to make his books worth more. Way to go there.

He also makes the point that he does this on a regular basis with rousing success. The first time he sent in a first draft, fresh from the typewriter, and it was accepted. Sure, that's completely possible. Unfortunately, we don't know if they would have accepted a revised draft either. The content and idea of a story are also a factor. A competently written story also needs to be original, engaging, free from psychologist office rants, and not something which was just published. I tell you, I would He's also taught a workshop not be comfortable with going right from the word processor to the mail slot. Not with the way I write. Plus, the fact that he talks about his typewriter and blanketing the world with submissions tells you he's operating from a less than current mindset. Now that he's published, he doesn't have to worry about getting his name out there.

And I'm a supporter of keeping the first draft as free from criticism as possible - write as freely as possible. Of course, this resulted in a 160,000 word draft for me, but I'm new to this writing thing. I like the idea that if the writer doesn't know where he/she is going, the reader definitely won't. I'd say it's better to be a taker-outer than a putter-inner. If you're a taker-outer, you've overwritten your previous draft and need to condense it. Condensations work great - you make a tighter story, but can still retain most of your content. If you're a putter-inner, you're trying to put in filler. Which means you're purposefully slowing the story down so you can fulfill an obligation to make the work a certain length. That goes against the first duty to the story. Anything that's not the story should be removed. And in order to be a good taker-outer, you need to revise.

So in conclusion, I don't believe revising should be done away with. Especially not for starting writers. When Metallica starts cutting a track, do they take the first thing they play and send it to the producers? No, they work it, rework it, revise it, jam some more, funnel it down into a single musical idea, and then send it out.

But this guy's had success, and I'd rather have success than be right. So I might try using this strategy in the future, once I get back to the short stories.

And yes, I revised this not once, not twice, but thrice. I like this version a lot better than what I started with.
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