This August, it will be five years since I decided to start writing on a professional level. A lot of things have changed since then, and in some ways they’re changing even faster now.
For example, in May 2009 I started a spreadsheet to keep track of my daily word counts. I’ve been keeping it diligently ever since then, with graphs and everything. But just recently, I’ve decided to stop doing that. Word count is a very shallow indicator of progress: it only measures quantity, and often leads to unnecessary angst or diverts attention from more important things.
Instead, I’m going to focus more on deadlines and work to develop some other, better indicators. Number of books published per year is probably a key one, as well as number of manuscripts finished. But deadlines are probably going to be the most important drivers from here on out: publishing deadlines as well as writing deadlines.
Another thing that’s shifting is my revision process. I know that a lot of beginning writers hate Heinlein’s rules, but almost all the long-term professionals swear by them–especially the ones with careers that I would like to emulate. This makes me think that I need to scale back on the revisions and develop more trust in my creative voice.
Just as a point of reference, Heinlein’s rules are:
- You must write.
- You must finish what you write.
- You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
- You must put the work on the market.
- You must keep the work on the market until it has sold.
I’m currently on the second draft of Stars of Blood and Glory, and what I’ve found so far is that the overall story is actually pretty good. Some of the scenes are a little out of order, and some of the plot-lines are missing elements that need to be added in, but aside from a few chapters where I got lost for a couple of pages, not a lot needs to be changed.
Of course, I could spend a draft or two tweaking every other sentence, tossing out most of what I wrote in the heat of my creative passion–but would that really make the story any better? I recently had Kindal’s writing group critique my first chapter–the one that I revised pretty heavily in April–and they found all sorts of problems that weren’t in the original draft, as I wrote it back in December.
Don’t get me wrong–I do think there is an important place for revision. But I think it’s best epitomized by Tracy Hickman in this episode of Writing Excuses:
We write from the heat of our passion, but we edit to see the fire through the smoke.
And even Tracy only does three drafts.
The other thing that’s changing is how I look at alpha reading. I used to have different tiers of alpha and beta readers–most of whom were writers in other genres, and not really fans of science fiction. I asked them to give me as much feedback as they could, and bugged them for weeks or months at a time asking if they’d read my story. I then compiled all their line-by-line comments into one giant master-file, which I kept open on the left side of my screen as I made the changes to my manuscript on the right.
Well, I’ve started to realize that there’s a huge difference between reading for criticism and reading for enjoyment. Because of that, a lot of the things my alpha and beta readers pointed out were things that most regular readers probably wouldn’t have noticed. Towards the end, I started to get wise on this, and only followed about a third of the criticism that I received.
Don’t get me wrong–I do appreciate the feedback. A lot of it helped me to see and fix problems that I’d otherwise missed. But a lot of it came out in casual conversations with my readers after they’d finished the story–not in the line-by-line comments on the original draft.
For those reasons, I think I’m going to change the way I ask for feedback. Instead of alpha and beta readers, I’m going to go with a handful of “test readers”–readers who enjoy the kind of science fiction I like to write, but who may or may not be writers themselves. Instead of asking for a detailed, line-by-line critique, I’m going to ask them three things:
- Did you enjoy the story?
- If you stopped reading it, where did you stop?
- Did you enjoy it enough to pay for it?
I’ll ask them to give it three chances, and if they still can’t finish, that’s okay–just let me know where the hangups were. And if they do finish it, I might have some questions for them–but then again, I might not. It all depends on the story.
Compared to where I was when I started out–or even where I was three months ago–those are some pretty huge paradigm shifts. I have no idea how it’s going to turn out. I’ve grown a lot as a writer recently, and I hope that this is moving me in the right direction, but I won’t really know until I’ve tried it out for a while.
In any case, this post is long enough. I’d better get back to writing.