After Creating

By Allison Brennan

Writing a story is about creation. Writers write. We put to paper stories that play out in our heads. Some authors hear their stories, some authors see their stories. Some even feel the story and put that emotion to paper. I'm a visual author. I see the story unfold and write what I see through the viewpoint character.

When I first started writing, I didn't have a viewpoint character. The narrator was me, the author. Only through writing–practice, practice, practice!–and discovering my natural voice did I fall into my rhythm. I learned to become my viewpoint character. So if I'm in the heroine's POV, I see, think, and feel as the heroine. Ditto for the villain. Getting into character is part of creating the story. And since I don't plot, I learn a lot about my characters as the story unfolds, until the end of the book when I finally see them as complete, whole individuals with full backstories.

I love the creating part of writing–the discovery, the frantic typing, showing everything that's happening as I try to figure out what's going on within my imaginary world. This is the part of writing where errors don't matter, where the right word is the first word that comes to mind. It's meeting a new best friend, or a worst enemy, and learning everything about them and more. I see it all and do my best to get it down as clearly as possible.

I'm done with that part of FATAL SECRETS, my June book. A few days late, but done. The story is all out there, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Now comes revising.

Before I sold–well, to be honest, up through book five–I always edited before I sent the book to my editor. I had the time, and I didn't know how to do it any different. Dump the story out, then clean it up–finding those right words, cutting repetition, smoothing transitions, deleting subplots that went nowhere, adding scenes to better tell the story. But because my publication schedule was moved up for the No Evil trilogy, I had to write the last book of that trilogy on a tight deadline, giving me no time to edit. Essentially, I was forced to change my process.

I thought it would be hugely difficult for me to change. I contemplated plotting but the thought of plotting out a book before writing it causes me to break out in a sweat and all ideas quickly disappear. It was with that book, FEAR NO EVIL, that I started editing as I went.

I write a net 5-20 pages a day, five days a week (seven when in crunch time.) The next day, I edit what I wrote the day before–sometimes deleting huge chunks, sometimes just tweaking, sometimes adding in a complete scene. It can take an hour, it can take four hours. But the result is a tighter manuscript . . . which is important because I now only write one draft before I send the book to my editor.

I suppose one draft is a misnomer because I often write (and rewrite and rewrite) the first 100-125 pages (what Alex would call the First Act) three or four times before I can move to the rest of the story. (Damn that Road of Trials! It delays me every time.) The first quarter of the book takes me as long to write as the last three-quarters. Some people will claim it's because I haven't plotted my book out, but I'd argue that I'm simply trying to find my characters unique voices and backstory. Once I have a sense of character–essentially, once I've been in their shoes enough to truly know them as well as I know myself–the rest isn't as difficult. (I will never say "easy." It's never easy, and every book is in many ways harder than the previous book. I now see my weaknesses more clearly, but don't always know how to fix them.)

This is why after creating the story I'm comfortable sending it off, flawed, to my editor. She knows I don't have a critique partner or first reader–she's my first reader. It's tight, it's clean, but it's flawed. Some of the problems I can sense, but some of them I can't–I'm so invested in the story and the characters I can't even see that there is a problem.

I always do revisions. I WANT revisions. If my editor told me something I wrote was perfect or the problems so minor I could fix them in copyedits, I would panic and fear they were abandoning me. My stories are not perfect, I can always make them better. This is why I don't read my books after they are published–I know I would see flaws or want to change something or cringe at using the same adjective on two consecutive pages.

A good editor, in my opinion, will show you the problems in the story without telling you how to fix them. She will see the overall story, the direction, the characters, the feeling and then look at each scene and character in context and point out where the strengths of the story are and the weaknesses. Then let you, the author, fix the problems with your own voice and style and solutions. Often, editors are brilliant in seeing the problems but can't see the solution.

Case in point: during my editorial conversation on THE KILL, my third book, my editor commented that the climax was too short–that there was all this great build-up, but then they captured the bad guy too quickly. During the scene, my heroine is being held at gunpoint and forced to drive the car to help the bad guy escape. The hero and another cop are following. My editor suggested to prolong the scene, my heroine should go for the gun.

The thing is, my heroine would NEVER go for the gun. It's not in her character and to have her do so would, IMO, have be unrealistic. But I tried. I took a water pistol and role-played with my husband. Me driving, him holding the gun on me. No matter WHAT I did, I ended up dead (or soaked, since we were using a water pistol.) I fretted over this scene because now that my editor mentioned that it was anti-climatic, I saw the flaws as she saw them–but her solution wasn't working.

I played the scene over and over and put myself in Olivia's shoes and . . . it came to me. What was her goal? To escape. She was in the car with a psychopath and she knew that she would be dead. This man killed her sister and dozens of other girls over thirty years. He was disciplined and focused and he would kill her because she'd thwarted him. And she's not an FBI agent. She's a scientist, a lab technician, not a cop. 

So being Olivia, the thing she WOULD do is slam on the brakes to throw the bad guy off balance and jump from the car, planning on rolling away so that if he shoots at her there's less chance of being hit. And she knows that there are two cops in a car right behind her, so the chances that the bad guy would get away were slim to none.

So she slams on the brakes while opening her drivers side door. The bad guy is thrown against the dashboard. He drops the gun with the impact. She leaps from the car . . . and he grabs her, pulls her back inside, and has a knife in his hand. The knife goes to her throat and he nicks her, the sharp cut burning, her blood dripping down her chest, onto her white shirt. And the scene, instead of ending, has really just begun.

I've started my revisions for FATAL SECRETS, which are pretty straight-forward. But that doesn't mean they're easy. And, though the story is staying exactly the same, I'll need to touch every scene–from minor tweaks to major deletions and additions.

There are four primary problems I need to address: 1) my heroine's backstory is too dense and unclear. I need to lose some of the history and make the rest clear and focused and germane to the current story. As we discussed her character, I saw the flaws then everything clicked into place and I "got it." Ironically, it's all there in the story–I just need to bring it to the surface.
2) Sub-plots. There are three sub-plots, but only two tie in nicely with the main story. The third was going someplace, but it never got there . . . yet I didn't see it. My editor did. When she pointed it out, I had two choices–I could make it tie in (which would have been forced) or dump it. I'm choosing to dump it. For the other two sub-plots, they have all the elements there I just need to tie up the loose ends better. Since I tend to write much faster as I turn into the third act, I sometimes neglect wrapping up the subplots. It's a flaw of mine that I know exists, but I can't seem to see it even when I KNOW it's there somewhere. 3) Villain. My editor loves my villains and always wants more of them. She brought up a great point that this story really has two villains, and I did a "bait and switch" in the middle which she felt cheated her. She wants my bad guy's POV sooner. It's already "there" just off the page–I have the aftermath of a brutal double murder. She wants to see it from the killer's POV. And add in another scene if possible. As I've looked at the story, I see where I can cut and add to weave in his POV earlier. 4) Ending. Every book–EVERY book–no matter how good or bad I think my ending is (and I knew this one was rushed, so I expected this) she wants me to draw it out, expand it. Sort of like in THE KILL, I build up to a great confrontation, but in my excitement that I FINALLY have everything figured out, I often miss the details.

So there you have it, revisions. I honestly love revisions and believe that all stories are stronger under the tutelage of a good editor. Some writers hate revisions, or fight them. I have friends who never have revisions, and I wonder if they are just better writers than me. And that's fine, seriously. I happen to love the revising part of writing as much as the writing part of writing. After creating the characters and the story, going back and making them everything they can be . . . well, it's quite a heady experience. 

But the other thing about a good editor is that when you don't agree with a flaw–if she can't convince you that there is a problem–you can keep your original vision. In my acknowledgments for THE HUNT, my second book but the book that had the most revisions of all mine to date, I wrote:

"Football coach Ara Parseghian said: 'A good coach will make his players see what they can be rather than what they are.' I would be remiss if I did not first thank my editor, Charlotte Herscher, who not only showed me the potential of this story but let me find my own path to The End."

But my way doesn't work for everyone–I know some people would be apoplectic if they submitted material they knew wasn't the best they could make it. Before that crunch book #6, I had a process that worked very well for me. Because I have more time with the first two books of my Seven Deadly Sins series, I'm going back to this process after finishing the Sacramento FBI Trilogy.

1) Create. Write the book, dump it out, warts and all. (Because I have been editing as I go, I doubt I can completely give that up, but I'm going to do less of it.)

2) Sit on the book. Take at least a week away from the story and work on something completely different–a short story, an article, a proposal, or the first pages of the next book.

3) Revise on hard copy–edit, clean, hone, delete, add, tighten. 

4) Put all the changes into the computer copy and further tweak and tighten the story.

5) Send to my editor and eagerly await her editorial letter. Because I know that whatever I write can be stronger.

Some other editing tips:

1) Edit in a different format from how you created the story. If you type in 12 pt courier double-spaced, print it out in TNR and edit on hard copy. If you wrote long hand, edit on the computer. Sometimes just changing the font and leading on the computer screen helps when you're in editing mode.

2) Let time pass between creating and editing. This helps take you away from the story (writers tend to get really close to the story and characters and read things on the page that aren't actually there . . . ) and gives you the distance to edit with a more critical mind.

3) Read the book out loud. At the minimum, read the dialogue. In the page proof stage–the final time I see the book before it gets printed–I read the entire book out loud. Because I see the story more than hear the story, doing this final "listen" helps find flaws I'd never see otherwise. What "sounds" right might be different than what is technically right. This is also where I find slippage in character voice, repetitive word use, and awkward phrasing that I didn't catch in the copyedits (or inadvertently added during that process!)

4) Find your ideal reader. This may be your editor, your agent, your best friend who isn't a writer, or your closest writing buddy. Someone you trust, someone who will look at the overall story and tell you what works and what doesn't work for them. Even Stephen King sends his books out to a group of readers (all friends) . . . but he trusts one of them more than anyone else (his wife.) In the end, though, YOU, the author, must make the final decision, even if your reader(s) disagree. Because it's your name on the book and it's your story. Weigh the advice, but trust your instincts. 

The book that took me the longest to write (a year) had the most revisions. Time isn't necessarily your friend because you CAN revise the heart and magic out of your story. You have to know when to let go, when to send the puppy off. It's not easy. You want to tweak, you want to make it perfect, you want your best shot. And no matter how many times you go through the manuscript, you worry and fear that it is a piece of shit. We all do. I panic every time I send my book in. It's not until I read the page proofs that I even THINK that it book isn't complete garbage. 

When you have a deadline, it's a lot easier to let the book go because, well, they're paying you to let go. But before you sell? Not so easy. Because there isn't a deadline, you're not being paid, and you're thinking . . . one more read through. There might be more typos, there might be a poor word choice . . . but you'll tweak and edit and tweak some more and the story will be so familiar to you that you may start cutting the heart out of it.

I revised my first manuscript completely six times. It was . . . pretty damn bad from the very beginning (stalker–TWO stalkers, one for the hero and one for the heroine– a rapist, espionage, a psychopath, a couple hostage situations, financial fraud, kidnapping, a frame, murder . . . it was really thee books in one, and then some!) But it was better after the first edit than it was after the sixth edit. I never sold that book, and I'll never go back to it. But I learned so much from that experience that it certainly wasn't a waste of time. 

Someone said, and I can't remember who, that "writing is rewriting." I completely agree.

15 thoughts on “After Creating

  1. R.J. Mangahas

    I really needed this post, Allison. Thanks. As I’m in the process of my first book, I’m still trying to find the system that works best for me. With short stories, I always just got a draft out then went back.

    I’m trying to edit as I go, but sometimes I feel like I spend too much time on a section, or I’ll keep thinking of things to add.

    Having a background in theater though, I’ll often act out some scenes to make them work. I’ll sometimes even drag in my other actor friends.

  2. woodstock

    From a reader’s perspective – I hope it will be helpful news to hear that a reader can usually tell if editing has been done with scrupulous care, or if it has been a slapdash affair, or overlooked altogether. There is a persistent rumor that one of the best known authors today – with an international reputation and astronomical sales – refuses much of what her editors propose, and indeed blows off their advice. Whether the rumor is true or not – the books in question lack something, and at least from my perspective, have declined dramatically in quality over the years. Allison, I haven’t had the pleasure of reading any of your books (must remedy that soon) but it sounds like the time and effort you spend on rewriting and editing is not wasted and I’m confident your books are much much better for it.

  3. Allison Brennan

    Hi R.J. — glad there was something to value in my late-night rambling! I’m back to burning the midnight oil to get these revisions done–ON TIME!–and thus sometimes what comes out at two in the morning is . . . not so great 😉

    You’ll find the process that works for you. In my NO PLOTTERS ALLOWED workshop that I’ve given both solo and with the terrific and witty Patti Berg, we tell writers that EVERYONE has a different process that works for them. Finding it might take some time, but no one can tell you HOW to write. Trying different things (in this case–plotting out a story in detail or not plotting at all or any degree of plotting in between) can help you find the best approach for your unique creative mind. The goal must always be writing to “the end” and how you get there isn’t important as long as you arrive at your destination.

    Nora Roberts is credited with saying, “I can fix a written page; I can’t fix a blank one.” I often find myself repeating this when I’m stuck because I can’t figure out how to show a scene I can see.

    I have no background in theater, but I have acted out scenes before. I once had my daughter demonstrate a gymnastics move that I thought was theoretically possible, but couldn’t picture it. I needed a limber young gymnast to get out of a tight situation. Once I saw it, I could write the scene and make it realistic.

  4. pari

    Allison,Wonderful, wonderful post.

    I’m in the thick of revising my first manuscript in a new series and it’s been a bear. After writing Sasha for so many years, I’ve got a rhythm in getting her story onto the page.

    But Darnda is different. I need to know her well enough to sustain a series and that’s taking time.

    I DON’T have deadlines — not yet, anyway — so I sometimes take far longer than I should to “let go.”

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Absolutely agree – writing is rewriting. And at at least for me, “creating” is torturous and rewriting is the fun part. There is no greater relief than getting that first wretched draft out, unreadable as it is. Because everything from there is a breeze.

    Allison, I think I finally get it. You combine what for me is an outline and then a bash-through draft. It’s not that different, really, only I think you probably use a lot more words than I do.

  6. Allison Brennan

    Woodstock, I’ve heard similar stories about several authors. I remember hearing once about Janet Evanovich (she may have even written an article about it, I don’t remember) that she always insists on a round of editor revisions. She’s one of the top selling authors and you put her name on the cover, it sells books, but she’s concerned about the final product, the story itself, and knows that editorial input (if you have a good working relationship with your editor) is the key to quality. I’m not good enough–and I doubt I’ll ever be good enough–to write a book and have it published with no objective feedback and revisions. And I hope I never think I’m that good.

    Pari, no deadlines are a killer for me too. It’s so easy to get lost in the rewriting phase of the story. It’ll NEVER be good enough, so we keep going at it over and over . . . I have friends like that. Fortunately (or unfortunately, because it DID take me five manuscripts before I sold) I can let go. I know it’s not perfect and know I can’t make it perfect, so I cut it loose.

  7. Louise Ure

    Fabulous post, Allison. Like Alex, I strain through the “writing” part and adore the rewriting.

    But I’m most intrigued by your thought that one can “write the heart out of” a book. Geez, I hope I haven’t done that yet, but it’s possible.

  8. Philip Hawley, Jr

    Allison, this discussion evokes the memory of writers like Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote many of their novels as two- or three-chapter serial installments. Once published, these installments were indelibly fixed in time–the story could not be changed and its author had to live with whatever had been published in the previous installment(s).

    That these serialized stories became coherent and well-structured novels is, I think, an accomplishment that very few writers of any generation could achieve. That these stories became timeless works of literature is beyond my ability to understand. The talent these writers possessed was mind-numbing.

  9. J.T. Ellison

    This is great, Allison. I love hearing about everyone’s process. I do about 4 drafts, including a bout with independent readers, before I send it to my editor, and she and I do two revisions, which is exactly right for me. But the most important takeaway is twofold – to each his own, and when put in untenable situations, we do tend to shine…

  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Happy New Year, Dr. Hawley!!!

    Not to detract in any way from the genius of Dickens and Conan Doyle, because I totally agree – but writers are writers, and I have to think it’s possible that the serials of which you speak came from stories that were already lying around at least half-baked in a drawer or at least a mind-file somewhere.

    I believe we don’t tend to take on anything that we don’t instinctively know we have a chance of pulling off…

  11. toni mcgee causey

    Great, great post, Allison. I agree with you about the rewriting–that’s where I do my best work. I have to get the story thrown on the page so I can see it and start adding nuances. Finding layers and meanings I hadn’t consciously realized were there the first round and pay them off. But that process seems normal to me, having come from painting. I grew up doing oils, and you block in the scene, darker colors, big objects and work your way toward the front, so to speak, layering in the lighter colors and the smaller objects, then the highlights. And if something’s off balance, you can go back in and paint over it, re-block it in, or add dark layers, other details.

    [Although there was this guy I sat next to during art class who was the rare talent who could whip out something phenomenal within five minutes that would drop your jaw. Ironically, on the bigger, long-term projects, he got bored and couldn’t do more, couldn’t push past his initial vision to dig deeper. There’s probably a lesson in there somewhere, though I have yet to figure out exactly what it ought to be.]

    Alex, that’s an interesting thought. I think we tend to forget that writers are constantly thinking about / reworking stories in their heads, if not on paper with an editor.

  12. Allison Brennan

    Alex, you may be write . . . my first draft, at least for the last four or five books, been about 75-80K words and my final draft after revisions is 100-115K words. I get the bulk of the story down, it’s clean, but it’s still a draft. Then it goes to my editor and it’s time for fun.

    I actually love the writing part of writing. Though I stress over it far more than revising, I get a thrill when my characters take over and the story moves along, warts and all. Revising is both fun in one sense–seeing the story in its entirety and finding the ways to bring it out, and it’s business because I’m very self-critical at this stage.

    Louise, the subject over over-editing could be a post in and of itself. I’ve heard of at least three authors who were in the submission process and did revision after revision and editing the magic out of their books and didn’t get the sale. To me, I think when you KNOW the story so well, and you go back, you cut out the heart–the voice becomes sterile because since it’s so familiar to you, you think it’s not original and start over-editing and changing things that were perfectly fine–in fact, fantastic–but you don’t see it as fresh and original. Time between creating and revising helps this problem, though.

    Hey JT, I would probably shoot myself if I had to do four drafts before sending to my editor. But I learned the hard way–I thought THE HUNT was so tight, so fabulous, so perfect . . . and I pretty much rewrote the entire book after my editor read it. I had, in fact, edited the life out of the book because I made so many passes through it, writing new scenes, deleting, etc. For me, two is all I can handle before sending it off, knowing of course that I’ll get another stab at the book. Then there’s the copyedits and page proofs and by that time I’m so sick of the story I want to rip it up and start fresh.

    Hi Phil! I’ve wondered about serial stories, if they were written in installments or if the authors had the books done ahead of time. I think it would actually be fun to write a serial without the option of going back and rewriting the beginning. It would be a huge challenge. I also found that writing short stories has helped me see story differently, tightened my writing, and helped me focus on the key story and character elements without too much fluff. I wonder if the serial stories did the same, or if they were required to submit, say, 15 chapters of 5,000 words and no matter what they had to force their story to contract or expand into that structure.

  13. Julie Kramer

    This is a very useful post for me right about now…a little holiday present. Thanks, Allison. I’m writing my third book now and it’s hard when you’re still promoting your first and taking the second through production. Time is tight. I’m going to try editing as I go and see how that works.

  14. Allison Brennan

    Julie, I first “learned” the edit-as-you-go process from James Rollins who spoke to my RWA chapter. He said he wrote 10 pages a day, printed them out, edited them on hardcopy that evening, then the next day put those changes in which got him back into the story and he was able to write the next ten pages. I’ve modified it somewhat for my schedule, but editing what I wrote the day before has really helped me submerse myself back into the story so I’m not staring at the computer wondering where in the world I was going with this particular book . . . part of my problem is that I can NOT stop mid-scene. I HAVE to finish a scene before I can get up from the computer. I know some authors who will stop mid-scene so they can pick it up the next day, but for me I would be thinking about it all night and get no sleep.


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