5 Things A Writer Always Overlooks

You know how you work so hard to get that first draft down on the page? How you sacrifice comfort, companionship and casual entertainment, family time, work time, leisure time, exercise, sleep, nutrition, freedom from toxins, sobriety, eventually your very sanity—all for the sake of that novel?

Then you suffer the hellfires of the damned in revision?

Then you realize in a blinding flash of epiphany it’s a huge piece of crap and start the whole cycle over again? Because you want that badly for it to be good?

And then you finally, finally, finally have a manuscript you’re proud of, a beautiful, heartfelt evocation of everything you needed to say in exactly the way you needed to say it, and you hire an editor, and send that baby off. . .and it comes back. . .all EDITED.

What the hell?

Such a thankless task it is. These are the things every writer—even you, even me—always, by necessity, overlooks:

  1. Chaos

    You outlined it. Swear to god, you did. And you did your blessed best to stick to that outline. But everyone knows characters have no respect for their maker, they go tripping off with their heads in the clouds, or in the sand, or under a rock, their fingers in their ears, singing, “la-la-la-la-la-la—I can’t HEAR you!” while you’re leaping up and down shrieking, “It’s a cliff! You idiots! You’re going to die a horrible death! Watch your stupid—! damn. Back to the drawingboard.”

    I don’t care how carefully you planned your story or how meticulously you adhered to your plan, there is stuff in there that makes no sense. You know why? Because you have a great imagination, that’s why. And there simply isn’t enough story in the world to sensibly organize absolutely everything you’re capable of thinking up.
  2. Lag

  3. Closely related to all-out chaos, these are slightly better-developed detours. Your characters come up with cool stuff to do that has nothing whatever to do with your story, but they’ve got you convinced it’s okay because, hey! they can get a whole lot done while they’re doing it. So you follow them dutifully, writing it all down, shaping it and molding it for climax and polishing the language, thinking, “Maybe there’ll be a spot for it.”

    But there’s not. Bummer about that. So you shoehorn it in—not because it works—but because you simply can’t bear to leave it out.

  4. Flab

  5. Oh, the words. Words, and words, and words, and words. It’s not your fault. It just comes out of you that way.

    Everybody uses more words than necessary, because it takes that many words to get the golden nuggets mined out of your subconscious and onto the page. Then you go back and bravely cut out 25% of them. But there’s another 25% that needs to come out, and you’re faced with a choice: this 25%? or that 25%? or some impossibly intricate, interwoven combination of the two? And what about the other 25%—is that all good, or are you missing something important that needs to be cut out of there, too?

    And your vision goes swimmy, your head starts lolling around on your neck, there’s a ringing in your ears, and the next thing you know you’re on the floor under your desk biting your knuckles and twitching convulsively.

    You just don’t know.

  6. Overkill

  7. The single most fundamental fact about the craft of fiction is the impassable abyss between what the writer sees on the page and what the reader sees. You see absolutely everything. Some of it you don’t even get around to writing down. And when you come back for revision, you automatically doubt every single instinct you had in the original writing about what the reader can tell is going on and what’s just a bunch of gibberish.

    So you help them out. You insert a lot of useful, enlightening paragraphs meant to focus their telescope for them as they peer, eternally short-sighted, across that abyss at the world you happen to know is far more vivid and brilliant and meaningful than they can ever discern from such a distance.

  8. Anticlimax

    And this one’s due to sheer, helpless, futile, blind hope. You know perfectly well that Climax doesn’t do it. But, oh, my ever-loving god, you have been through this entire manuscript so many times, so faithfully, so laboriously, so intently. There is no more blood in the stone.

    What are the chances that Climax works just exactly PERFECTLY, and you simply can’t see it for all the sweat and tears blurring your eyes?

    What the hell, you know?

Remember: just because you overlooked this stuff, simply by putting yourself out there and being a writer, you still have 8 Wonderful Lessons to Learn From Screwing Up Your Manuscript.

10 thoughts on “5 Things A Writer Always Overlooks

  1. Iapetus999 says:

    Oh what I wouldn’t give to get rid of 25% of my words…
    I actually removed them, revised it, and then they magically reappeared…

  2. Keetha says:

    What a great list! I’m writing my first novel and will do good to keep these five things in mind.

    (I’m here after seeing Elizabeth Craig’s link to this post via Twitter.)

  3. Yep, yep, yep, yep and yep. This is why so many of my revision stages involve stepping back to try to take control of all that chaos. If something’s going to stay in my novel, it’s got to earn its place there.

  4. Nikki says:

    Just got done cutting literaly 1/3 of my novel to get the word count down to expected lengths. I agonized, moaned, writhed, bled out my soul in sorrow. The beta readers have all come back with positive feedback, telling me how it moves better and my two main characters come across stronger now. Hmmm. Lesson learned. Not that I won’t agonize just as badly over the next one. Nice post.

  5. Sue says:

    I do all of the above, *sigh* and then some. It’s amazing to see how much we read what we meant to say instead of what we actually put down on paper.

    I have two sets of proofreaders.

    One group reads each chapter just after I’ve edited it to help me with the Lag, Flab and Overkill, while the other group reads the finished product to point out Chaos and Anti-Climax.

    Even then my editor finds more.

  6. Simone Cooepr says:

    There don’t seem to be enough readers in the world ….

    Great post 🙂

  7. Simone Cooper says:

    … and some days you can’t type your own name correctly. *sigh*

  8. Tahlia says:

    I like a character to fly, but I don’t write what comes down or put it in the novel unless it’s needed. Sometimes a character comes up with a twist I wouldn’t have thought of, but you have to balance letting your characters bloom with using your intelligence about what actually works in the story, otherwise, as you say, you end up with mush.

    As for cutting, sheesh, we all need to do it. I cut then added then cut, then my agent wanted another 19000 words cut. I did it without a problem partly because I hadn’t looked at the ms for 4 months.

  9. Very nice post – I agree with all your points, especially the lag. It’s so painful to leave out an interesting detour during the first draft, especially when it’s often the detours that have the most exciting supporting characters and setpieces. But, the harsh cuts have to be done…

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