When to write and when to polish (and when to wax poetic…)

So last week I was listening to the Adventures in Scifi Publishing episode where Shaun Ferrell interviews Neil Gaiman. Towards the end of the podcast, About 30 minutes in, to be exact, Neil said something that troubled me a little. It’s part of the advice every writer gets nowadays–to write, and write every day. That part, I have no trouble with. What Neil said next, though, did. He said, and I quote:

“It’s much, much better to go off and write 10,000 words filled with glorious mistakes than to think for three weeks and write a 1500 word little jewel, then polish that jewel for the next month or two until it glows, and you have one perfect little thing. While, someone else has written 30,000 words that probably won’t be usable, but they’re 30,000 words better now. They’ve made 30,000 words worth of cool mistakes that they won’t be making again.”

This bothered me because At first, I was pretty irate. Who does Neil think he is? How dare he–an established, well-known famous author with several books under his belt–tell me–a part-time secretary, full-time mother trying to juggle writing time with housework/preschooler’s naps–how to be a writer? It’s easy for him to say “write something every day”. He doesn’t have kids running through a tiny two-bedroom apartment throwing train tracks everywhere and complaining every five minutes, “I’m bored. This is boring. I’m boooooored.” (By the way, can you guess what Daniel’s new word of the day is?) Don’t he realize that I got to take whatever time I can get? I don’t have the luxury to pick and choose what I work on. Hey, if I was an established, full-time writer, I’d sit on my butt and churn out stories every day, revise a few more stories, find markets for them, send them out, and still have time to clean the house, cook dinner, read to my son, fly to the moon, solve crime, negotiate for peace in Sudan, stop global warming…

Mind you, now, these were the very first thoughts that came to mind when I heard Neil say that.

I’ve been thinking about it ever since. At this very moment, I am juggling two revision projects–one of which I’ve been revising over and over since last November, trying to get it as perfect as possible before sending it to…well…actually I need to find a market for it. Granted, it’s not a 1500 little jewel–it’s more of a 12,000 honking big jewel I’ve been polishing for quite some time. And since I’ve been revising it, I’ve done little else in writing–just that and Willow, really. Haven’t worked on any new stories or essays. Haven’t sent anything new out. In fact, this Agony Booth recap I started a week ago is the first new anything I’ve done since…since…

What was the last story I worked on?

Of course, I can make excuses. I can say that I was so stressed out at the beginning of the year with preparing our house for sale that it sucked my creative juices dry. The only way I could stay sane was to edit my existing stories, and it helped me out to focus solely on them. Actually, I won’t make that an excuse. That stressful time really did help me focus better on my story.

But at the same time, one can only revise and revise and revise without getting worn down. I need to have that spontaneous feeling again of whipping up a story out of thin air. I need to get back to the delight of wondering what word I will put down next. And I’ve been taking steps in doing that. I’ve been pushing myself to do more freewriting. Actually, I’ve been attempting to ease myself into it since July, and so far, it’s been a bit better. I just need to figure out timing and all.

When I first started this post, I was going to dispute Mr. Gaiman’s statement by saying, “You can write, write, write all you want. But what use is it if all those words are sitting on your computer, never to be polished into a story?” However, now I have to admit; he’s right. I need to start writing again, and by writing, I mean writing new stuff. It’s in the new stories that you learn how to write better because you are constantly working with new material to play with.

But I would further add that writing should be balanced with revising. At some point, you do have to take a story and polish it. You don’t see editors asking for first drafts of stories. They want something that’s your very best. And to be really honest, I like my stories to be jewels. It’s how they stand out. At least, I like to think they do. And then you have to submit. Because after all that work, if it’s still sitting on your hard drive, what good does it do you?

Write. Revise. Submit. Finding the balance between the three. ‘Course, there will be times when you can do only one. You may get so drained out of a family crises that you may just want to just revise something. Or not work on anything at all. That’s the best thing about writing–it’s pretty flexible to whatever circumstances you’re in.

Now if the whole Obama/McCain election was just as flexible, we’d be in good shape.

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2 Responses

  1. Glad to see you’re doing well up there! We miss you Thursdays. But I do get what you’re saying. I was caught by that same line for a different reason. I tend to not want to start anything because I’m not willing to work on anything that isn’t “productive”. Really all that ended up being was unproductive because I never wrote. We’ve heard that before and many, many variations on it. So, now I’m trying to write more. Just write.

    And I found a “new” book for you, more on the psychology of writing. It’s by Dorthea Brande called Becoming a Writer.

  2. […] right now, though it’s not for a market per se. I’ve also been seriously thinking about the advice Neil Gaiman gave on the Adventures in SciFi Publishing podcast about writing every day. I’ve been trying it out, and while I don’t always write […]

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