The Witch Watch: The Lost Paragraphs

By Shamus Posted Sunday Jul 1, 2012

Filed under: Projects 40 comments

It was about one year ago that I wrote my long complaint about the failings of word processors and the ugly, messy awfulness brought about by the combined forces of bad design and dominant market share. In that, I mentioned that I lost a bunch of progress on my book. I was thinking about that lost section recently, and how the re-written version is so much better. More specifically, I was thinking about all the improvements I could have made if I’d taken time to re-write other bits.

This will unavoidably have some act-three spoilers from The Witch Watch. I don’t know how much sense it will make if you haven’t read the book.

The lost portion of the book began somewhere near the end of the encounter with Brooks, as the conversation turned against Alice. It covered their escape to the basement, their discovery of what Brooks had down there, and ended just as Gilbert bashed through the secret door behind the grandfather clock. That’s not a very long section, and the original lost version was even shorter. (The most painful loss was all the random typographical edits I’d done elsewhere in the book. When I got bored or stuck, I’d go back and proof old sections to try and get myself into it.) I was in a severe creative slump at that point. I was tired of the material. I was worried it was all stupid and boring. I was sick of working on it. Losing any progress under those conditions was extremely painful.

But! The re-written version is far, far better. The basement section was expanded, and I added the bit about the coal-fired engine and the machinery. I put Leopold in the basement beside Sophie. I had Alice lead them instead of Gilbert.

Now, this was a small re-write. Not even a whole chapter. But the newer version is so much better:

  1. It let Alice use her powers for something besides roasting people, which was always important to me. I’m reminded of the Red Letter Media review, where he points out that despite how hard the story works to tell us how wise and powerful Yoda is, his powers seem to be limited to throwing rocks. I didn’t want Alice to come off as some kind of firebug.
  2. It has Leopold in the basement with Sophie. I was second guessing myself at this point. Would the bad guys be dumb enough to put all their eggs in one, basket? Wouldn’t they keep the royals at different locations? Would they keep them here, on Brooks own estate? Ultimately, this way was far more compact and comprehensible, and I don’t think it makes the antagonists look bad. There does seem to be a tradeoff between making the evil plan interesting and easy to follow vs. being sufficiently detailed and intelligent. Too much one way, and the bad guys are dumb. Too much the other way, and the story is boring. Both extremes are failure states.
  3. The coal dust in the basement gave me a reasonable excuse for why the house could burn so abruptly that it could go from “no smoke” to “inferno” before the royals could be rescued, even though Stanway was right in front with a bunch of soldiers. I don’t think I needed it, but it’s nice that it was there. The fire was free to burn as fast or as slow as the plot needed, and I didn’t have to research house fires and agonize over plausibility.
  4. The expanded basement gives a better sense that this plot is an ongoing affair and leaves us with the impression that the bad guys have a plan, and they’re working towards it, and that the plan is bigger and more complex than the bits that we see.
  5. The single coat in the basement established that Brooks was an active actor, busy doing bad-guy things, as opposed to sitting around his manor, waiting for the heroes to show up to thwart him.
  6. I showed Alice leading the group, instead of Gilbert. Looking back, the original version feels wrong to me, because I don’t see Alice just following along behind Gilbert without a good reason. The two have very different leadership styles. Gilbert has age and experience, but Alice has wisdom. They trade leadership throughout the story, with Gilbert becoming much less dominant once things are settled in America.

    Having Alice lead in the basement creates a nice contrast with the next section where Gilbert runs off. We see their differing approaches to leadership in a semi-humorous way.

That’s a lot of great exposition and revelation, all done while we’re busy with a simple chase sequence. The old version was simpler, flatter, and less useful to the plot.

What’s interesting to me is that I was obliged to re-write this section because of an accident. Does that mean I could get similar improvements if I re-write other sections of the book? How much better could I have made it? While I like the re-write, how much does it really contribute to the enjoyment of the book?

It’s impossible to say, of course, but it’s the sort of thing that eats away at me as I work.


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40 thoughts on “The Witch Watch: The Lost Paragraphs

  1. daniel says:

    It’s always a hard balance to strike — more revision/rewrites usually improves the writing, but always takes time. Plus, there are diminishing returns to that sort of rewriting … so, it’s a struggle to find the right balance somewhere between infinite rewriting without ever publishing versus publishing something sub-par that could have been much better with a bit more time.

    I think you struck a good balance :) (Though I’m sure sure you’ll get even better with time!)

  2. X2Eliah says:

    “While I like the re-write, how much does it really contribute to the enjoyment of the book? ”

    Basically, that’s the kind of thing you as an author really should leave to the editors and proofreaders. It is their work to identify problematic sections and show them to you – personaly you’ll almost certainly have a very different inner view on your work and the balance of ideas it represents, so any sort of problemcatching like that is necessary from a completely side-lined perspective.

    Also, don’t forget that you should not think about contributing *more* to the enjoyment. You should think instead about what parts detract from enjoyment, and how to fix those.

    1. Tizzy says:

      “Basically, that's the kind of thing you as an author really should leave to the editors and proofreaders.”

      Not entirely. The editors and proofreaders can help improve the smaller stuff, but few would suggest large overhaul of the kind Shamus discusses here. The editors should be reluctant to suggest anything that could throw off the author completely (“Go back and change everything”).

      Anyway, in most cases, it’s the author who knows best the extent of the material’s potential.

  3. Kelhim says:

    Re-writing sections of your own story is an essential part of your creative work. Wouldn’t it be a highly unlikely coincidence if you always, at every time whether you are eager to write or rather forcing yourself to write, made the most intelligent, the most suspenseful or the most coherent decisions?

    Sometimes you just want to get on with the story, but don’t want to skip a section, so you write something which you feel is okay for the time being. But if it isn’t a central piece of the story, you can always come back and improve it.

    It can be hard to select hundreds of words or more and press the DEL-button, but in many cases it makes the result better in a variety of ways. You should not consider this a correction of sloppy work but as a mark of confidence and … authority (haha) over your text.

    1. Bubble181 says:

      While this is certainly true, I’d argue that too much rewriting isn’t good, either. Especially if you come back a lot later to rewrite bits.
      A book needs to be a whole, with one general atmosphere. Coming back and cutting/adding bits in here and there, replacing whole sections, can improve the spirit, improve the flow, improve the storytelling – but at the same time, it can cause bits to feel out of place, disjointed,…it can cause pieces to suddenly have a different “feel” to it.

      Of course, it depends on a lot of things, not least of all the writer. Some have very consistent styles and habits, other evolve and change all the time – especially true in people trying for catharsis in their lives (which I don’t think was the case here).

      Just saying rewrites have a downside, too, before Shamus gets lost in an eternal cycle of rereading and rewriting and never finishes another book :p

    2. Zozma says:

      People have different processes. For instance, look at Robert Heinlein’s rule about it.

      Sometimes you see problems with continuity or plotting and you go in and fix them. But, on the other hand, what do you do when you don’t see any problems? Insist to yourself that you have to rewrite? Stir it up for no reason? Thinking you ALWAYS have to rewrite doesn’t make a lot of sense to me (using “always” in a proposition is usually a bad sign).

      1. Kelhim says:

        I said nothing about “always” re-writing, so your are stretching my point a little bit too far in the extreme. Maybe it’s my fault, because English isn’t my first language.

        As a writer you should be able to reflect upon the quality of your text, language-wise as well as story-wise.

        If you feel there is no need to re-write anything – that’s fine, too.

      2. Anachronist says:

        While it’s always good to do what Shamus did and rewrite a weak section so that it’s more interesting and relevant to the story, I’ll add an additional part of Robert Heinlein’s writing process, which isn’t on that link:

        He’d write out the full story, and then instead of rewriting parts, he commenced cutting. I recall his posthumous book Grumbles from the Grave indicated that he’d spend a lot of time cutting. Anything that didn’t enhance the plot or the reader’s experience, out it went. The result was a good tight story. I suspect in later years he loosened up a bit on this, because some of his last novels seemed a bit rambling, to me.

        Mark Twain also advocated cutting:

        “Anybody can have ideas–the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.”

        “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them–then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart.”

        “God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God’s adjectives. You thunder and lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed, by and by.”

        1. Zozma says:

          Everyone’s process is different, though. Stephen King also does what you’re talking about, if what he says in his book “On Writing” is true–he goes through his manuscripts trying to cut down the number of words.

          But there are some other writers who work the opposite way, writing thin and then putting things in in later drafts. And some writers (look at the guys who worked on manual typewriters, like Harlan Ellison) would keep the rewriting to a minimum: fix typos and obvious mistakes, and then be done with it.

          There’s more than one way, is the point I’m trying to make. People want to find rules, things like “you need to do six drafts before the story is any good”, but I think most of these rules are just arbitrary.

          And, I admit I’m not being entirely charitable here, but in the three paragraphs (eight sentences) where Mark Twain tells us to take most of the adjectives out of our copy, I’m counting:

          1) glittering
          2) valuable
          3) close
          4) wide

          Four adjectives. And a phrase like “a quire of paper” uses “of paper” as an adjectival phrase to modify “quire”. There are probably a couple more of these.

          I’m no grammarian, so correct me if I’m wrong. But still, I think that’s worth noting.

          1. Loonyyy says:

            To nitpick, you aren’t being very charitable, in the silliest way.

            Firstly, the wide and close are necessary to the text for it to make the same sense. It’s not a simple adjective you can throw away.

            So I think we’re safe in discarding it from our count. Even if we don’t: We have one adjective per 2 sentences, and we don’t have multiple adjectives for the same object. He describes things only once, or less. That’s certainly being economical with adjectives. I’m not sure how it follows from “We should refrain from using unnecessary adjectives” to “Two poetic and two necessary adjectives in 8 sentences is unnacceptable.

            1. Zozma says:

              This is exactly the point. Everyone already knows to avoid purple prose–but what do we do in circumstances when adjectives are necessary?

              I think you’ve got my point backwards. I’m not saying Mark Twain was a bad writer (I’d be lucky to one day become as “bad” a writer as he was!). I’m saying that he’s wrong here about killing almost every single adjective you’re tempted to write.

  4. Korivak says:

    Personally, I write my first draft start to finish, then open a new text file and re-write the entire story from memory with only occasional glances at the first version. Copy-and-paste is strictly forbidden. The second version of the story tends to be about twice as long, far more logical and much better than the first draft.

    On the other hand, I’ve never finished a novel, despite starting several. It works really well on short stories, and I can’t imagine not extensively rewriting, but maybe it’s just too much for long form fiction.

    Or maybe it’s the fact that I have a new baby and spend too much of what little quiet time I have playing Minecraft, Civ V and Microsoft Flight instead of writing.

  5. guy says:

    For what it’s worth, I absolutely loved that section. It was the one where the narration was completely deadpan about how Alice was carrying around a flaming coatrack for the duration, right?

    Now, there is one issue with the book’s writing that I noticed, which is that at some point, I think after they head back to England, the narration shifts from serial third-person limited to third-person omniscient and never switches back. Although neither style is wrong, and you do good things with the third-person omniscient, the swap was kind of jarring. Probably it would have been best to mostly keep the third-person limited and swap to omniscient for appropriate bits.

  6. Bill says:

    “How much better could I have made it?”

    It’s hard to tell. Let’s find out in the sequel.
    Come on! Let's go. Chop chop!

  7. Synkron says:

    As we say: “Writing is editing.”

    Disclaimer(ish): I recently finished The Witch Watch, and thoroughly enjoyed it, though I personally enjoyed your system shock interpretation more. Please keep writing, in whatever medium you find comfortable!

    1. X2Eliah says:

      This is pretty true, aye. It’s very easy to tell when a work has not been edited – mostly due to a lot of ideas falling flat on their face and the sentence structure being really awkward to boot. Sometimes it’s quite amzing, even, to see the extent of negligence some books (hello, “Into the Looking Glass”!) have been treated with up to release, resulting in a complete mess…

  8. Scerro says:

    I just finished the book yesterday. I caught a few typos along the way, too bad I didn’t document them. One was “price leopold” instead of “prince leopold” as well as a ‘where’ someplace was missing its h. Anyways, it’s likely you’ve found those by now, although I did order that with three weeks ago, so I dunno.

    I’m really just interested as to see what will happen with your second book, but I want to encourage you to write scenes that happen frantically to be re-written. That scene came out pretty good for me above, although in some ways I get into the pace of the story and start dropping details. Personally, I like your style, however it doesn’t quite fit my reading style. I’d love to see a little more detail thrown in(I don’t expect you to. Going from programming to wrting? Hrm, I like both but I would probably produce less detail than you), and perhaps a little bit more about the status of the characters as they go along.

    I definitely enjoyed it though, and I encourage you to keep writing. I’m not sure if I wanna read your abandoned book or not. We’ll see if I get bored. :p

  9. Dave B says:

    I am reminded of something I read a long time ago. A person was comparing a criminal mastermind to an artist, and saying that an amateur will try to continually improve their work until they make a fatal mistake, while a true professional can recognize when their work is “good enough”. It might not be perfectly detailed, or completely unblemished, but a good artist knows that any further attempts to improve their work will ruin it.

  10. You could always do an Extended Cut DLC :P

    I really feel bad for writers like those at BioWare though,
    imagine the hell they must go through. They know the choices players made (save the Rachni or not etc.) ends up as stats applied to the total readyness score that slightly changes how a few things unfold).

    Doing it the ideal way would have meant x number of man hours to write dialog, voice act, script and animate and render so that we would see Rachni crawling over the reapers, tearing them apart from the hull. Or alternatively see them crawling over the Crucible as it’s built, dragging huge plates around.

    As programer/artist/writer I can understand this and sympathize, but I’d still would have loved to see choices throughout the series impact the end in a grander way. For example, why did we not see any geth swarming the streets of London side by side with humans and others?

    Time and budget sadly prevents this. Budget is a unfortunate evil in a capitalistic world. Time though is needed as otherwise it would never be completed.

    Same is true with your book(s). Then again you could always do what George Lucas have done…

    Yeah.. I think I’ll stay happy with the extended ending. It’s a shame the ME3 ending wasn’t more planned from the start. Now it does feel like a trilogy ending, and the motion comic + narration was a nod back to the endings of older BioWare games that had narrated endings too.
    The ME3 release ending felt like a cliffhanger leading to a ME4 with Shepard.

    I’m sure if BioWare does another trilogy (maybe it’ll be a ME trilogy?) they will scale back a lot on the choices being carried from save to save, and instead focus more on the few and make them have a large impact overall.

    Did anyone see the flowchart for the Extended Cut DLC? That was for the DLC alone.. Now imagine for the whole trilogy. *gets a headache*

    Shamus, do you do flowcharts and things like that for your books?
    And what about choosing what stays or does not stay? I can imagine that time/complexity is the enemy there (rather than budgetary).

    1. X2Eliah says:

      Hm, that flowchart sounds intriguing – could you please link to it?


        The image is the third one down, easily seen.

        Just for comparison, here is a flowchart some fan made for the suicide run in ME2
        And that’s just who survives or not, any dialog stuff and cutscenes tied to the overall story is not included.

        Now look at BioWare’s Extended Cut flowchart again…

        Yeah. I surely do not envy the BioWare writers/designers/devs, but at the same tie I do, because how many other games out there have this many variables to play around with in the endgame.
        Most games just barely bother keeping track of what weapon and ammo you have from one scene to the next. (some games even “reset” that, gah!)

        So yeah I’m impressed by BioWare, but I also cringe at missed opportunities (it’s hard to keep the designer side of me quite when playing a game).

        Bah, Sorry Shamus for going way off topic in te comments here, I’ll shut up now.

        1. anaphysik says:

          Bah. I won’t pay any attention to a low-res flowchart until I can actually see what it says.

  11. Greg says:

    My thesis is entering draft 12, some of the chapters were on draft 7 before I combined them to create draft 1 of the thesis. Rewriting always improves a document and there’s almost no limit to how much this can be the case and the boneheaded mistakes you’ll find no matter how many times you’ve previously written it. Sometime around January I lost the will to live though, I wouldn’t recommend this many revisions, but it’s amazing how difference just reading something from start to finish and tagging up areas for improvement makes.

    1. Hehe! I know the feeling. You polish and polish and polish, it still looks like a turd but at least it looks like a really shiny one…*cough*

      But this may be painful but also correct. This is how developers end up with tight solid code, how artists end up wit pixel perfect artworks, how level designers does not have any geometry glitches. How writers have no plot holes.

      To paraphrase Einstein, you simplify as much as possible but stop short of removing things that would ruin what you try to accomplish.
      In other words optimization and (re-?)iteration until as much extraneous stuff is removed as possible.

      1. That’s one way of doing it with writing; however, other people start with just a single idea, something really basic (Isaac Asimov compared it to a blowdart, a single powerful idea shot with relentless focus). In this case, the story is actually about adding just enough to the skeleton to have a creature.

  12. Jack V says:

    Thanks, I really love reading these sorts of “before and after” descriptions of writing.

    Does that mean I could get similar improvements if I re-write other sections of the book?

    I think it’s similar to rewriting a program. If you go back and spend another 6 months refactoring a program which took you 6 months to write, it will be a much better program, because you can design everything from the top-down to fit with what you learned while writing the first version. But it will be dispiritng to do that rather than write a NEW program.

    And sometimes you need the rewriting: if this is core code that will be modified by 100s of people, it urgently needs to be as clean and reliable as possible. And sometimes you don’t: it’s better to put a “good enough” sticker on it, and move on.

    For books, it’s a bit unclear where the best trade-off is. I think many authors fall into a habit of spending 10 years trying to get their first or second novel published, and constantly improve it, so it becomes really good. And then they start churning out sequels one a year, where they’ve hit their stride and know the world, so they’re a lot smoother, but sometimes miss the fire that the first one got with repeated forging and ten years to think of new ideas for it. But as a reader, I’m not sure which I’d prefer: 1 awesome Ted Chiang story every few years, or a solid Pratchett novel every year?

    1. The programming angle is very interesting.

      As far as a book go I would not mind releasing a version 2 for example.
      But only if the changes are enough.

      If the changes only mean the story is told better, I’d probably sneak it into a 2nd edition, aka. in programmer lingo it would just be a revision or errata.

      If the changes where larger I would treat it as a new version as it then would probably remove a lot of stuff and add a lot of stuff, possibly even extending the length, and tightening other things up.

      How many books have there been that used the programmer mentality? (story books that is)
      I can’t recall seeing a book with “Some Title v2.1 by some author”.

      It would kinda suck for those that got v1.0, but those who for the first time read the book would obviously love v2.1
      The fair thing would be to offer a discount to v1.x owners, and if a free digital copy for v2.0 owners for example.

      Stories just like Software never stop evolving, eve after release they live on, either because the author/programmer see thing that work or did not work, or that the audience/customers come up with ideas or comments that you never would have thought about in “that” way before (aka missed opportunities).

      As an example, what BioWare did with ME3 was change the *story* from v1.0 to v1.1 by extending the end, very few big companies/authors get that chance.

      People give George Lucas flak for messing with “our movies”, but they truly are his movies. And if I was Lucas and had the money time and resources, you can bet I’d tinker with them. Sure he messed up a few changes, like the infamous “Noooo” that was added, Vader is more suited to silent contained anger IMO, but things like the GGI enhancements to Cloud City or Mos Eisley are awesome IMO, storyboard stuff that was too expensive to build/make back then etc.

      But Lucas did not change the story, just the way it was presented.
      BioWare did not change the story, just the way it was presented.

      So Shamus, is it a v1.x you’d like to do, just changing the way the story is presented.
      Or is it the very very rare v2.0 you are itching about? Actually changing the story.

      Changing a story can be anything from changing the point of view (protagonist change, which could if big enough make it seem like a parallel story that intersect, and it would make it seems like two different narrators and one (or both) can’t recall the details exactly).
      Some games have done stuff like that. Blade Runner The Game for example (highly recommended if you can get it to run, I’ve nagged GOG about getting it but got no answer, this was way back though).
      Or changing parts of the story so that certain evens never happen while others that did not happen does happen.
      I guess you could call this the alternate universe angle.

      Neither of these are new concepts, and games use both to some extent, books ad games rarely use the alternate angle within their own world though. Games have been set “in” a alternate universe of a book or other game or movie or tv series, but hardly ever within itself.

      So depending on the amount of changes Shamus, two things can be done.
      Alternate Universe or a Different View. If you shift protagonist and tell the same plot from that persons view or “other” persons view, you have the same plot but a brand new story almost.

      It’s almost like in movies or tv or games or books that you just know the protagonist has eaten breakfast or gone to the bathroom, or driven from A to B etc. But would it not be interesting to find out what is going on during those moments as well? Not the bathroom unless it’s a kinky book though.

      But an author could ponder “hmm, what else is going on i my world at this very moment?”
      A few movies and books has done this (multiple stories merging throughout.

      But as I said I can’t recall multiple books weaving in and out of each others stories, anyone know of any examples? (movie/book/game/tvseries)
      The comicbook world is loaded with this stuff though.

      1. Zozma says:

        But the problem with rewriting books after they’re already published is, it’s difficult to objectively measure quality.

        The v2.0 of a program is (usually) going to be objectively better than the v1.0. It’ll fix bugs, improve the functionality, etc. But let’s say Shamus puts out “The Witch Watch v2.0”, making a bunch of big changes.

        What’s he going to do about the readers who loved “The Witch Watch v1.0” and don’t like the new one as much? And what about the readers who loved 1.0 and think he took out all the best things about it in 2.0?

        I read a good blog post about this a while back: here.

        1. X2Eliah says:

          Why would he have to do anything, though? A book is not software you can patch/overwrite. The people who have and like v1 will still have v1 on their shelves.

  13. Abnaxis says:

    Since you’re specifically talking about the biggest section that bugged me:

    Why did the bad guys keep Leopold and Sophie around? Was it ever actually explained in the text why they didn’t just off and burn them and I just missed it? From the ending (hopefully not spoiling too much), it doesn’t seem like the bodies needed to be intact for the plot the baddies were hatching…

    This section in question seems like it would have been a good place for a lampshade.

    1. guy says:

      I guess destroying the bodies might have had adverse effects on a certain two necromantic constructs.

      Or maybe they just wanted to revive them at some future point.

    2. Scerro says:

      Actually, after Leopold’s body was destroyed, it didn’t really stop Sophie from getting his Vigor.

      So, sort of weird. While you might be able to rig up something(If the body is destroyed while a body is being animated by the vigor, it messes something up.)

      Then again the villains weren’t really trying to hurt people, just have power. Plus them being royal does seems like they should be treated better and the villains were nobles.

      I guess it’s just that having them be somewhat human in one respect, other than their crazy power game they were playing.

  14. Jack V says:

    Would the bad guys be dumb enough to put all their eggs in one, basket? Wouldn't they keep the royals at different locations? Would they keep them here, on Brooks own estate?

    Now you point it out I can see the downsides, but FWIW I didn’t notice anything odd about this at the time. I don’t remember the plot well enough, but fwiw, transporting the bodies seems crying out for someone to notice, or to end up needing them in a hurry for something, or for someone to stumble on them… it actually seems safer to keep them somewhere central and completely under your control.

  15. Jon Ericson says:

    I think my second draft has always been better than the first when I’ve lost work this way. But I gotta balance that by remembering that if I never publish things, they aren’t worth much to anyone. In other words, unless I say to myself, “enough with the re-writing”, there’s not much point in starting a project in the first place.

    Plus there’s the law of diminishing returns: was the first draft that much worse than the second to make the re-write worthwhile?

  16. Paul Spooner says:

    I think this points to a larger problem with how writing is accomplished. What happened was you subdivided a small section of your story into a larger section, and it got much better. Now you’re wondering if this would work for the whole story.

    It will work. It does.

    Basically, most writers (yourself included I assume) work in the order (and detail) that the audience will experience. They start writing at the beginning and work at the finest level of detail that they can imagine all the way through the end of the story. The story is written “flat” just like you would tell it, which feels natural because that’s the way we read stories, and that’s the way we experience time.

    But this is not a good idea. All artisans (writers, painters, programmers, sculptors, etc) rough it out first. Maybe you’re a good enough storyteller and writer that you can just bust out the story in reading order and final detail and be done with it, but why punish yourself this way? This is like starting a painting with the subject’s eyes, and working outward (using fine, detailed strokes) until the whole canvas is covered. It’s like carving a sculpture (down to the details) from top to bottom. It’s like writing a computer program (complete and finished) in order of execution.


    The whole point of “do the outline first” that we all ignored in college (because nothing was challenging enough to warrant it) is to introduce this idea of subdivision. If the story doesn’t work as a single sentence, it’s not going to work when you’re done writing four hundred pages. Write that sentence first. Once you’ve got the sentence, ask yourself “Is this enough detail?” And if it isn’t, subdivide the sentence. Make the sentence into two sentences, or a paragraph, or a chapter. Then do the same with each of those new sentences, until there is enough detail all the way through. This is how all other arts achieve excellence, and writers are no exception.

    Perhaps you will get good enough that you can write the whole thing in order of execution with comments and page numbers without any subdivision… But I wouldn’t hold my breath.

    1. Zozma says:

      I tend to outline before I start writing a piece of fiction. But that’s just one way of doing it.

      One method a lot of people use is just “discovery writing” it. They do what you’re advocating against doing, just starting at the beginning with no outline and pushing through to the end. Or, horror of horrors, some of them start with no outline and then write chapters in no particular order (from chapter one to chapter fifteen to chapter six etc.), putting them together as they go.

      I know of a couple writers who work without outlines. Maybe you’ll recognize the names too: George R.R. Martin (see his essay on gardeners vs. architects) and Stephen King (see “On Writing”).

      1. Paul Spooner says:

        And there are people who can stipple paint starting with details, and write code in execution order. Yes, what I am suggesting is unnecessary for simple projects or the highly talented few… But for most of us, and/or large projects, writing straight through is simply a poor choice of approach.

        I’m not talking about just an outline that you refer to once in a while, I’m talking about recursive subdivision composition vs linear reading-order composition. I think the expectation that writers should write “as it is read” is absurd, and produces poor literature.

        I can’t imagine this is a new idea. There could be a whole school of writing that does what I propose (or much better) but I’ve never heard of it. Does anyone regularly write this way besides me?

        And yes, my initial post is worded strongly. Sorry if I offended anyone. I don’t like to see people wasting their time with sub-optimal methods.

        1. Zozma says:

          Methods that are “sub-optimal” for you are not necessarily “sub-optimal” for everyone else. I think it’s mistaken to suggest that you need to be some crazy, freak of nature talent to write in what you’re calling “linear reading-order”. I picked Stephen King and George R.R. Martin as examples to show that writers can reach a high level of success writing in just that way–but there are plenty of midlist writers who do exactly the same thing. They still get published, and they still have their fans.

          I think Kevin J. Anderson has a way of writing that’s kind of like what you’re suggesting (I think. I’m not parsing “recursive sub-division” very well). But every writer is different. Period. I don’t think it’s possible to make a generalization that works for everybody, or even the majority of people (except for the REALLY BROAD, simple, and mostly self-evident rules like ‘use words in an understandable way’ and ‘make sure there’s conflict’).

          I don’t know much about programming, but I kind of suspect that every programmer is different, too. I’m not saying that a good number of programmers write in execution-order, but programming is a fundamentally different art than writing. The differences probably come up in other places.

  17. Alan says:

    ***Sticks fingers in ears***

    La La La, I can’t hear all the spoilers that this post contains.

    My copy of Witch Watch arrived yesterday, and I have yet to read it, I did look in the back and saw a typo in the links.

    Heather’s site seems to be written as – with a typo on ‘home’. I bought it through Createspace – I don’t know if that makes a difference.

  18. Mbourgon says:

    Honestly just wanted to chime in that I enjoyed the books, (supposed) warts and all.

    That eing said: it’s written,it’s done,carry on. Yes, you can endlessly rewrite it. Some people do. For some it ends up with masterpieces, but for most simply results in a book never published.

    Now, to reiterate what someone else said: to the sequel! Chop chop!

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