The everyday blog of Richard Bartle.

10:12am on Friday, 21st January, 2005:

Advice to Authors


Some 15 years ago, I wrote a novel about magic as technology. It was a cross between Cyberpunk and Fantasy, and for this reason it was never published (summary of publishers' responses: "this really deserves to be published, but not by us"). My wife was alpha-testing it for me (reading what I wrote as soon as it came off the printer), and noted that one particular chapter was not in keeping with the rest of the book. She was right, it wasn't, but I needed it to set up a premise for something that was to happen later. The chapter in question wasn't very long, but I had to add another seven or eight like it to get the effect I needed a different way.

What I actually should have done was to rewrite a couple of the earlier chapters. That, however, would have meant throwing away hours of work, including many lines with which I was particularly pleased. Having to throw out things they've written is often referred to by authors as "killing your babies", and they're generally very reluctant to do it.

Yet if if I had been writing a computer program and after a week of working on a routine I found a better way to do it, I'd just delete the bad code and write the good code. It wouldn't bother me in the slightest — in fact I'd want to do it. Sure, I'd salvage anything I could re-use, but the rest would be gone. I wouldn't be happy at having wasted time, but I'd have been very happy to have something better there instead.

What's the difference between writing programs and writing novels in this regard?

Well, I thought about it and concluded there wasn't one. It's just that I know I'm a top class programmer, but have yet to demonstrate that I'm a top class novelist. As a programmer, I'm so confident that I can replace something inferior with something superior that it doesn't matter to me one iota to throw the inferior stuff out. As a novelist, I didn't have the confidence that I could replace something inferior with something superior, so I didn't want the inferior stuff to go. There were some gems in there I wasn't sure I could replace with other gems.

I bit the bullet when I started writing screenplays. These aren't online, because they really are commercial quality and I really could get money from them. I was offered an option on my first one from a bona fide production company, which is pretty damned good (although it would have been pretty damned better if they hadn't reneged on the deal). Oh, just a moment, one of them is online, although you'll have to create an account at TriggerStreet to read it (Kath Eats Bill's Popcorn).

Anyway, for my screenplays I determined that if I wrote something which I later decided needed to be rewritten, I's do just that: I would rewrite it. I threw out some great one-liners, but I was resolute: if this had been program code, there wouldn't have been a problem, so there wasn't going to be one now. It worked.

I recently completed another novel (my third — the second one also didn't get published on account of how there's no such genre as Social Science Fiction). My alpha-tester (daughter Jenny) and my beta-testers (daughter Madeleine, wife, mother, Viktor Toth) all liked it but all made suggestions for improvment. I've taken all of these on board, but none have required major surgery.

The latest beta-tester, Rob Sloane, has made some suggestions which do require major surgery, however. My earlier changes (at the behest of my earlier testers) have addressed symptoms which, once fixed, combined to make it clear that there was an underlying problem in the characterisation of the story's protagonist. I'm going to have to rewrite great slabs of the opening few chapters.

I'm still not pleased I didn't get it right the first time. Except now, I'm actually looking forward to making it right at the second attempt.

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Copyright © 2005 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).