The censor can only succeed by convincing us to do their work for them. That's why drawing a line between state censorship and private censorship is such a misleading exercise. Censorship is, and always has been, a public-private partnership.
Censors have always done – and still do – their work not by wielding power, but by projecting it.
I got terrible indigestion on Tuesday that’s lasted for days 😔 I’m mostly not in pain anymore but feel fragile, and I’ve got a lingering on-again-off-again headache to top it off. I don’t handle pain well, so mostly I moped around in bed miserably for the past three days.
Over the weekend, I started doing some directed reading towards a specific end, which felt great — I’d forgotten just how much I enjoy researching for non-fiction writing (I hate it for fiction).
Win of the week: had a great client meeting 😁
Looking forward to: feeling better? 🤞
Stuff I did:
5 hours consulting — meeting, revisions, and prepping an outline
took Monday off from work for the holiday — and then Wednesday, Thursday and Friday for feeling bad
had to take my cat back to urgent care for more tests, a very expensive and stressful distraction from my own misery ☹
To even entertain the idea of building AI-powered search engines means, in some sense, that you are comfortable with eventually being the reason those creators no longer exist. It is an undeniably apocalyptic project, but not just for the web as we know it, but also your own product. Unless you plan on subsidizing an entire internet’s worth of constantly new content with the revenue from your AI chatbot, the information it’s spitting out will get worse as people stop contributing to the network.
If anyone finds out how to prevent Arc Browser from accessing your website, please let me know 😉 For now I’ve blocked Anthropic AI in my robots.txt file, in addition to ChatGPT. The kind of people who are ok being parasites on the information ecosystem probably don’t respect robots.txt though 🤷♀️
Google Books assumes that what one wants out of their huge pile of books is not books, but isolated strings of information. That’s the same assumption that stands behind their disastrous attempt to revamp their search engine so that it doesn’t take you primarily to a website, but instead tries to directly present you with the answer.
There is no such thing as the raw information devoid of presentation and context. We can’t get at that raw information, and we certainly can’t program computers to do so, because it does not exist. It is a fantasy, and it is increasingly a willful lie.
Information does want to be free, as it turns out — free of context, free of pleasure, free of empathy, even free of comprehension. The effort to just cut to the chase and give us the information has actively destroyed the conditions for understanding and using that information in an intelligent way.
So I want to write to those people who, like me, enjoy new tools and their potential. I’m talking to you: the prompt engineer, “it’s really good for some things”, gotta-break-a-few-eggs mindset, AI-experimentalist. It’s me: a luddite who nevertheless loves technology. I’m going to show you how I see these tools.
Because where you see a tool, I see a weapon.
Maybe you think calling ChatGPT/Stable Diffusion/etc “weapons” is too extreme. “Actual weapons are made for the purpose of causing harm and something that may cause harm should be in a different category,” you say. But I say: if a tool is stealing work, denying healthcare, perpetuating sexism, racism, and erasure, and incentivizing layoffs, splitting hairs over what category we put it in misses the point.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between a novelist — I mean a human novelist — and an AI novelist. The fact that we have these limited bodies, these bodies that are one day going to die, and we can only sit in front of a computer or at a notebook for a certain number of hours before it’s too exhausting. I’m not a machine. I have to get up. I have to take breaks. I think that’s related to what we're capable of writing — the fact that we're limited, that we can’t remember everything perfectly, that we’re not just riffing on every text we’ve read. We’re actually *making* our brains, in some way that I don’t actually understand because I know nothing about neuroscience. But our brains choose to remember what they remember. And that informs the rest of our lives — both what we make and how we exist in the world. We’re making meaning by pulling from places and people and texts and art, but it’s such a mystery, all of it.
I think what abusers need most is not for people to believe the lie that they are good—though they certainly will take that if they can get it. What they need most is for people to believe false equivalencies; that no matter how bad the abusers are, everyone else is just as bad. That no matter what their intentions are, they aren’t any worse than any other person or group's intentions. That everything and everyone is bad, and so badness is inevitable, and in their badness they are by no means unique. And most of all, an abuser want to establish their intended victims as guilty; as threats to enact the exact abuses the abuser is already enacting against them.
…we’ll see the most corrupt people defending their right to corruption in the name of draining the swamp; we’ll see the most bigoted people defending their right to bigotry in the name of liberty; we’ll see the most cowardly people defending their cowardice in the name of bravery; we’ll see the most violent people defending their right to violence in the name of self-defense.
I’ve been thinking about households as workshops. I am 90% sure I derived this from Wendell Berry’s various discussions of productive households, as opposed to households as sites of consumption.
Reframing my household as my workshop has helped rid me of the nagging feeling that I should be doing something else. That repairing the stove, for example, is an annoying distraction from my “real work.”
Consciously modifying your tools requires at minimum two things: The first is that you have to know yourself – or at least your own way of working – well enough to spot a pain point and imagine how to augment a tool to make it more your own.
The second: You’re aware that you can modify your tools.
Our tools become extensions of ourselves and directly influence our work; modifying tools to better suit is taking ownership of them.
Right now I’m embroiled in extensive revisions for a fiction novel. I’ve been working on this book on and off for years, first writing, then rewriting, then revising and rewriting and revising yet again.
So much writing advice emphasizes the first draft of a book. That makes sense: completing a draft is a massive accomplishment that many writers don’t achieve, so the potential audience is larger than “people who want to revise an existing draft.” Then the next most common craft book focuses on copyediting: what should be the final step of edits, after the story structure, characterization, and all the other big ticket items are worked out.
This isn’t precisely helpful. How does one get from the “shitty first draft” everyone encourages you to write to a finished novel?
(NOTE: this is a 4500 word piece, what can I say, I’m a writer)
Revision as decision making
The writing-rewriting-revising process has made me realize how much of revision is simply decision-making — which I find challenging in all aspects of life 😉
I’ve needed to address not only my goals for the story, but my goals as an author. Introspection has been integral to this revision process.
My most recent complete draft (we’ll call it 2.5) is over 150,000 words, which isn’t viable 😉 While revising and deciding how to make it a reasonable length (under 100k), several big picture questions have arisen:
how realistic do I want the science to be in my far-future sci-fi (setting aside FTL travel)?
is this novel / series better suited to being a romantic science fiction adventure or a science fiction romance? who am I writing this book for?
does this story / romantic arc work better as a standalone or a trilogy?
do I want to self-publish or seek an agent for traditional publication?
how much do I want to hew to the market versus follow my own instincts about what readers want or what will make the best story?
Deciding that this novel would be the first book in an initial series of three standalones was only the first branch of the decision tree. I also have needed to consider how and how much to set up the following books in the series, as well as determine how much I need to know now, while writing the first book. How much time should I invest in planning the following two books?
For example, the first two books in this trilogy have an overlapping timeline. I couldn’t figure out how to get past these interconnections and wound up outlining and drafting about half of the second book at the end of 2022 to help myself get a handle on the dependencies I needed to account for. (Writing the sequel as a way to resolve the first book’s issues is NOT recommended 😉 but is what I did 🤷♀️)
More series considerations include:
am I setting up (and leaving unanswered) enough questions to interest the reader in the next book, but not piss them off that they didn’t get answers?
have I given myself enough plot hooks to use in future books?
have I teased the next book’s relationship?
have I set up an interesting narrative arc and universe I’ll be happy spending the next 5+ years writing?*
what worldbuilding and backstory do I need to set up for future plots?
Story element choices
It’s not just “existential” questions, but also story elements. My first drafts leave some decisions fuzzy or contradict themselves as I change my mind during the writing, indulging a multiverse of character choices with consequences that ripple outwards in the butterfly effect. Often, the options are equally viable, simply different, demanding solely an aesthetic judgment about which suits the story and characters better, or which I’d prefer to write. Or even trickier, other scenes are contingent on one or the other option — and then it’s a more philosophical choice about what book I want this book to be. I can’t have it both ways: I need to choose.
Sometimes one decision will trigger a causal chain of other issues. I’ve evaluated seemingly endless options for paring the length back to something more in the 85,000 word range. Those are hard because sometimes it’s whole storylines — and thus secondary characters — that make the most sense to remove. However, since I’ve decided to write this as a series of standalones (a common approach in the romance genre, featuring a different couple in each book), I do need to introduce some future characters in this book, so that must also be weighed.
It can reveal what you didn’t know was there in the story, what was obscured by too much information too soon, that unnecessary aside, that overly elaborate description, that quote that revealed far less than you thought it did. The more clutter you clear, the more clearly you see.
Managing the tedious details
I’ve been following advice to not let myself get stuck on details while I’m drafting, and just throw in a “TK” (handy abbreviation for ‘to come’ that’s an uncommon letter pairing hence easy to ctrl-f). But in the revision, I’m finally faced with making all those decisions I avoided before. Sometimes the flag is for a place name, but sometimes the decision is more complicated. As I’ve gotten more practice writing, I’ve stopped leaving big gaps like [TK insert fight scene here] — a great way to inspire anger at my past self 😂 — but there are still plenty of these little holes to plug. What fun, making several dozen decisions I thought were hard before in a row! 🙃
My friend who worked at Boeing for a while told me about the difference between mechanical engineers and manufacturing engineers, and how both were absolutely necessary to the making of a plane (lol no jokes). It’s one thing to envision what the pieces are and how they’ll fit together, and another to determine how to make the pieces and assemble them. Revising a novel is the manufacturing process that turns the blueprints of the first draft into a book someone can purchase and read.
I recently had a story breakthrough when I made the affirmative technological decision that spaceships can’t land on planets (I’d been inconsistent in my draft). That meant that a military base I’d previously placed on a planet’s surface needed to be in orbit, so anyone on the surface would need a shuttlecraft to get there. In the first draft, it’s easy to handwave practicalities — sure! they get a shuttle from somewhere! — but in the final story I need to know where (and who) the fuck they got that shuttle from, even if it doesn’t wind up on the page. They got ‘a guy who knows a guy’? They got a person on the inside? They have a shuttle of their own? They call in a favor? They steal one? They stow away? These all have the potential to impact the plot or world. Simpler choices can be gracefully set up earlier in the novel. Different choices might better suit the characterization and backstory of the protagonist. A story comes down to its details.
Following my intuition
Another thing revision has taught me is that my gut knows stories better than I do 😂 Over the past decade, I’ve read about 1300 books, the vast majority fiction. While most of my reading is primarily for enjoyment, each novel further imprints story into my subconscious.
My subconscious can tell when something is wrong with the story — I procrastinate, I struggle to focus, I try multiple tools but get nowhere, I work in circles and go back to ideas I ruled out months earlier — but it often takes a while to intellectually figure out what’s wrong with the story. I just have to notice — and listen — to what my gut is telling me.
Hurdling psychological blockers
Unfortunately, it turns out that, like every other challenging endeavor, much of the work of writing is psychological. (Damn it!) I was never a good athlete because I couldn’t stomach physical pain, but I’ve proven to myself that I can endure the grind of writing. Yet that’s only one psychological barrier I needed to overcome.
I believe that the hard personal work I’ve been doing with assorted therapists and coaches over the past decade has been almost as important to becoming a better writer as the writing.
I needed to grow my self-confidence to believe that what I was writing was worthwhile (despite being a culturally ridiculed genre).
I needed to bolster my self-esteem to accept the emotional vulnerability of publication.
I needed to learn to trust myself to be able to listen to my intuition.
I needed to stop self-sabotaging and take myself and my goals seriously.
I needed to learn to live with uncertainty and escape rumination.
And I needed to leave behind some limiting beliefs, structures and relationships that were holding me back.
My decisions must fit my values
Prioritizing values can help with decision-making — but I need to be confident in that prioritization.
In early fall last year, I decided to prioritize reusing as much existing material as possible. That choice informed which revised outline I settled on. I spent the fall working chapter by chapter through the outline,* only to stall out around 30%. This is where the story ramps up to the midpoint, which is crucial to the character arc. Something wasn’t working with this version.
No matter what I tried, I couldn’t put together a new outline that felt better. I combed back through old versions of previous outlines, evaluating variations slight and substantial. None of them felt right.
Opening myself up to what my intuition was telling me, I narrowed my blocker down to an issue with the ending; I wasn’t happy with the emotional victory over the villain. And if it didn’t satisfy me, it wouldn’t satisfy a reader. I’ve been playing with the Heroine’s Journey, which includes the beat “revenge is irrelevant,” but I hadn’t put my finger on what that meant. I realized that all the story sequences I’d been exploring all followed the same basic shape, so I tried a new tack: setting aside what I already have written and brainstorming what an emotionally satisfying ending would look like. This was inspired by an insight from a self-help book I read many years ago, Designing Your Life, which encourages comparing radically different life options instead of minor variants.
I’ve been using reader experience as a deciding factor: what will make this more enjoyable for the reader? Part of my challenge is that I’m writing in an extremely niche market*: science fiction romance, which is primarily self-published and has only really been around for the past twenty years or less. With a blended genre like this, I need to satisfy readers on both the romantic and sci-fi fronts. I’m aiming for this book to be a good science fiction tale, not just a romance with sci-fi set dressing. So I needed to answer the question of what would make a more satisfying ending four times, in essence, for the sci-fi plot, the romantic relationship, and the individual character arcs for both POV characters:
what would be a compelling science fiction ending to this book? what would a sci-fi reader expect?
what would be an emotionally satisfying resolution of the romantic relationship? what would be an emotionally satisfying outcome for the villain?
what do the hero and heroine each need to do in the ending to achieve their character arc? what does the reader want to see them do? how can their unique skills and perspectives — and the lessons they’ve learned — play a part in the climax?
Now, I’ve decided that I care more about making this book good than I do about rushing it to market (lol dream on). Realistically, drafting is the fastest part of the writing process for me — if I know what I’m writing, I can write a thousand words in an hour, and salvaging old words is way slower — so it’s not actually that important to avoid writing new words. I’ve been sunk-cost-fallacying the value of those earlier words when the situation calls for a new investment of writing. Besides, over the five-ish years I’ve been tinkering with this story, I’ve gotten better at writing 🤷♀️ What I write now is probably going to be higher quality than the original prose 😉
Assembling a storycraft revision toolkit
I’ve read a lot of craft books and explored many tools throughout my revision process. The tools we choose shape our work, so it’s important to find ones that suit us; writing fiction in Microsoft Word constrained my thinking at a story level, and switching to Scrivener was like getting a third hand — I could juggle so much more information. But it’s not just software that makes a difference: techniques serve as tools for understanding and refining our stories.
I suspect that storycraft revision is less teachable than copyediting — more of a “you need to do it yourself” and “it depends on the book” thing. Fortunately, a lot of the ‘first draft’ oriented craft books emphasize storytelling, so lessons can be adapted to apply to existing work.
(The sci-fi / fantasy writing world emphasizes through the workshop model, centered on silently receiving peer critique, which has its problems. Knowing people who have gone through Clarion West, the intensive workshop approach sounds horribly unsustainable and totally unsuitable for me.)
Some tools I’ve used to help me wrap my head around the story include:
I find it’s often helpful to zoom in and out during revision, that I can get only so far at a high level before needing to dig in at the scene level to identify problems I hadn’t thought of when I was focused on the big picture.
Asking what would make this more fun for the reader
Asking what would make this harder for the POV character
I have to use the tools to learn which ones help me get to the core of the story problem. While Story Genius changed the way I approach storytelling, the specific structure of scene cards didn’t fit me; scene-and-sequel framings have proven an easier way for me to think about what’s important in a scene. I made myself a chapter revision worksheet that gathered lots of guiding questions from various books of advice, and after using it for a while I pared it down to the questions that make a difference for me. Even that simpler worksheet, I’ve pulled back from in more recent stages of edits. Different tools work at different stages.
I’ve also rejected some tools — I’ve chosen not to seek out beta readers for this novel, and instead let a supportive friend read a draft because what I really needed was affirmation that the story was worth the effort 😉
I’m amassing a toolkit of revision techniques that work for this book; it’s very possible the next book will need different tools. But I consider this lengthy, involved revision process an investment in my own skills* — the next book may not feel any easier to edit, but having gone through the process before may well make it less daunting.
Actually doing the work
The tacit knowledge of the revision process
One of my biggest challenges is figuring out how to approach the project on a practical, not intellectual, level. Most craft books are frustratingly short-spoken about how, physically, to make your edits. There are many tools and tricks that can be used during the editing process, like printing off the draft in tiny font size or switching the font or reading it aloud, to identify changes that need to be made. Yet I’m having a hard time finding guidance on implementing the changes that are identified.
Most process discussion in the fiction world seems to fall to “pantsers” and “plotters,” (basically improvisers versus planners) but I’m thinking of a different type of writing process, more project and file management. What is the easiest process flow? In what order should steps be taken? To batch or not? Some craft books discuss this, but often with 😒😒😒 instructions like “just go through and make changes till you’re happy with it”.
I have questions about how other writers do things like:
track the status of major changes throughout the book (e.g. an issue that must be addressed in multiple chapters)
save cut scenes and extract material from scenes in a way that you won’t accidentally wind up reusing that great sentence twice — but you can find it when you go looking for it
track worldbuilding across books (e.g. organize a “series bible” and keep it up to date)
track information — where is your outline and how do you reference it (e.g. I do my beat sheets in Excel because Scrivener tables suck, but then it’s hard to reference)? which fields are worth using in Scrivener (e.g. my friend and I agreed that custom fields are largely a trap)?
document decisions — how do you document the “latest and greatest” version or decision?
keep track of changes to be made in different places and at different scales (a punch list?)
break revisions into phases
organize chapters, scenes, and reference material in Scrivener files
mark up the status of scenes and chapters
manage versioning, especially when making major changes to allow reversions or reference if needed
line edit — in file or on paper or another markup format?
coordinate between software and analog materials
Enter the concept of tacit knowledge. These are the things that no one shows others how to do — the things that don’t seem worth explaining. I’d mostly thought of tacit knowledge as for physical skills, like kitchen prep, but tacit knowledge can also apply to knowledge work. I recognized the revision process as a potential type of tacit knowledge for novelists.
Every writer comes up with their own system for writing and making revisions (usually through extensive trial and error, or just inventing something and sticking with it). We eventually settle on something that’s good enough-ish. Some processes are enough and others more -ish. I suspect that many writers who say they hate editing hate it because they have poor processes.
During this novel revision, I have run up against the limits of my bad processes. Five minutes of my friend screen-sharing his Scrivener file gave me a breakthrough in my information management. (!) Seeing how he organized his information and written materials made clear how much I had cluttered my own file structure — I have a bad habit of over-categorizing, using excessive nested folders and files. Consolidating and simplifying the way I store information made it easier to approach.
I’ve found that a major part of breaking through on creative projects is finding the right framework for approaching them. Through trialing an array of tools and approaches, I’ve found new mental framings that have unlocked aspects of the revision process — breaking the story into sequences of multiple scenes/chapters was a recent helpful reframing for me. I haven’t quite found the right framing for thinking at a series level yet, so I’ll keep experimenting 😄
My approach to implementing revisions
Over the past five or so years, I’ve learned a lot about myself and honed in on specific challenges I have to showing up for writing sessions and making progress. Signing up for CaveDay‘s* remote work sessions has been a game changer for me. I used to do Pomodoro sessions on my own, but the accountability of having a specific time that I must show up has proven really helpful. Hour-long sessions are much more viable when someone else is keeping time than when I must start the timer myself 😉 I’ve even discovered that hour-and-a-half blocks can be helpful for certain types of revisions. It’s built up better work habits and improved my concentration, making it easier for me to do work blocks on my own when needed.
When I got stuck on a plot problem in the past, I tried letting it rest, hoping that when I came back to it with fresh eyes I’d be able to see the problems more clearly. That approach may be useful for an initial readthrough after the first draft, but for me, it wasn’t helpful to “sit on it” for weeks at a time. I’ve learned that I need to be actively in it to solve problems. Otherwise I forget what the obstacles were, unless I do a really good job keeping notes, which I haven’t in the past. Thinking is very much an active process for me; whether brainstorming on paper, exploring different scene orderings in Excel, or evaluating different options through freewriting, I must be engaged with the material.
Drafting is thinking, as Mary Hrovat puts it, and I can’t wait to know everything to take the next step forward:
As a writer, it’s taking me a long time to really absorb the fact that you often have to proceed while uncertain. Writers often learn what they want to say and how they want to say it by trying to say it without knowing exactly what it is. They have to make decisions about a piece before they know enough about it to make the optimal choices. […] You build a road to that piece by writing it, and then you need to build another one to the next piece. It’s not that you don’t learn from the process, but you learn generalities, or maybe heuristics.
I don’t need to make the right decision, just a decision, to move forward. And I can learn from every decision to inform the next one. Sometimes I realize I need to loop back and revisit past decisions; I made the best decisions I could with what I knew then, but I’m also allowed to change my mind 😉
In the past, I logged writing progress using Excel or Google Sheets, noting my location, time of day, and approach (e.g. Pomodoro or “word sprint”), which not only let me see how much I could write in a block of time, but also let me assess my most effective writing practices. As Rachel Aaron described in 2k to 10k (recommended — she’s got a briefer blog post version you can preview), “not all butt-in-chair time is equal.” Tracking my writing sessions made me recognize that meeting up with friends to write was not valuable for me as writing time, but social. (CaveDay’s community of strangers and emphasis on focus is much more effective as a commitment device.) Like her, I’ve also discovered that the longer I work at a time, the more I can get done (up to a point). My second hour’s more productive than the first, the third more than the second, and the fourth — if I can endure without a long break — even better than the third. Flow state, baby. Revision productivity is harder to quantify than writing prose, but I find this rule holds. The first hour is wrapping my head around the problem for the day, and the next hours are actually solving it.
Since a novel project is so long, managing my own morale becomes part of the process. Efficiency in every step is less important than maintaining my energy and enthusiasm for the project. This fall, I indulged myself in some line edits, which I love and haven’t let myself do much on this novel. It might not have been the logical step to come next — efficiency dictates that line edits wait until the final round — but it was the right step for me at that moment in time.
Accepting my slow pace has been a challenge; I found Sarra Cannon’s approach to realistically assessing how much time I have available to write to be helpful. Part of my struggle in writing is meta-agonizing over how slowly it’s going, which does not make it go any faster. Rushing is even worse, leading to investing time in a choice I later decide was the wrong one; slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. I’d like to say I’ve moved past it, but honestly I have not, so I’m working on escaping that cycle of self-recrimination and running my own race 😉
It also helps to recognize how many things I’m learning at once: how to revise a novel, yes, but also how to self-publish a novel, how to plan a series, how to find the heart of a story, what the genre conventions for sci-fi romance are, how I work best, which tools suit the way I think, how to manage and make progress on a complex project, and what I truly want out of my writing. And eventually, I’ll need to learn to know when it’s done.