Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

19.07: NaNoWriMo Revision with Ali Fisher: Intention

For our second episode in this three-part series on revising your NaNoWriMo novel—or any other larger project you have—we are diving into intentions with Tor editor Ali Fisher. We asked her how she helps writers figure out what their books are about, and how she helps set intentions for revisions.

Ali talks with us about how its important to be kind to yourself — and your writing– during the revision process. She also gives us advice for how you, as a writer, can lean into what you do well.


From editor Ali Fisher: write down what you like best about your book. Find a spot in your book where you can incorporate that element where it isn’t now.

Thing of the Week: 

I Will Not Die Alone by Dera White, illustrated by Joe Bennett

A Bathroom Book for People Not Pooping or Peeing but Using the Bathroom as an Escape by Joe Pera; illustrated by Joe Bennett

Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, and Ali Fisher. It was produced by Emma Reynolds, recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Editing for intention, focusing to make the book more of the book that you want it to be. What effect do you want to have on the reader with the book? Figure out who you are, and then do it on purpose. You read your favorite author because of what they do well. So lean into what you do well, and what you enjoy. Don’t kill your darlings. Why is this here? Do consider where and how you are planning to publish. Don’t write to the market, but you can edit to the market. Having someone tell you what they think the book is about can help. Focus on the question the novel is asking. What is the tone of the book? The vibe? What is your lodestone, your guiding light?

[Season 19, Episode 07]

[Mary Robinette] This episode of Writing Excuses has been brought to you by our listeners, patrons, and friends. If you would like to learn how to support this podcast, visit

[Season 19, Episode 07]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[DongWon] A mini-series on revision with Ali Fisher, editing for intention.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[DongWon] I’m DongWon.

[Ali] And I’m Ali.

[Mary Robinette] We are delighted to have Ali Fisher back with us for this episode, where we are going to be talking about intention. This is, like, how you’re approaching the editing when you’re not thinking about the length, but thinking about really focusing to make the book more of the book that you want it to be. There’s a thing that Edgar Allan Poe said that I referenced in our last episode about writing and editing for unity of effect. That is, in his view, what is the emotion that you want to leave the reader with. That’s a… Something that I share as well, and I think I’ve certainly heard both of you talk about that quite a bit. Like, thinking about what effect you want to have on the reader with the book. So, what are some of the questions that you ask your authors when you’re trying to get them to focus their book?

[DongWon] Absolutely. When I’m approaching a manuscript, so much of what I’m doing in the initial pass is trying to make sure I understand very clearly what the author was intending to accomplish. Right? What was the unity of effect that they were going for? Since everyone else has a quote on this topic, I also have one…

[Mary Robinette] Yes.

[DongWon] Which is a Dolly Parton quote…


[DongWon] which is, “Figure out who you are, and then do it on purpose.” So much, I think, of writing a book is a process of figuring out what is this book, who is this book, why did you write it? I think sometimes you’ll have an idea going into it, and sometimes that idea isn’t clear until you’ve finished it. Or, what you originally thought it was about turns out not to be what the book is about. Right? So, I think the process of writing it is often, no matter how much planning you do, discovery of what your intentions were, and are, and what you want them to be going forward. Right? So, that’s so much of the thing that’s going to be informing your editing process and your revision process as you dive back into it.

[Mary Robinette] I love that so much. That Dolly Parton quote makes me so happy. It also ties into something that… I just took a class with Tobias [Buckell?]. He was talking about finding your spark, but one of the things that he said just set off all sorts of fireworks and sparks in my head, was that you read your favorite author because of what they do well, not because of what they don’t do well.

[Ali] Yes.

[Mary Robinette] So, like when you’re reading Asimov, it’s not because of his characterization.


[Mary Robinette] Like, that’s not why you read Asimov.

[Ali, DongWon chorus] Nope.

[DongWon] Truly not.

[Ali] She likes jewelry. End of character.

[Mary Robinette] Yep. That’s all you need. Really. It goes with the diamonds. But, for me, it was like thinking about… Like, really leaning into what you do well, and the things that you enjoy as a representative audience member yourself, as a writer.


[Mary Robinette] That’s, for me, I think just an exciting way to think about it. It’s, like, what do I love about this and how can I make it more of what I love.

[Ali] It’s such a good reframe. Author Jo Walton had a series of posts. I don’t know if they were critiques or love letters, but they got all published in a book by tour that was called What Makes This Book so Great. That was what the series was called. I just thought that was such a wonderful way to approach, like, the reading experience. But also a very helpful way to approach the revision period which is when you’re expected and most likely will be extremely hard on yourself. We’re not talking about the fallout trial process in this episode, but stay tuned until next week or 2 weeks from now…

[DongWon] Yes.


[DongWon] Next week.

[Ali] Stay tuned. But I will say one of the things that, when talking about revision and intention, I always do my best to try to remember to flag the things that, like, what’s so awesome here, like, this made me cry, don’t touch it. I want it, I want to get hurt. Let’s talk about how to hurt me more. Or, like, what… This is so great. So, what else is like that? Or, like, what else can we do to sort of… Putting those flags down I think is just really helpful. Because it can be… It’s a really hard time, it’s a really hard time to be with the story and just remembering what all these good things is really helpful.

[DongWon] Yeah. I think 2nd only to show, don’t tell, which is something I complained about last episode, one of the most common repeated refrains of writing advice that just drives me bonkers is kill your darlings.

[Mary Robinette] Ugh. Yeah.

[DongWon] Right? There’s this idea that… There are times when you do have to cut something you love. Right? We talked about this a little bit less time, about cutting a character or cutting a scene or an element that isn’t tying… That is slowing your pacing down or isn’t supporting the main action of the story or the main intention of the story. But that’s different from this idea, that’s like, oh, if you love this thing, then it shouldn’t be in the book. You wrote this book, the reason we are here is because we like the things that you’re doing well. I mean, this is exactly… Going back to Tobias’s quote, I don’t remember the exact wording, but it’s this idea of, like, we’re reading this for a reason, and that reason is probably the thing that you’re most excited about. Because your energy and enthusiasm and interests are going to come through. Right? Now, don’t overindulge in that. Right? Don’t, like, luxuriate in that at the expense of all the other elements that a book has to have. But, don’t kill your darlings. Love them. Find ways to support them and give them an environment that they can be best observed, appreciated, and so they can flourish for the reader.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. For me, it’s that you have to be willing to kill them if they are pulling the book out of alignment. That’s… Sometimes, if you’ve got a book that’s got this really clean, spare, austere sense of language, and then you’ve got one sentence that has a lot of flourishes in it that you love, that sentence stands out, not because it’s a bad sentence, not because you love it, but because it is in contrast to everything else that’s happening in the book. It is not part of that unity of effect. There are times when you want to contrast, but you want to make sure that it’s a contrast that is applied deliberately and for an effect itself.

[Ali] Right. Do you want that attention, because you’re grabbing it. Is this the subject or the topic or the moment that needs that spotlight because it’s got it.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. So, for me, when I’m thinking about this editing for intention, the thing that I’m coming back to is always like why is this scene here, why is this moment here? If I’m trying to fix something, sometimes I’m looking at it like I can’t get this sentence to work. Then realize it’s because it does… It just… It doesn’t fit. There’s some part of me that knows that it doesn’t belong there. If I query, like, what is my intention with this and what function is it serving in this scene, then I can usually either swap it out for something different that serves better or recognize that it doesn’t have one and cut it. But it is always coming to the why is my starting point.

[Ali] Yeah. We’ve talked about sort of philosophical and essentially political, but, like the effect that the book is having and that intention. Do we also want to talk a little bit about the intention of like how to publish it and, like, whether or not you’re planning on going to a major publisher or publishing yourself or making it into a zine, like printing your own booklet? I think knowing the expectation, or like excitement of the reader in different spaces, or, like, what is more exciting to people right now, like, they’re [garbled]. We were talking about the [Oops La] battle novel in…


[DongWon] Right.

[Ali] In our last episode. I feel like there are certain areas that that could potentially hit stronger. I think maybe knowing where you’re going with the story or where you’re hoping to take the story out is a good thing to keep in mind, because there will be expectations based on whatever that publishing process looks like.

[Mary Robinette] That’s a really great point. There is the reason that you write is not the same reason that you publish.

[DongWon] I always really strongly encourage writers not to think about the market when their drafting or coming up with a book. Right? Like, don’t write to the market. But what you can do is edit to the market. A little bit. Right? You don’t want to overdo it. But there’s ways in which once you have a drafted thing, and now you’re sitting there figuring out, like, okay, here’s the book I wrote. I love it. How do I get this in front of as many readers as I can? That’s the point at which you can now start to consider, okay, what categories does this fit in? Is this for adults? Is this for teens? Is this for a middle grade audience? Is it genre? Is it literary? These are so where you can start to edit and start tweaking things to push it in one direction or another. Sometimes, it can be hard to completely do a 180 in terms of your direction once you have the draft, but you can move it 10° this way, 10° that way, and I think start to hit a really specific audience and a specific reader that you’re aiming for.

[Ali] I mean, even within like traditional publishing and within my work, I’ve had a situation where cover art comes in before the book is finished and, like, we realize, like, oh, there’s… Like, there’s an expectation here, like, an even cozier… Even, like, whatever expectation… Let’s put in more food, more delicious like moments, like more textures. Then, the sequel, like, oh, what if it’s snowing, and there’s a little cozy fire. Like, there are things that can be really surprising that can have an effect. This is obviously very down the line. But you might be surprised at some of the things that affect the revision by the end of the process.

[DongWon] Yeah. I’ve had situations where we wrote up the copy to pitch it to publishers, and in writing the copy, we both went, like, wait a minute. There’s something that’s not working. There’s a huge piece of this that needs changed, because it just wasn’t hitting, it wasn’t… That intention wasn’t coming through, both in terms of what the author was trying to get across, but also how we were trying to publish it and who we were trying to publish it for. So we really, like, took it back, broke it down, and like added a whole other… We added like 20,000 words, added a whole new character arc, and a new POV, based on trying to write the pitch for the book. Like, we were ready to go out with it, and then suddenly, like, 6 months later, we’re like, okay, now we’re ready to go out with it. Sometimes it really is that much of a process of figuring out how do we target it for who we’re trying to get it to.

[Ali] I’ve absolutely been in the same situation, where I’ve been like…


[Ali] But, wait, I’m like working on addressing some copy and been like, I actually don’t know what the stakes are, but I don’t care. So what does that mean? You know, like… During the read, it didn’t bother me, but now, like, is there space for that? Is it needed? That kind of thing.

[DongWon] Yep

[Mary Robinette] So, when we come back from our break, we’re going to talk a little bit more about intentions and how to figure out what your intention is when you’ve finished a book, but actually don’t know what it’s about.

[Ali] So, DongWon assures me that they’ve already pitched you Scavengers Reign, an animated show, I assume you’re all now watching. It is gorgeous, vivid, kind of psychedelic dark science fiction. A while back, I got to work with the cocreator of that show, Joe Bennett, on illustrating 2 books with us. One that he also cowrote with Dera White called I Will Not Die Alone about learning the end is nigh and basically just playing D&D with your friends. He also illustrated a book by comedian Joe Pera called A Bathroom Book for People Not Pooping or Peeing, But Using the Bathroom to Escape. Both are now available from Tor books, and you should check them out.

[Mary Robinette] So, we’ve been talking about different types of intention, but one of the things that I will hear early career writers say, and indeed have experienced myself, is I don’t know what this book is about.


[Mary Robinette] Nancy Kress, who is a phenomenal writer, said this thing to me that just… Like, I shivered in my very bones. That she writes a draft, and that that is what tells her what the book is about. Then she throws that draft away completely, and start writing again from scratch now that she knows what the book is about. I’m like, I cannot. Uh-uh. But I’ve also heard other people and myself say this, and then someone will say, like, one chance thing, and I’m like, “Oh! That’s what my book is about.” So, how do you help your writers understand what their book is about? Like, what are some of the questions that you ask? I’m hoping for pearls of wisdom that will help me.


[DongWon] Oh, great. How do we… No, I mean [garbled]

[Ali] One of the things that I do is I tell them what I think it’s about. Then get to watch their face and find out if they’re like, “Oh, no,” or like, “Oh, yay,” or “I hadn’t seen that,” or whatever. It’s… I love to go in there with a very like, I’m often wrong, here’s what I think attitude and just sort of see what that surfaces for somebody. But in terms of actually identifying it?

[DongWon] Yeah. I mean, this is… I think people ask a lot… I have an undergraduate degree in English literature, and I think people ask a lot, if, like that’s useful in what I do, and in most ways, it isn’t. Right? It’s not like I learned grammar from that or how to compose prose from that. But one thing it did give me was critical reading skills. Right? And how to think critically about the stuff that I am reading. Thematically, what there is in it. It’s not even so much the formal instruction that helped me do that, it’s just reading a ton of books. Right? I think this is one of the reasons why I so strongly encourage, if you want to be a writer, if you want to work in publishing, you have to like books, first and foremost, and you have to read books, first and foremost, and try and stay current with what’s happening out there. Because when you’re consuming enough media, when you’re consuming those things, you start to understand why you like something, what it is about it that… Even if you don’t know how to articulate it. When we say that we want you to understand what your book is about, I don’t need you to be able to sum it up in a sentence. I don’t need you to be able to tell me. In part, you wrote the book because you don’t have a simpler way of explaining whatever it is that you were trying to get to with writing the book. Right? That’s okay. That’s great, actually. That’s my job to figure out how to frame it up in a pithy few sentences so they can go on the back of a book or go to an editor or whatever it is. So, I think, for me, it really is putting those critical skills into place as I’m reading to figure out, okay, what is this project? What are they trying to accomplish here? What are the thematics of it? What are the things that are really jumping out at me that seem to resonate with the person behind this book? Now, that’s me as a third party coming in, and again, what Ali was saying, I think is so true of sometimes it’s about presenting that idea and watching it bounce off the person you talk to, and hopefully you’re close…


[DongWon] And sometimes it’s like, oh, wow, I’m way off here. Then we can approach the edit with that sort of refocus on the intention.

[Mary Robinette] When you don’t have access to an editor or an agent to do this for you, because I have absolutely had that happen… On the Spare Man, Claire looked at the book and said, “This is a story about a woman of privilege who wants to get her hands dirty.” I was like, “Oh. Yeah.” The… For me, the thing about that is that that is a declarative’s statement. But when I go into the book, the thing that I have found most useful is to figure out what question I’m asking. This is a… I’m reframing something that Elizabeth Bear said, like, you know how you’re having a casual dinner conversation and someone just says something brilliant? You’re like, “Well, that is going to save everything I write from now on.” She said that the difference between a story and a polemic is that a story asks questions and a polemic answers them. The thing for me about a novel, in particular, is that a novel can show so many different answers, so many different possible ways, and leave room for the reader to decide what their own answer to that question is. So, for me, one of the things that helps when I’m trying to focus a story is to think about what is the big question I’m asking. In… It’s… It varies. Sometimes it’s something like how do you handle it when your spouse is depressed. Sometimes it’s a very straightforward one like that. Sometimes it’s a big societal one, like how do you create community? Like, what does community mean to you? Like, what are the different ways that community expresses? Then, when I’m writing, I can evaluate against that question. It’s like does this scene explore that question? If it doesn’t, is there a way that I can add that? If there’s not, what is this scene doing? Why is this scene in here? It’s not that every scene has to be providing an exact answer to this. But it’s… Even if it’s just one moment in the scene where that is explored, it still helps me. It helped me with focusing and making decisions about what to include in that.

[DongWon] But if your book isn’t feeling like it has a clear purpose, that it has a clear direction, then I think that’s a great way to go about it, is asking these questions of is this particular scene supporting the central question that I’m asking? If the answer is no, then does this scene need to be here and does this scene need to shift in its purpose to better support whatever that central thing is. Right? So, I think being able to have some clarity about what that question is, and also what your personal connection to that question is… I see a lot of times someone will come into a book and they’ll be asking a big question about society or about how a certain relationship would work, but I can’t feel why that question is important to the person in particular. Sometimes digging until you get that personal connection, where you can feel the author in the story, is the thing that really makes a book pop for me. That’s when I get very excited, when I can suddenly be like, oh, I see you. You’re here. This matters to you because X, Y, or Z. Sometimes it’s something as simple as a shared identity, and sometimes it’s very nuanced and complex in a way that could not be explained without 30 hours of conversation about the author’s like life. But whatever that is, you should feel a connection to the questions that are being asked by your book and find a way to really focus on that and make sure you’re really highlighting that in all the major pieces of your story.

[Mary Robinette] Absolutely. One of the other things that I’ve found along these lines is, again, that personal connection is thinking about the tone that I want the book to have. Because I’m measuring against a bunch of different things. In an ideal world, I’m just writing it and I’m feeling it and it’s there. But when I’m revising it, and I’m having to make decisions, like, my first series, Jane Austen with magic, it’s like how does this feel like Jane Austen with magic right now? Spare Man, Thin Man in Space. Does this feel… Does it have that feel? No. Okay. Fine. There needs to be more cocktails, obviously. Like, who’s… Where is the small dog right now? So, I think that that’s another question that you can ask yourself, is, like, what is the tone that I want? What’s my vibe? Is this supporting it or is it a deliberate juxtaposition?

[Ali] Yeah. That’s so helpful because I do feel like purpose can start to feel sort of like academic. It can feel a little like intellectualized in a way that I think rightfully a lot of people would bristle against. But it can be really basic. It can be like I want to give people a laugh. Or, like, I want… I want to show how cool explosions are. Like [garbled] probably.

[DongWon] [garbled] by the fire. Right?

[Ali] Yes. There probably is more there, if you wrote a whole novel, like, there’s more there. But, also, like that is a very legitimate and exciting and cool sort of jumpoff point that needs to be honored in a very similar way, I think. Especially…

[DongWon] Again, it’s not something you need to necessarily be even able to articulate. You just need to have like a feeling of what the vibe is. If you lock into that vibe, that’s all you need. You just need a tone, or like an image, a thought, a question, any of these things can be your guiding light. I just encourage you to try and figure out what that sort of lodestone is for you that is going to pull you through it, and keep you consistent when you’re asking questions about should this stay, should this change, whatever it happens to be.

[Ali] Find your vibe.

[Mary Robinette] I think that’s a great… Yeah. I think that’s a great segue to take us to our homework for the week. Ali, I think you have that.

[Ali] I do. Thank you for asking. Or telling or saying. Okay. Yes, I do. Your homework this week. Write down what you like best about your book. Find a spot in your book where you can incorporate that element where it isn’t now. Godspeed.

[Mary Robinette] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.

[Mary Robinette] Hey, writer. Have you sold a short story or finished your first novel? Let us know. We love hearing about how you’ve applied the stuff we’ve been talking about to craft your own success stories. Use the hashtag WXsuccess on social media or drop us a line at [email protected].