Tuesday, July 26, 2011

RevisionLand; Or, Aliens/Robots/Dry-Towners/Mad-Scientists Ate My Brains

Gillray, "The Headache," 1819
One of the delights of living with a fellow writer occurs when I'm sitting at the dinner table, trying to wrap my mind around 200 or 500 pages of text. He raises an eyebrow, Spock-style. I say, "Revisions." And he gets it. I am not only not flying with the rest of the ducks at this moment, I'm nowhere near this planet. I'm in RevisionLand.

Some writers look at me as if Aliens/etc., really have eaten my brains when I say I love to revise. Everyone's different. I'm not a writer who uses detailed outlines. I know some who do, one or two 3 x 5 cards per scene. I work from an outline that tells me I need to get from here to there and this is the emotional tenor of this story hinge, and that is how I want to climax to come together. How I get from a blank screen to ### (the end, in writerese) is an adventure. The story doesn't happen for me in the first draft, but in the revisions.

Anyone can write a draft. Just put one word after another, rinse and repeat 100,000 times. Presto! This is a time for me to throw every wacky notion that pops into my brain on the page, as long as it has some vague relevance to that outline. And many that don't. So revising involves clearing away all that dead wood and stuff that belongs in another book and much more that is just plain idiotic. Along the way, there are absolute gems I had no idea were there. They are the true rewards of allowing myself to create sloppy rough drafts. (Another is that for me this is an effective method of getting my internal critic/editor out of the picture before she muzzles my muse.) Somewhere early in this slash and burn process, I start to get a bigger picture, not of what I thought the book was about (I'm wrong) but what it really is and, what's more important, what it might become. This usually involves the above-mentioned holding-of hundreds of pages in my head all at once, because here is where the pattern emerges.

So I'm about half-way through the first revision-pass of The Children of Kings, the next Darkover book. It involves an adventure, and also a mystery. I have at least three parallel threads: what the character does; what the character finds out (and in what order, and what he knows that everyone else does not and vice-versa); and how the character changes. If I were smart, I'd do a read-through with a flow chart for each thread, in different colored inks. But I'm impatient, so I'm making changes and going oops, this violates the set-up 5 chapters back and then wondering if I should go back and fix the set-up, or fix what I've got now so it's congruent with what's come before, or maybe both are wrong, but wait, he couldn't have come to that conclusion because he doesn't have this other piece of information, which he will find out in the next chapter....

At this point, there is nothing for it but to take the dog for a long, long walk.

Having come back, hot and sweaty and thought-out (but with a very happy dog), I have regained a sort of temporary sanity, enough to realize that the next step is the Magic Notebook, in which I reason things out on paper, usually to splendid effect.

When I was a new writer, I'd be in despair at this stage. I'd be sure I'd never sort it all out, that I'd just wasted a year on a hopeless piece of inconsistent, irrational drivel. But I've been through this process enough times to know that not only is it a temporary passage, but a necessary one. Moments of doubt keep me working to make the story better, digging to find the root of what doesn't work. Those treasures I mentioned above remind me that the story is worth the effort.

And every once in a while, I read a sentence, a phrase, a paragraph, and go, Wow, that is really good. And I wrote it.. If I had a magic wand to transform the whole book into equal quality, I would make a fortune, but as it is, I'm stuck with this workhorse process, slogging through, hanging on to hope and past experience by my fingernails. If it's your process, too, we're in great company.


  1. Those 'this is really good!' moments are so precious aren't they?

  2. Those moments, and the memory of them, keep me going through the gnarly times!