Friday, March 25, 2016

Revision -- A Path to Better Writing or an Excuse to Never Finish?

“What's new?” I asked my friend, a young(er) writer.

“I finished my book!” she said radiating both relief and excitement.

“Finished, how? Finished, as in rough draft? Revision? Ready to send to your critique group?”

“This is like the eighth revision,” she said. “My group has seen it, in whole or part, many times.” She rolled her eyes. “I was at the point where the only thing to fix were nits, so it was clear that I needed to send it out.”

Although my friend has yet to sell a novel, she has several quite respectable short fiction sales to her credit. More than that, she has acquired an understanding of when revision is helpful and when it is detrimental. In our subsequent discussion, she pointed out that she is a “pantser” (“writing by the seat of your pants”) rather than a planner. With time, she has become better at planning out a writing project, but she still likes the spontaneity of letting the story unfold in unexpected and delightful directions. Hence the need for multiple revisions.

I was like this when I began writing. I had no idea that people outlined stories. When a fellow writer told me that she outlined each scene on a 3 x 5 card before she actually started writing the story, I didn't know what to think. I would just start writing with no idea where the story was going to take me. As a consequence, my stories were riddled with plot holes, inconsistencies, and dead ends.

I had to learn to revise as a matter of survival. I don’t mean tidying up grammar and punctuation. I mean taking apart large portions of the story, writing new text, rearranging other portions, and so forth, until the final version bore little resemblance to my rough draft. Computers have made this much easier than having to retype the whole thing!

Because I often have difficulty discerning the proper point at which to begin a story, in my early years I often had to either add one or more chapters or throw them out. Once I had to discard the first 150 pages of text. It was a good thing that I took to heart the advice to kill my darlings, or I would never have been able to do that and the story might have ended up in a trunk instead of a bookstore shelf.

As I wrote, and later sold, short story after short story and then several novels, my revision process became abbreviated. I learned the literary equivalent of looking before I leaped. I developed my own methods of writing down the structure of a work, either in progress or yet to be started. I say writing down rather than outlining because many of my early techniques involved sketches, maps, diagrams, and flow charts. Later I used text as well, although writing down the contents of each chapter before I have written it has never appealed to me. It takes the fun out of discovering what happens next.

Outlining, in whatever form, reduced the number of drafts, but did not eliminate the need for revision. I often joke that whatever I think a story is about before I start writing it, I'm wrong. No matter how fully developed an idea seems while it is still in my mind, I always find new aspects and connections that I did not know existed. Over time, my process of revision has changed from major reconstruction to deepening connections. Sometimes it feels as if I am Michelangelo, chipping away at that block of marble to reveal the statue that is already inside.

Revision, as indicated in the title of this piece, can also be an excuse not send a story out into the world, where it may be rejected. It is all too easy for a fearful or insecure writer to keep polishing until there is no life left in the story. As long as he can say, “I'm still working on it,” he doesn't risk the possibility of being told by an agent, editor, or critique group that this story does not work. We have all heard of novice writers who spend years, sometimes decades, on a single book. While it is true that some stories take a long time to coalesce, that's not what I'm talking about. I had to write about a dozen books (depending on how you count them) before one was finally solid enough to be to make a publishable novel. And that one, I revised four times before I submitted it to an editor. While previous attempts contained many intriguing concepts and even some respectable prose, I was not yet sufficiently experienced to bring them together in a cohesive way. This is why I almost never tried to revise them many years later. The central core of these attempt unsuccessful novels reflected who I was as a writer at that time. As I matured, I was able to tackle more ambitious themes, more complex characters, more challenging points of view, and so forth.

Occasionally, a story would present itself in those early years before I was skillful enough to do it justice.These drafts and fragments have become a treasure trove into which I dip from time to time. I am able to view my earlier attempts with a more critical eye and to extract what can be salvaged and reworked, often in a new framework, to the standards of my current ability. I should add that these older nuggets face fierce competition from the new ideas that present themselves to me on a daily basis. Like most writers I know, I am not lacking in ideas. To the contrary, I have so many that I must pick and choose which ones will yield the most rewarding results. I doubt I will ever come to the end of my queue of ideas story ideas. The challenge is, as it has always been, to prioritize.

Revision has taught me how to take a story, prune and discard elements that don't work, and flesh out elements the take the work in a deeper, richer direction. At the same time, it has given me a better sense of what stories are worth the energy and time. When I was a beginning writer, every story was the greatest thing I had ever written. This was absolutely true. I was improving all the time, so each story was indeed the best I had written to date. Decades later, however, I have written my share of flops, experiments that did not pan out, and just plain awful writing, not to mention ideas that seemed brilliant at the time but which history has proved wrong. So now when I consider potential projects, I keep in mind that some will succeed better than others. I never want to stay completely in the realm of safe, proven writing strategies, and I’m much more likely to dig into a story that challenges me.

My current process is that once I finish a first draft, I take another pass through it while the way the story has come together at the end is still fresh in my mind. Then I set it aside and distract myself by working on something else. Early in my career, I wrapped the typed manuscript in plastic and put it in the freezer “to cool off.” Computers and experience have eliminated the necessity, but not the humor. Then I’ll do another pass, usually a fairly substantial one. At this point, the story is ready for someone else to see it, usually a trusted reader and then my editor.

Everyone has a different way of revising. Just as it is a joy to some (me) and agony to others, so we approach this re-envisioning as individuals. We have different “signals” that tell us we are about to outrun our inner guides, or our workshop mates are reduced to pointing out typos instead of errors of substance. I find it endlessly fascinating to “talk shop” with other writers, even if I come away grateful that I get to do things my way...and they get to do things theirs. As long as it works, the details don’t matter.

As a dear friend who is also a fantastic writer said, “The only draft that matters is the one on the editor’s desk.”

So however you get there, shove that story out the door and dive into the next — better -- one!

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