How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Revisions

royal typewriter, greenI’m in over my head on revisions to my young adult, time-traveling novel, and truth be told, that’s exactly where I want to be. Of course, I always want to be done already, because there are at least two more projects that I’d love to get started on and they’re beginning to act impatient, stuck as they are at the back of my mind and in the pages of my notebook. But I’m revising right now, and if I’m going to be revising, then I need to be immersed—all of the plot details, characters’ foibles, themes, and accidental lessons up close and personal for me so that I don’t lose sight of them. And I’m sure they appreciate such deft attention.

This is something like the twelfth revision, see. I lost track somewhere around 7 or 8.

It takes time to find joy in such a pedantic process, but then again, revising ought to be less about pedantry, and more about turning a good idea into a great novel. If the first draft concerns itself with getting all of the required points down, then the second draft straightens out the errors and inconsistencies and maybe redesigns a character or two, includes new scenes and deletes others. Drafts three through five look at nuances in the text, plumbing deeper depths in each character’s layers, and smoothing out the language. After all of that, at least for me, it’s all about polishing, circumnavigating subtext and themes, and thinking about the reader’s experience through the narrative.

It doesn’t hurt to ask at some point in each revision, why I wrote the dern thing, who it’s for, why this story needs to be told. The answers to those questions may drift a bit, but one sign that this is a worthwhile project is that I keep liking the answer I get. If I tell myself I’ll be okay with trunking this manuscript at any point, then I write more honestly. When I find I have another investment in it—beyond wanting to write as well as I can and in line with my mission as a writer, then I run off track.

I love revisions, even when they make me pull out my hair in frustration. I’m one of those writers who starts off by creating rich scenes and then once I’ve blown through the first third of the story, find myself working up more skeletal transitional chapters until I hit the last third. I need revision to even out my jagged prose, to reimagine the plot developments, and notice what’s been lurking underneath the surface of my writing—all that tricky, interesting stuff that even I didn’t realize was there. There must be as many ways to rewrite a novel as writers and unfinished manuscripts, but they all aim to make what was good, better, and what was nifty, fascinating.

Rewriting is more than a process, it’s a living thing, a force that pushes a story into new territory, and it makes its presence obvious. Readers know when a book’s author has spent copious amounts of time massaging the text, because the elements that would have taken them out of the story aren’t there anymore. Rewrites enhance those aspects of a book that hang in people’s consciousnesses well after the back cover is closed or the e-reader runs out of words. Whatever one’s nadir of writing is—this book sucks or this is a dumb idea or I’m making a bad book worse—most every writer has been there. We push through anyway, because we remember that part of the writing a book is hating our work.  When we pay attention to the rewriting process as a process, we can take those negative moments and dismiss them, noting them only as a marker that we’ve passed that stage of the manuscript.

Love revisions, love writing.

(Thanks to s.e. smith for the inspiration on this post.)

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2 Comments on “How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Revisions”

  1. August 1, 2011 at 2:40 pm #

    Love reading what you write. I do not have stories within me trying to get out, but I am fascinated by your descriptions of the writing process.

    • evmaroon
      August 2, 2011 at 8:08 am #

      That’s so kind of you, Donna, I’m glad it’s interesting to anyone outside my own brain!

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