This where the rubber meets the road
Once there was a writer who had something to say
If there is one thing I know about writing, it’s the fact that nothing I put down the first time is usually good enough to share. If there is a second thing I know about writing, it’s that beyond the basics of character, plot, and setting, there is a thing called revision – and it is the most important part of writing, next to writing, that there is.
But what do I know about revision?
I have been teaching college students how to write since 1999. That’s (1,2,3,4 . . .) a lot of years looking at materials and using tools to help student writers learn the craft of writing. From essays and research papers to poems and short stories, I can talk a blue streak about inspiration, ideas, character, and plot. I can point to dozens of writers and writing books to help with the process – the whole deal – all of it, until, that is, it comes to revision.
What do I know about revision?
One of the better treatments of revision I have ever read was in Jerome Stern’s excellent book Making Shapely Fiction where he distills the process down to a few simple steps:
“You must look at it closely, ponder it, and ask yourself certain questions: What am I trying to do? What is the heart of the matter? Why are all these characters here? Why are all these scenes here? Why did I start the story where I did? Why did I devote all that space to that scene? . . .” (213).
And so on. But what does this really tell us about revising?
I think the answer lies in the effort of trying to find the answer. In other words, when it comes time to revise we must change our thought process from the way it was when we wrote the first draft and begin reading between the lines of what is now written. After a first draft is finished there are many possibilities for the story. Our job in revision is to choose one possibility for the story and then make it sing.
Great – but how?
Let’s go back to reading between the lines. It turns out that Stern really says all that needs to be said about the way revision happens: think about the story, ask yourself questions about everything, move beyond the obvious – the obvious plot, the obvious action, the obvious character behaviors, and find the next level of the story – the real purpose of it. In a word (Stern’s word) ponder. Then make changes according to your conclusions. I think this is why revision is such a challenge. In my experience I find it so easy to sit down and blarf all over the page until I suddenly have a few hundred pages (600, in one case) of a story that more or less resembles a novel. Lots of freedom there, lots of side alleys and casual thoughts and silliness. But, aha! This is nearly the exact opposite of revision! First writing and revision are yin and yang, light and dark, sweet and bitter. When it comes time to revise there is no more free-wheeling going on. We must get real.
There is a lot of energy required for revision. Beginning with the beginning we must look at what is being said as if we did not say it, to hear it as though someone else said it and is asking us to invest in the story. Does the opening catch and keep us? Do we care, from the start, about these characters? About what happens next, and next? Is the language alive or is it simple, boring, tired?
And we do this once, twice, three times . . . four, five, six. We do it enough that we cannot do it anymore, and then we finally send it off and later, after wading through rejections and self-deprecating agony, the desire to give up, we go through it again. Eventually we come to one of two conclusions – either the story is worth saving and we continue to work it, or the story is unsuccessful and we need to abandon it or rewrite it.
The bottom line is that revision takes a lot of work, work I honestly did not do on my first novel. Artists cannot be lazy when it comes to art if the art is to succeed. Revision requires the hard work of questioning, of hearing and thinking about the story, of fitting in all of the right pieces and taking out the wrong ones. Revision is removing layers of a mask, of carving into the virtual clay of the words, of revealing, yes that’s it, revealing the story we mean to tell, or that should be told, and sloughing off the dead skin of what does not belong.
This process could go on forever, and we must realize that there does come a point when enough is enough. Three revisions is not too many, however, and afterward time and experience and the existing product will inform us of our arrival. Until then we must not look up too soon, must not expect our work to mature until we have exhausted its full potential.