How Not to Revise


This monsoon season has been a tease. The clouds loom, promising rain, and then evaporate. I watch it on the weather radar – the greens condensing, flashing orange and red – and then it dissolves away again.

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been in revision mode, refining The Body Gift. Actually, now that I think about it, I’ve been in revising/editing mode for quite some time now. Between revising Obsidian for a revise & resubmit, working on developmental,, line and copy edits for Sapphire and Feeding the Vampire, and now adding to TBG to send to this agent, I haven’t done any real drafting since March.

Sure, some of this has involved adding new words, but really, working on a story that’s already *there* is a different process.

You know how sculptors (it might be a specific one, but I forget who and I’m feeling too lazy to try to find it) say that sculpting is carving away the extra stone, to find the shape that already exists within? (Maybe it was Michelangelo?) I’ve always loved this idea. This is how writing and revising often works for me.

Once a draft is complete and the story is pretty much *there* (this is a technical word I’ve used twice now. feel free to borrow, but use carefully – it’s a powerful term), it’s like a block of marble. Maybe it’s like a rough outline. Or like the horrible, globulous beings that are what remains of people when the transporter malfunctions. Kind of shaped like something, but not really discernible. Not alive, for sure.

I think it works this way for me because I don’t really plan my stories. It’s more like I download big chunks from elsewhere. Unlike A.S. Byatt, however, I don’t get mine in perfect dictation. So there I am, with my amorphous thing, that has some really lovely bits and some pretty damn icky ones. That’s when I begin carving.

Revision is an acquired skill, I believe. It takes care and judgment. You have to be brave enough to knock off big pieces that must go, but also patient enough to do the detail work. Over and over, you have to step back and see how you’re doing. It takes objectivity and precision.

And, oh yes, you can ruin it. I truly believe that.

There comes a point where, instead of refining and polishing, you’re hacking it to bits. Sure, with writing, you can always add it back in. This is the advantage the writer has over a sculptor who accidentally whacks off the nose. The story, however, that brilliantly alive creature, can slowly suffocate, wither away and die if pummeled too much. You’re left with a corpse. Maybe a pretty corpse, but a dead body nonetheless.

I know no one wants to hear this. We all want to believe that, with enough crit, enough time and dedication, we can make the book PERFECT. Maybe a truly practiced writer can. But, just as with sculpting, it takes skill and experience.

This is what I’m learning about revising: it’s important to keep the final image in mind.

We all start with a seminal image or idea. That changes as we go along. But, at some point in the process, (yes, yes, I know you pre-plotters claim you know it before you even start writing) you have to decide on what you want it to look like when you’re done. All revising should be directed to that idea. Don’t get halfway through polishing your Running Dog sculpture and then think, hey! a Running Cat would be way cool! Write down the Running Cat idea and go back to working on the DOG.

Having editorial notes helps with this, because you can keep going back to the line where your editor says “do this.” I’ve started keeping a list of what I’m revising towards. To remind myself of that final image.

I imagine that few sculptors create a perfect sculpture on their first try. This is why most writers I know have at least one novel under the bed, maybe several. Those are the corpses.

Like clouds promising rain, sometimes they don’t produce.

May they rest in peace.

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