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.

The More We Know

I don’t mind the overnight snow, since we need the moisture. Dust storms have been clouding the valley. Even the daffodils don’t mind. They whispered that they’re built to withstand this kind of thing.

Over at Word Whores – my group blog, if you didn’t know – we’ve been talking this week about drafting styles. Whether you plan it all out ahead of time or discover as you go. Whatever terms you may assign to to those styles, writers seem to fall pretty solidly into one court or another.

On Laura Bickle’s post from yesterday, she talks about her plotting method. The comments conversation has become very interesting, as other writers profess horror or admiration for her detailed outlines.

That she does *before* she writes the book. Ahem.

At any rate, in the comments, the issue of revising came up. It’s long been the lore that the great drawback of not plotting ahead of time is that you spend a lot more time revising. KAK, who is a german dictator under all that red hair and those pretty smiles, declared that every scene must pass the “purpose” test. If it doesn’t serve the overall story, off it goes.

She’s ruthless. Believe me, I know.

I can see her point. And definitely the revising process is more cerebral than drafting for me. The drafting is all about the misting along and letting anyone and everything into the story. Revising brings the critical lens to the entire arc of the story. I’m not sure anyone can revise in a subconscious, misty way.


Okay, I’m a self-confessed sub-conscious, dreamthink, misty writer. I do believe the stories and characters exist in some reality and reveal themselves to me. I rarely feel like I “think” them up. Sometimes I can’t logically defend why someone or something is there. The critical lens would have me delete that stuff. The purpose test would demand excision. Goal, motivation, conflict? They scoff at these bits.

This is where my gut comes in. Neither the conscious, nor the subconscious, but the deep part that is most me. If I don’t trust that part, then I’m not me, for better or worse. The GMC stuff (see above) arises out of classic storytelling. People like to talk about archetypes of the hero’s journey and so forth. The thing is, archetypes, which Jung originally described as subconsciously shared concepts are something, by definition, already exist inside us. We can critically analyze them, but on some levels, they defy conscious definition.

No, I can’t always defend the purpose of a scene. Sometimes it’s because the scene is junk, or something I needed to write through to get somewhere. But one of the most surprising things I discovered over the ten years I spent writing and publishing essays – the things people keyed in on the most, were those things I had not planned. Scenes or images that just popped up when I was writing. Things that, sometimes, I nearly skipped writing, or thought about deleting later, because they seemed extraneous.

I keep reminding myself of that lesson.

First Time’s a Charm

When I was in school, lo these many moons ago, the common wisdom was to save time at the end of the exam to review your answers.

I don’t know if that’s still the advice these days. But it never worked for me. I found that, if I went back and changed my initial answer, I nearly always changed it wrong. Seriously – the questions I’d miss on the test would be the ones I changed upon review.

I don’t know what this says about me, but I’ve noticed it in other areas of my life, too. The first time I try a recipe, it comes out perfectly. After that, not so much. When I try to photograph something, inevitably my first shot is the best. This generally works out fine for me. I prefer to be decisive – make a decision, commit to a course of action and have done – so my experience that my first attempt is usually the best reinforces that preference.

The downside of this is, I really don’t like revising.

In fact, I’ve become superstitious enough over the years about “changing my first answer,” that I fret that revising makes my story worse.

I know, I know. You hear that noise, like marbles clattering around in a jar of olive oil? That’s my critique partners rolling their eyes at me.

Revising is necessary. I understand that, here in my head. It’s my heart that gets all nervous about it.

I once had a John Irving quote that I cut out of a magazine somewhere, that I recall as being “I have learned to have no fear of revising.” I’m almost certain he said it about Cider House Rules. However, the closest I can come online is this one:

No, this isn’t religion, there’s no fear in changing the text.

Superstition and religion. Do I detect a recurring theme?

At any rate, I’ve nearly completed the revision of Act I of The Body Gift. I’m tossed between the exhilaration of seeing how much better the story flows now and genuine terror that I’ve ruined it forever.

(Yes, I know I can change it back – this isn’t rational.)

But, when they’re not rolling their eyes at me, my CPs are reading it and pronouncing it much better.

I don’t know if I get an “A” on it, yet, but at least I haven’t changed it wrong.


I take a lot of photographs, to get the one I want.

This is something I learned a long time ago, from professional photographers. Back then, I thought, well this is something I’ll never do, because film and developing were expensive and was a kid. Seriously. I remember being disappointed in my photos from Girl Scout camp because I could never really capture how things looked. So, I had no funds to devote to getting the right picture and when I did have funds, I still didn’t care enough.

I’m an impatient person. My greatest flaw perhaps? David thinks so. Or at any rate, if he could change one thing about me, that would be it.

Of course, if I got to pick, I’d probably have him be ready to go on time, so there’s a lesson there. Draw your own conclusions.

Still, I’m just not patient with doing one thing multiple times. If I can get away with doing it right the first time, I will. If I can get away with doing it mostly right, or close enough the first time, I will.

The beauty of the digital camera is, I can take lots of photos and easily review and delete them. The downside is, I’m accumulating images. The sunset pic from last night is one of eight I ended up keeping. I had a hard time deciding which to show you.

I don’t like rewriting, either. It feels like retread to me. Back when I typed my papers for college on my Brother Correctronic, I did just that: composed as I typed. One time through and I was done. In my perfect world, I’d write a novel that way, too — beginning to end, one time through.

I know, I know. It’s not a perfect world and I’m not queen of it. Much to my chagrin, I assure you.

So, the New Novel is coming right along, but I’m feeling aggravated with it from time to time because it keeps wriggling and changing under my hands. I thought I was molding one story and it keeps mutating into other things. This is okay, I know. The other writers keep telling me to go with it, let it be what it wants to be, this is magic and so forth.

But what annoys me is: I’m going to have to revise the beginning. Probably multiple times. Gah!

At least I don’t have to do it on paper. Small mercies for an impatient writer.