Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Art of Revision

"I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by." - Douglas Adams

Ah, yes. Deadlines. Whether self-imposed or connected to a contract, the time limit we've chosen is dependent on an often overlooked and deadly serious aspect of writing—the art of revision.

"It is perfectly okay to write garbage--as long as you edit brilliantly." - C. J. Cherryh

Like most writers here, I want my first draft to be brilliant. *smile* It isn't. Surprise, surprise. But writers aren't alone in that expectation, nor, apparently, in that assumption. How often have I received an email and been shocked at how poorly it's worded? Too often to count. Typos, run-on sentences, lack of punctuation. Honestly, I'm flabbergasted at times. To me, this equals stepping outside with a piece of toilet paper stuck to my shoe. Zipper agape, spinach in the teeth, hair mussed, lipstick smeared, shirt inside out, nothing to me is more embarrassing than careless writing. Careless because so much could be, and would be caught with a simple read-through. And lest you think this slipshod writing is situational, here's a sad fact. I've read dozens of emails from corporate execs that display such poor grammar that I wonder how such sloppiness can generate any respect.

The truth is simple. Writing is not a one-step process. To be a successful writer is to be a Re-Writer. Our ego must be gently pushed aside (or ruthlessly shoved out of the way—at least by the third manuscript!) as we hunker down and stare at our prose muttering, Could it be better? Is there more I could say? Is it enough? Is it clear?

"Put down everything that comes into your head and then you're a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff's worth, without pity, and destroy most of it." --- Colette

This is where our innocence must be lost, at least to some degree. Writing is such a magical process. Weaving rainbow tapestries in the sky, spinning tales out of gold and watching them shimmer before our eyes is a rare delight. Except what we see is often colored by what we know about the story, it's not necessarily what we've actually written. Which is why we experience that rude shock when outside readers who are wonderful and brave enough to be honest scribble in the margins, "Huh?"


"Books aren't written, they're rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn't quite done it... " - Michael Crichton

Write, edit, and revise. Along with Goal, Motivation and Conflict, this might be the most important three-step rule that exists. There's no avoiding it and no matter how brilliant your first draft seems, there's usually room for improvement. Thank Goddess for critique partners!

"At one time I thought the most important thing was talent. I think now that the young man or the young woman must possess or teach himself, training himself, in infinite patience, which is to try and to try until it comes right. He must train himself in ruthless intolerance--that is to throw away anything that is false no matter how much he might love that page or that paragraph. The most important thing is insight, that is to be--curiosity--to wonder, to mull, and to muse why it is that man does what he does, and if you have that, then I don't think the talent makes much difference, whether you've got it or not." - William Faulkner

When in doubt, create a special file for all those snippets you cut. Especially in the beginning. Nothing can be more traumatic to a beginning writer than to cut out large swatches of Truly Brilliant Writing. Easier to saw off a limb. If that's how it feels, don't beat yourself up or cause any undue anxiety. Instead, move it to your special "cuttings" folder. Later, you can peruse the material to see if it's needed. Some authors find that a passage that cluttered one story fits beautifully somewhere else. Others just file it away for peace of mind. Whichever suits your comfort zone is fine. It's YOUR book, Your writing. Do as you please.

"I have never thought of myself as a good writer. Anyone who wants reassurance of that should read one of my first drafts. But I'm one of the world's great rewriters.

I find that three or four readings are required to comb out the clich├ęs, line up pronouns with their antecedents, and insure agreement in number between subject and verbs...My connectives, my clauses, my subsidiary phrases don't come naturally to me and I'm very prone to repetition of words; so I never even write an important letter in the first draft. I can never recall anything of mine that's ever been printed in less than three drafts.

You write that first draft really to see how it's going to come out."
- James A. Michener

Another reason to celebrate and embrace the art of revision is simple. Knowing we're going to rewrite the damn thing anyway, why not push forward and get those pages down? This is why the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is so popular. Get that idea down while the creative juices are flowing! Write, Edit, Revise.

In fact, I could come up with a whole phrase based solely on the word Write:

Write (the damn book), Revise (for the first time), Incubate (the plot and), Type (those extra scenes to plug up the plot-holes and), Edit (once more).

Then start the whole damn process all over again. *smile* Hah!

"I have written - often several times - every word I have ever published." - Vladimir Nabokov

"Only ambitious nonentities and hearty mediocrities exhibit their rough drafts. It's like passing around samples of sputum." - Vladimir Nabokov

Hmmm… I wonder how many revisions Vladimir's last quote required? *heh-heh*

As one ancient philosopher intoned while perched on a mountain top (with her trusty laptop): "It's a lovely day to revise."

Here's to another productive week!



Amber Leigh Williams said...

Great article, Chiron! I really love it. I'm definitely adding some of the passages and quotes to my bulletin board.

I was just combing through the formatted version of my upcoming release from TWRP. It's already been through edits three times and I still saw mistakes that made me wince and grit my teeth in embarrassment. With a sigh, I realized, "My work here will never be done."

Thanks for the words of wisdom!

Anonymous said...

Hi Chiron,

I've always considered myself a total hack when it comes to writing, but really I'm just a rewriter. lol

Thanks for reconfirming what I've always thought. I sure envy those people who can do it in one or two drafts.


Chiron O'Keefe said...

Hey Amber,

Aw... Bless you and Thanks for the shout-out.

Three edits and counting, eh? I bow to you! Could there be a greater thrill than editing your upcoming release? Woo-hoo!
*High-5* Congrats again, Amber!

And Sandy,

I so relate!! Hah! Even the very best writers consider themselves rewriters.

"To err is human, to rewrite... divine."


Sheryl said...

How long have your early novels been incubating when you re-read them and go, Eeeeeek! Drag out those first ones, re-write, and see how much work you'll need to do on your present masterpiece years down the line.

Chiron O'Keefe said...

Hi Charlotte!

That's very good insights (and quite funny too!).

Yup, the sharper the eye becomes, the more we see... Yikes! *grin*


Moira Rogers said...

Thank you for this essay!! Bree and I totally needed it this week, that's for sure.

It's funny how I'm really starting to see what an amazingly simplistic view I used to have of this writing gig. How did I ever think we were just going to dash off stories and sell them?

Luckily, I don't mind hard work a bit. Good thing, since that's what this is turning out to be. ;)


Chiron O'Keefe said...


I love that... "amazingly simplistic view" or what I call the Rose-Colored Window. *smile*

Without that idealistic bubble we might give up after the first page (and mothers would NEVER give birth!). Hah!

Like you, I thrive on the challenge and there's a special thrill as the extraneous words get sculpted away to reveal what once was just the wisp of a dream.

Thanks for stopping by, Donna! Much success to you and Bree...