Sunday, February 14, 2010

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 those marvelous critique partners who are 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. 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!

Have you ever encountered such messy writing you were appalled? Or *gulp* reread something you've put out there in publication or on the web only to wish desperately you'd taken the time to re-read it more carefully? Do tell!

♥ Happy Valentine's Day, Everyone! ♥

--Chiron O'Keefe

Also featured at Pop Culture Divas


Anonymous said...
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Kathy said...

I think what struck me reading this post is how often the "writing community" assumes writing means fiction. But there's all kind of writing. I've been a tech writer for years and you'd think that would give me a leg up when it comes to fiction - in some ways it does - but in others, fiction is a whole new ball game with new rules and subjectivity not found in other writing.

Just thinking outloud - interesting thing to ponder. :)

Chiron said...

It's so true, Kathy. Another friend of mine is a brilliant tech writer but fiction still took quite a leap. Like developing different muscles.

For me too. I'd published articles, commentaries, essays and even wrote up astrological readings but fiction required learning all over again.

The good thing is that once you get past the basics (which may require a book or two, it did for me) the progress gets faster.

I celebrate all creative accomplishments though. *grin* Viva Las Vegas!! ;-D

Great post on Pop Culture Divas!


Celia Yeary said...

CHIRON--food for thought, and thanks for reminding us that "writing is re-writing." Your post brought to mind the Olympics. I suppose every endeavor worth doing, is worth doing over and over. How many times does a snowboarder practice his routine? I think we might not practice enough--that is, taking care in writing correctly. However, fiction writing often throws rules out the window. Not many of us speak in perfectly correct grammatical sentences, and so we have dialogue that resembles real people and how they talk. My first attempt at writing and submitting came back with "this reads like a textbook." And indeed, I did strive a long time to have every sentence grammatically correct. Dry as dirt. Thanks for the mini-lesson. Good, as always! Celia

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