Saturday, November 12, 2011

Revision - Part 1

(This week, I'm embarking on a series of posts about the revision process.)

Almost every writer hears the adage "90% of writing is rewriting" at least once in their lives (usually much, much more than that). You can read it, or some similar sentiment, in almost every book on writing even though most books on writing dedicate 90% of their pages to the construction of a story and 10% to revision. Even trying to get writers to talk about revision can be frustrating because it seems to be something you should just innately know how to do.

On one level, this is true. When I wrote my first novel at 13, I immediately began rewriting it. By the time I was finished, I was 16 and had completely rewritten the novel from beginning to end. Revision seemed to be quite simple and straight-forward. But then, so did writing.

Now I know better (or worse, depending on your perspective), and the revision process on my current novel has been anything but straight-forward. Each stage of the process has been fraught with anxiety and panic, most likely because a previous novel disintegrated like tissue paper in the rain during the revision process, and I was worried the same fate might await this novel. This was the main reason I went to grad school. I wanted to be in an environment where, if the novel started to fall apart, I could get help. Which worked, sort of. I ended up developing my own theory of revision and creating a map to help me through the process. The other week, when the novel started veering off course, I went back to my map and realized I had inadvertently tripped over into a new phase of revision and was, once again, running along without feeling the ground under my feet, making it up as I go along. The good news is I've reached the home stretch of the revision process - I'm into the editing and polishing phase. The likelihood of the novel falling apart here is minimal because all the pieces are in place and they fit very nicely.

The process I outlined for myself is a continuum of writing from the triggering impulse of the project to the very last word you write or change. It has four stages: telling yourself the story, telling the story, figuring out the best way to tell the story, and telling the story in the best way possible. A lot of the process is rewriting in the "start over with a blank sheet of paper" vein of rewriting. I'd heard of writers doing this and was filled with horror at the thought. All those words I'd labored over, all that time and hard work and anxiety, wiped out. Except they weren't totally wiped out. The first draft became the outline for the second. Having completed the first draft (telling myself the story), I now knew what my story was about and where it was going, so I was in a better position to understand which scenes worked in service to the story and which were superfluous (that first draft had a LOT of "character wandering around in search of plot" scenes) and where there were still gaps in my understanding of characters and plot. So draft two became about actually telling the story.

The difference between telling yourself the story and telling the story is like the difference between experiencing something and then telling your friends about it afterwards. You have the benefit of knowing what's going to happen, so you can pick and choose the details that are important and add information that makes the story better. You don't need to tell about the phone call that kept you at the office if the adventure was getting lost while hiking on the weekend. Same thing in writing. Now that you know what your story is about, you can start making sure your scenes, your images, your details line up in service to the story.

Is it possible to do that without scraping everything you wrote? Sure. I initially thought I'd print out my novel by scene, rearrange the scenes, cut and paste and wa la! Instant draft two. That didn't work for me. With this novel, there was too much that needed to move, be rewritten, added. Some of that may be because this novel started out as a short story and draft one happened when the short story began unpacking itself. So I started over with a clean sheet of paper and retyped EVERYTHING. I was completely stymied by the whole process, even down to the physicality of where to put draft one so I could see it while I typed. I kid you not. I finally had to tell myself it's okay to walk off the edge of the world without a parachute and just get to work.

I'm going to leave this here for now. Next week, I'll take us through draft two and the telling the story in the best way possible phase.

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