I wrote this post a year ago, when I was embarking on what I thought was a final grand revision of a novel I’ve been working on (or poking my way through) for an interminably long time. I made progress, good progress, but I’m afraid I’m just now putting the finishing touches on this whale. My commitment to it is deepening fortunately, even as my anticipation of my next project grows.Here are my thoughts on revision…
I’m going on the record with a controversial statement: Your inner editor, despite his or her persnickety reputation, can be fun.
Now I know that we in NaNoLand advise writers to banish their inner editors during NaNoWriMo. No one wants to hear some crank screaming “No!” in the background or get dressed down for a plot hole during the rush of writing a first draft. But with a first draft in hand, you’ve now built a playground for your inner editor to frolic in. Yes, frolic.
I recently opened the door to the dark mental dungeon where my inner editor has been locked up, and it turns out he’s got a nice smile (despite being a little pale). Examining the arc of my novel is like going down a twisting, double-dipper slide for him, and he loves brainstorming stirring details to add to my story’s cauldron. He also possesses a rather refined eye for sentences written in the passive voice, and he likes prodding me to write with “vivid verbs” and to “show don’t tell.”
So I’m primed to rewrite my swirling, chaotic mess of a NaNo novel and see if I can shape it into something readable, if not outright good. “Writing is rewriting,” as the old adage goes, and although revision has a reputation for being daunting and full of drudgery, it also holds the deep satisfaction of shaping the textures and contours of one’s ideas. It’s just a different kind of play than writing a first draft.
Revising with a Plan
That said, I’ve suffered through flawed approaches to past novel revisions. I tend to just start rewriting from the beginning: reading and reworking the first chapters ad nauseum, so much so that I end up essentially neglecting the final two-thirds of the novel. Because I haven’t devised a true game plan, I don’t make the daring and often necessary moves of restructuring the plot or “killing my darlings,” as William Faulkner advised (one of the best revision tips out there).
I end up with essentially the same novel, only with a new coat of paint on the front porch, continuing to fail to see that there’s a huge hole in the roof.
To escape my revision rut this time around, I’m taking some tips from The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself, by Susan Bell. Bell, a former Random House fiction editor, believes that writers can overcome the “panicky flailing” that revision can induce by learning “to calibrate editing’s singular blend of mechanics and magic.” She weaves in self-editing advice from the likes of Michael Ondaatje, Tracy Kidder, and Anne Patchett, and provides a wonderful running case study of the editorial collaboration between F. Scott Fitzgerald and his editor Max Perkins.
The book opens with a quote by Walter Murch that sums up her approach: “We’re grafting these branches onto a tree that already had an organic, balanced structure. Knowing that we’re changing the organism, we’re trying not to do anything toxic to it, and to keep everything in some kind of balance. At this point, I don’t know what the result will be. I have some intuitions, but my mind is completely open.”
While keeping my mind open—perhaps the key way to make revision fun and creative—here’s an outline of my approach:
Set a deadline: Revision can be another word for procrastination. I have a novel I wrote 9 years ago that I’ve puttered through several times, and it still lacks a decent ending. Just as a deadline is important in churning out a first draft, it’s crucial for the second draft. I’m giving myself 6 months to revise this year’s NaNo-novel. Check in with me on July 1, 2013 and hold me to my words.
Gain distance: “The greater the distance,” writes W.G. Sebald in The Rings of Saturn, “the clearer the view: one sees the tiniest details with the utmost clarity.” Time is the best way to distance yourself from your novel and read it as another might. The key is to take enough time away from your first draft so that you can read it with fresh eyes, but not to take too much time so that you lose your momentum. Everyone is different, but December distanced me plenty from my novel.
Beyond the distance of time, I’ve printed out my novel in a different font so that it won’t look like the novel on my computer screen when I read it. I also plan to read it somewhere else than at home because reading in a café or library will provide an extra layer of remove.
Read first with a macro edit: Bell discusses two types of editing: 1) the macro view, editing with a larger view toward the rhythms and connections of structures and themes; and 2) the micro view, editing with attention to such things as images, word choice, and sentence structure.
In my first pass, I’m not going to noodle with sentences. I want to focus on the big picture and evaluate the patterns of my novel, its leitmotifs and plot points. Then I’ll read the novel again—much more slowly—and hone in on the specifics.
Change my writing mode: Since I banged out my NaNo novel on a keyboard with such desperate speed, I want to slow down for the second draft and ruminate on my story, so I plan to write new sections longhand. Writing with a pen and paper changes writing in mysterious ways because it brings on more pauses and leads to fewer of the Facebook distractions that plague me on my computer.
Revise non-chronologically: Who says you have to revise from beginning to end? I specialize in novels with strong beginnings, weak middles, and weaker endings. Maybe I’ll start with the ending this time around and hop around to sections that need the most strengthening.
Find beta readers: I don’t want anyone to read my first draft; it’s just too messy for another to critique. But after a solid second draft, I’ll crave feedback. Finding readers is tough, though. I’ve made a list of friends who read in the genre I’m writing in, and they know how to deliver feedback without raining on my parade (I hope). My wife is a great reader, but I find that novel critiques and a happy household don’t usually go hand-in-hand.
Fortify myself with resilience magic: Revision can be a battlefield of self-doubt and torture, where writing turns into a swamp of masochism rather than a font of creativity. I’ve done enough revision to know that I’ll have a day or a week or a month when I lose faith in my work, if not my entire worth as a human being.
I’m steeling myself for such moments. As much as I believe in the urgent necessity of letting loose the pure flow of creativity, I also believe in the powers of resilience, the necessity to just keep plodding. Most things are accomplished not in grand gushing sweeps, but through daily incremental resolve.
It’s that resolve that matters most in revision, and I don’t think any “how to” book can give you that. But if you participated in NaNo, you have it. You had the fortitude to accomplish the audacious task of writing a novel in just a month. Revision might even be easier because you already have a story to work with, and hopefully a constructive inner editor to play with.
If you’re ready to revise one of your NaNo novels, please tell me your next steps. I’m constantly refining my approach, so I’d love to hear your thoughts.