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It's Time We Talked About Revision

Mar 18,2015
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Time is never on my side.

Take, for instance, the time difference between me, in Los Angeles, and readers from Melbourne. If my math is correct, we are 18 hours apart. That means, if I say to myself, “Hey, time for another Inside a Dog blog post. I wonder what time it is there,” I look it up and find that it’s two weeks from Tuesday. Maybe not quite, but it’s usually late in the day, tomorrow. Eek!

Time is never on my side when I’m revising, either. The young adult novel I’ve been working on most recently took me about a year longer than I thought. (Oops. Deadlines.) It has required more research and more revision than I would have ever guessed. (It’s set in the Middle Ages, in France. What was I thinking??) I have missed every deadline for this book, for every revision pass. By a lot. This is embarrassing.

Revision takes time. Writing takes time. You just have to be patient with it. Each project is different. It’s not something you can quite control. Books aren’t factory cupcakes, baked on a tight schedule.

When people realize I’m a writer, they ask me two questions: 1. Where do you get your ideas? We’ve talked about that a bit already. The second is the deep dark secret one, when they really get me alone in the corner at a party. It is: 2. How many times do you revise a novel, really?

It’s as if they think I’ll lie. “Once! Just once. And all I did was fix a few commas.”

File 30091Revision, people seem to think, is the Dark Side of writing, the necessary evil, the cross to bear. Making a story could be fun, they concede, but fixing it is like surgery without anesthesia. For a lot of us, when we learn to write, revision is the part where we’re told by our teachers all the things we did wrong. Revision can’t escape the stigma of the red pen. Even if teachers or readers are as nice as pudding pie, it’s hard to hear that our work isn’t great yet. Or that what it requires goes deeper than commas, and sprinkling more descriptive words here and there like so much confetti. What needs fixing in our story might cut right to its very essence: these characters don’t feel real. I don’t care enough about them. This plot just doesn’t make sense, or it’s boring. The story feels shallow, meaningless. It’s not worth the trees who died to print it.

Hearing, or discovering, such frightening things about our work hurts. It’s enough to make us lose confidence. For many an aspiring writer, those realizations put the kibosh on their hopes. “Forget it.” “Writing’s not for me.” “I knew I couldn’t do it.” “I was only messing around anyway.”

Here’s the thing: revision is the most hopeful idea I know. I don’t have to write well, per se. I just have to revise patiently, until the job is done. Revision is the real work of writing. And that’s great news! You revise your way to art, far more than you write your way to it. To be sure, writing has its miracles, its moments of inspiration, when good ideas flow, and you laugh or weep as you type. But far more often, stories are flung into place, then shaped carefully into something good. It takes time, it takes countless passes through the material, and it often takes input from many people before a story realizes its potential. There’s nothing wrong with that.

I teach schoolchildren that writing might be like spinning a web – where, after all, does that silky thread come from? I don’t really know. It just comes from inside me. (If I’m a spider.) I don’t always know exactly where my ideas come from, either. They’re just there. I joke that I pull them out of my, er, lower intestine, which from a distance, is sort of like how the spider makes its silk. But revision, I teach, is like making pottery on a wheel. The potter doesn’t write the clay. They didn’t invent it. They scooped some up and flung it down in a big sticky mess. Then, the magic starts. They revise that clay into a bowl. Again and again and again. Whenever it’s not going right, they just mush it down and start over. For much of the revision process, the work in process looks NOTHING like what it will end up being.

Watch this potter, Marge, fling down her raw material – her sloppy first draft, if you will – and revise it into art. Watch how she shapes it, and smoothes it, trims it, measures it, wets it. Trimming is essential. Shaping – thinking about structure – is part of the job, too. Symmetry is key for the potter, and stories likewise require a certain balance. All the elements must fit together in a logical and pleasing way. As with the bowl, so with your story: guide, nudge, trim, shape, smooth, for as long as it takes, until you love the results.

This is why I never know how to answer the question of how many times I revise. For one thing, I don’t count. For another, when does one “time” end and the next begin? I revise as I draft, and I revise after I draft. I draft new bits as I revise.  It would be like asking Margie how many times she shapes the bowl. There’s no real answer. It’s a fluid thing. All I can tell my questioners is, “A lot. A lot a lot a lot a lot a lot. But that’s my job, and I enjoy it.”  

Revision is worth the time it takes. The prize in writing goes not to the brilliant, necessarily, but to the patient. (A little fast-motion photography might’ve helped me reach those deadlines, alas!) Remember, a potter is a reviser. Doesn’t it look fun? It’s magical, It’s no chore at all.  Get your hands dirty. Fling some clay and revise that lump until you love it. 

Three Irrelevant Facts About Me

  1. I keep trying to go gluten-free, and then somebody shows up with cupcakes. 
  2. I keep trying to go sugar-free. See Irrelevant Fact #1. 
  3. I've never made a thrown pottery project on a wheel. But I really, really want to. 

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