I had an interesting talk with my graduate seminar yesterday on this topic--how different writers approach the task of revision. My own feelings about revision have evolved over the years, and far from having arrived at some kind of tried-and-true method, I have come to find that I am less certain about the process than ever, and feel more lost in it than at any time in my entire life.
I think (read, "hope") that this is a good thing. A couple of days ago I started revising the novel I drafted earlier this year, based on the notes I took during a couple of editorial meetings with Rhian. This is a very sketchy draft, composed in haste, and it probably needs more work than any first draft of anything I've written. But there is something exciting about the uncertainty, the possibility, that the situation has provided.
Early in my career--as I have written here before--I was a big novel outliner, and my first drafts generally bore a close resemblance to what they would eventually become. Over the years, my outlines have gotten shorter and shorter, my first drafts more uncertain. This novel, I didn't outline at all. I didn't make character sketches, or do research, or even think about any ideas I'd cooked up for more than a day or two. I just wrote it. Quickly and sloppily. It's about parenthood, and has a science-fictional conceit, and I'm only now beginning to figure out what it's about and what I ought to do with it. I find it intimidating, actually--I am a little afraid of it. And a lot of that fear comes from not having enough solid first-draft material to know how to revise.
At the moment, I am just adding stuff--going through my notes, looking for things I know are missing, and patching them in, roughly. I will probably spend a month or two on this, just spackling the thing. Then I'll go back in and start sanding and painting--trying to make it feel less like an awkward patchwork of crap. I will probably have to rip stuff out along the way and replace it. Certain characters will serve new purposes, be de-emphasized or eliminated, or get bulked up and foregrounded. I can already feel characters' fundamental motivations changing, their relationships with other characters changing.
Maybe this is familiar to most of you, but it's kind of new to me. I have always been fond of telling students that, if you know what you're doing, then don't bother doing it. But like a lot of my favorite advice, I find it hard to accept in my own work. I like to think I'm always doing something original, but it's likely that, all too often, I am secretly dressing up the familiar in vestments of the new, to trick myself into thinking I'm setting new challenges. When what I'm really doing is making myself comfortable.
I'm curious how people approach their revisions--how much of your first drafts actually make it into your final drafts, how much time is spent revising (compared to the time spent composing), how many drafts you go through, how attached you are to the permanence of a day's work. And how your thoughts about these things have changed over time.
Photo from here