Thursday, September 16, 2010

How do you revise?

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


Anonymous said...

My final drafts always resemble my first drafts, but they're much shinier.

I've never cut a character or added one. I may add a scene that has a new character, but I did so because the scene seemed necessary, or natural, and not because I had to cram in a new character.

I may cut off the end and slap it onto the beginning, or do some other variation of that.

At the same time, I've not been published. So this probably doesn't really matter to anyone.

Anonymous said...

1. turn in bk to editor, CP.
2. read their idiotic comments
3. convince myself I'm misunderstood genius
4. change what they suggest, because I need to get paid even if it's for crap
5. realize they were right all along.
6. thank everyone sheepishly in acknowledgements.
7. repeat

jrlennon said...


Dylan Hicks said...

I’m frankly not certain how drafts are counted in the word-processor era. Writers often talk—boastfully, as a rule—about their thirty or fifty drafts, but I never know how many I’ve done, since I’m frequently, often compulsively, going back to the start in an attempt to regain my bearings and, ideally, my confidence, rather like going back to the start of a song after flubbing the bridge. But I don’t necessarily think of each of these restarts as a new draft, though since I’m revising each time they kind of are, or at least they’re partial drafts. (If I print out pages and get out the red pen, this of course always seems more legitimately drafty than if I just work on the screen.) I probably spend too much time refining material whose future ought to be in doubt, and naturally these refinements make the darling-slaughter harder later on. On the other hand, it’s hard for me to keep going when I feel there are sloppy pages behind me.

In addition to standard revision, I use a number of revision games. For instance, I’ll choose a common word or phrase such as “such as,” do a search, and revise each paragraph containing that word or phrase. Or I’ll cut and paste a sentence four or five times and edit till I have five variations, so that I can really see each choice (and no doubt pick the wrong one). Or I’ll force myself to cut twenty words from each page, though I allow myself to borrow cuts from one page to another (so if I cut 25 from page 65, I need only cut 15 from 123), as long as I keep everything documented on increasingly illegible sheets in front of my monitor.

jrlennon said...

Oh, man. You remind me of our friend who, during a particularly rough patch, spent months manually force-justifying the right-hand margin of his novel by changing the lengths of the words in each line.

A student told me yesterday that she saves each story draft as a separate file, and keeps them all. I tend to always just maintain one file, which I tweak without logging changes. I do print out maybe drafts 1 and 3, and cover them with marks.

Baakanit said...

One technique that works well for me is to revise a draft and let it sit for a while, and then go back to it and doing the same thing. The mere fact of leaving it alone for a while increases my perception of what I have written. I also do what your student does, every draft is a separate file, so that way there is not confusion when I am e-mailing myself and downloading it back to my computer.

I believe that the full essence of what one wants to say already exist on the first draft, by the time one finishes, one can see that the final draft is just a more polished or clear version of the first.

Susan Woodring said...

What I find most interesting about this post, actually, is how reflective you are about your process--I think there's something really useful in just thinking about how we do this and in looking at how our approach changes.

My revision process is similar to what someone here already said. It's hard to distinguish, for me, between drafting and revising--I'm constantly doing both.

Terrence Chouinard said...

Silly newbs, this is how you do it:

jon said...

I used to write out my books, and then revise them totally 5 or 6 times. This usually meant adding a lot of material, because I was careless with story, and I had to correct early mistakes, which would have cascading consequences.
Then I started a process of hand writing a first draft, which I would heavily edit as I typed it into the computer. I also got more efficient about plot, spotting problems early on, and actually sketching out in an outline way how things would go. These sketches I eventually started dating, and then, depressingly, adding the year to the date.
The next change, and what i do now, is not consider a chapter done until it is revised to a certain point. Not perfect, obviously, but I work at a chapter until I feel it is complete before moving on to the next one. Then I revise the entire thing and (usually) in disgust and horror put it away for 6 or 9 months. By then the despair has worn off and I'm a genius again and see all that is wrong and furiously revise, again working on each chapter, until I feel it is done. Then another revision correcting all of the mistakes, followed by more despair,another 9 months in hell. or so. I used to never outline anything.
The only way i can even start a novel is if there's enough of a story that won't let me go, and characters, and incidents and voices, present in my mind. usually they are around for years before I get to them. It seems, over time, I can endure all of this better, and that I become more efficient. but there is still an alarming clash between what I see on the page and what others see.

christianbauman said...

JRL: funny thing. I'm doing the reverse of you, somewhat. Finding myself outlining more as I get older. Current novel, I just dove in as usual, got about a third of the way in, then started outlining where I thought I might go from there. Did that with "In Hoboken," too (novel #3, for context). I'm still essentially a shoot-in-the-dark kind of writer, though. Best description of my own novel-writing style is how I read Michael Ondaatje describe his: like driving a car at night with only the parking lights on. You have a vague sense of where you're going, but honestly can't see soldily past the hood.

"Voodoo Lounge" (novel #2, for context) began this way: I knew I wanted to write somewhat about my own experience as a soldier in Haiti; I knew I wanted to write about a court-martial I'd heard about; I knew I wanted to write about women in the military, in a POV I wasn't hearing anywhere else; I knew I wanted to write about HIV, both as an Amaerican experience and a Haitian experience; I knew I wanted to write about addicition. I knew I wanted to write about these things, along with a million other things I wanted to write about, and none of them did I neccessarily see in the same work. They all just existed in my big witch's cauldron of thought. But 2 or 3 of those things above stuck together in the pot, and one day I started writing about the day I went into Port-au-Prince in Sept 1994. I had no destination in mind, nor was even sure I was writing a novel...but all those things I wanted to write about existed in my head, and little by little my own reality and my own experience slipped away and the novel took over. About 50 pages in I knew I was writing a novel (as opposed to short story or memoir). About 75 pages in knew what the novel was. At that point, I recall, I went back and started all over again. I think I finally did outline, but only to help me through the end of the book.

To another commentator's point above, though, even "started over" is meant in a modern way. I didn't throw the baby out and begin again from word one (I keep wanting to do that with projects, but am very afraid). I went back, in Word, and rewrote. "Drafts" doesn't mean as much to me, because the document is organic. I do save occasional old "drafts" as they stand but eventually they get thrown out. I revise as I write, and I tend to spend much more time on the revising than on the forward motion. Much more time. (By the time a book is done, I will have re-written the opening page 100 times and the opening sentence 1000 times.)

And as for actually just abandoning a happens. It's terrible. I hate that. Depressing. Let's not talk about it.

Sung said...

How do I revise? My single-word answer is "painfully".

About 50% of the first draft of my first novel made it intact. I don't know whether this is good or bad. Probably not great, since I tend to get lazy and what ends up on the printed page becomes evidence of my laziness.

A bunch of people have already said they rewrite as they go along. I do this, too, and I'm starting to wonder if this is not a great way to get work done. Because when I start the writing day, I end up using like 1/4 of the time fiddling with what I've already written and not really making any forward movement until later. I like that I'm tweaking things here and there and making it better, but at what price? I'm doing everything I can to bring this first draft of the second novel to completion by the end of the year, and it's already September. Either I'm gonna have to drop this constant revising or I'll need to invent a time machine.

- Sung

Pale Ramón said...

The challenge for me is to complete a first draft without worrying each sentence to death. I need to push through the unknown before I can start revising in earnest. Once that's done, I find that I have more than enough patience and energy to pull my prose into shape, regardless of how many revisions it takes. (I like to print out each draft and mark it up with a pen. I like to see where I've been.)

Pale Ramón said...

Or, as Nick Lowe says, "Bash it out now. Tart it up later."