Writing it is the easy part.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that comment, whether while speaking with other writers, listening to an author’s presentation, or when reading an “on writing” book or peeking into a Twitter conversation. And I always thought that was the most absurd statement. Writing the book is the easy part!?
Well, surprise, surprise. Here I am, in the middle of revisions to my first YA Novel, thinking back longingly to the days when I got up every morning simply to write. Because, yeah, revision is hard. It’s funny, this is something I share with my students all the time: nothing is ever perfect the first time, or second, or …. however many times after that. Not ever. So many of my students want to write an essay the day before it is due and pretend it’s the best work they could possibly do. This is of course nonsense, and the feeling is often caused by the adrenaline rush we get from working to a deadline. It can feel kind of good, and completing the work under pressure feels even better.
But does that mean you did your best work? Really?
When asked about his revision process, George Saunders responded this way:
“I try to base my revision on a re-reading of what I’ve done so far, imitating, so far as it’s possible, a first-time reader. That is, I try not to bring too many ideas about what the story is doing etc, etc. Just SEE what it’s doing. In other words, read along with a red pen, reacting in real-time as I go along, deleting, adding, etc. When the energy drops, then I know that’s where I have to really start digging in, i.e., turn away from the hardcopy and go to the computer. Repeat as necessary?”
This is speaking to me at the moment, as it is the kind of revision process I’m currently engaging with, though I also appreciate Joan Didion’s comment on marking things up at the end of each night, drink in hand, to revise in the morning. “I have found the drink actually helps,” she said. Who’s to argue? Saunders’s approach seems solid to me, though. Did I write this draft with a reader in mind? Can I go back, now and read it like a writer? How do I coordinate those two skills, opposites of the same coin, really? To sit back and read it and see what happens, to experience it as a reader? That seems a good place to start.
At the moment, I’m working on second revisions and edits. Most of what I’m finding is a lot of silly surface errors or semi-hilarious mistakes. For example, I wrote a scene with a gift exchange between two friends, and in the first place, I describe the gift package that one of the characters’ receives, but later on, I somehow ended up making that gift belong to someone else! Oops. But other things are coming up, too. As Saunders said, there are moments where the energy falls, where there’s too much exposition and not enough action, or when there’s too much telling and not nearly enough showing.
Pen in hand, I mark all of this up, the easy edits and the notes for larger changes. I’ve been doing this on paper, because I read much more closely and carefully on paper than I do an electronic document, for whatever reason (research seems to support this is the case for most people.) Sometimes, though, I have to open up that file and put notes in there for bigger problems, ones that will mean I need to coordinate revisions across different chapters. For example, one character who becomes important to the climax had been mentioned only in passing for the first draft. That didn’t seem quite believable, so in draft two, this character is more of a presence.
Writing it, and having written it, was a joy. Revising? I’m not sure how anyone can enjoy this, and as the new semester begins and I think about revision projects for my own students, I will keep in mind just how difficult and exhausting, and frustrating, this process is. I’ve already prepared multiple physical copies of edited and revised chapters to show them, so that they know that what I’m asking them to do is what the “professionals” do, too. It’s not, after all, an exercise in futility or a waste of time. Revision is what makes the final product, the truly best version, possible.
With ten chapters left to revise in this second round, plus one short epilogue to write, I must remind myself that this is worth it. This hard work is what makes the story, the story. Getting it all down in the first place was an important step. It showed me what I meant to say in the first place, but now is the time to figure out how to share it to the best of my ability, and in a way that will interest readers.
We’ll soon see what beta readers think about the outcome. How horrifying!
“Editing is always a manic-depressive special—moments when you overestimate what you have and moments when you underestimate, but neither is usually true.” —Frederick Wiseman