Saturday, October 16, 2010

Revision: It's Not Rocket Science

Revising has gotten easier over the years, but there’s always a part of me that resists changing what I’ve written. I’m not talking about fixing grammatical errors or cutting extraneous words. I mean major reworking: yanking out scenes, removing a plot strand, deleting the first ten chapters. Yes. I have done that before. It’s painful. And it seems wasteful too. Why did I bother with all of that? What was the point?

The point, apparently, was for me to find a way into that particular story. Once I did, I no longer needed those chapters. The story I’m telling no longer requires them. So, out they go. Ha ha. I've made it sound so easy. But anyone who's dealt with extensive revision knows how difficult it can be.

The best explanation I’ve heard about how to work through this potentially painful process came from Linda Su Park, Newbery author of the novel A Single Shard. Park spoke at a conference I went to a few years ago and perfectly captured the angst we writers go through when we approach a revision.

She started by describing the sick feeling you get when you first hear criticism of your manuscript. You think it’s finished, brilliant, moving, but your first reader will say something like: the beginning doesn’t work. Or: you don’t need that character. Just hearing her say this was revelatory to me. An award-winning author produces messed up first drafts too? Wow. She said she had an all-purpose response to this kind of criticism and I perked right up in my seat.

Okay. That’s her response. She says that inside she’s dying, nauseated, ready to kill the critic, imagining all of the work she’s going to have to do, but outside, she keeps a placid smile on her face and says: Okay. She listens to what the person has to say. And she gives herself some time to process the suggestions.

After a few days of stewing, she’s ready to prove the critic wrong. Okay, she tells herself, this person thinks that one of my main characters serves no purpose. Well, I’ll show her. And then she goes back to her manuscript and “plays.” It’s not rocket science, she says. I’m just playing around. She takes one chapter where that character features prominently, and pulls him out. She gives that character’s lines to someone else. She rewrites the whole scene to prove to her critic what a giant hole is left when that character is no longer present.

Next, to further illustrate her point about how wrong her critic is, she takes the same scene and continues to play, beefing up the role of that supposedly unnecessary character. See, she wants to point out, look how essential this character is to my story. Except nine times out of ten, she realizes that the critic is right. Once she’s played around with a scene or two, she can see it clearly. That character doesn’t need to be there after all. Darn it. And she never would’ve believed it if she hadn’t tried it. Thinking about it, arguing in your head about the merits of the criticism is not enough. You have to write it. Then she stressed once more that this process isn’t rocket science. We’re just playing.

Revision has a bad reputation. It’s hard! It means work, time, heavy thinking. All those years of hearing our English teachers telling us to revise have taken a toll.

Let that crippling mentality go. Next time you're faced with a daunting revision, take Linda Su Park’s advice and say: Okay, I’ll play.

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