Until a few years ago I didn’t really understand how to revise. When I first started writing seriously, back in college, I never revised at all. I remember going over poems and stories with professors in my writing classes. They’d make helpful notes, suggesting things that could be improved on a piece, and I’d just smile and nod. I had no intention of going back to fiddle with something old. My thought was I’d apply what I learned to the next assignment. I was writing mostly by instinct then anyway. I prided myself on being able to write a story in three hours. Sometimes I cut it kind of close—starting a paper exactly three hours before it was due, then printing it off and running up to the building where the printer was to retrieve it (this was in the very old days when the printers weren’t kept in the computer lab. My school stuck them up on the third floor of the English building for some reason.) Once I huffed up the three flights of stairs and found that the printer had jammed and I had to run back down (past the class where the paper was due) to print it off again. Lesson learned: allow another half hour for computer glitches. It never occurred to me to write something a few days ahead of time, maybe read it over and make some changes before turning it in.
The first few novels I wrote I could hardly stand to look at, much less read, when I finished them. I revised as I wrote, was the lie I told myself. Also, I used my computer’s spell-check and grammar-check and thought that was enough. I know better now. But it’s still hard sometimes for me to tackle revision. Look at my word choice here: tackle. Revision is work.
I’m thinking about all of this because I just started a new revision project today. Really, the work began a few days ago when I forced myself to sit down and read my book (if anyone is keeping tabs, it’s the one I finished in November, literally bleeding on my keyboard at the end in my quest to get the thing finished in time for the holidays). I knew it was a big, over-written mess and I was afraid to face the reality of it. But when approaching the revision of a novel, step one, is to figure out what you’re dealing with. If you can read the whole thing in one sitting, all the better. The trick is trying to see the big picture. It’s also what makes reading a first draft so scary. The big picture is usually that you’re going to have a lot of work ahead.
Here’s what I’ve learned happens when you’re writing a book: what you think you’re writing about somehow morphs into something else. Plot strands that seemed interesting in early chapters disappear. New plot strands spring out of nowhere in later chapters. You find that you’ve repeated yourself, that characters act inconsistently or have confusing motivations (or no motivation). Carolyn See in her book Making a Literary Life talks about reading your first draft with a glass of wine in your hand. I haven’t tried that. But it’s a thought.
Step two is to put your head back into the book. I do that by charting out each scene on its own index card. (Let me say here that how I approach revision is certainly not the only way to do it. Other writers—probably wiser ones—logically plot out their books before they start. Since I don’t do that, now is the time.) Once I have all my scenes on the index cards, I literally line them up on the floor so I can “see” my book at a glance. That’s when it starts to become clear what I actually have, and what I may be missing. Then it’s time to take the metaphorical scissors and go back in to cut.
Next lesson: How Do I Cut Thee Let Me Count the Ways