Monday, June 22, 2009

Can you really revise everything?

I've been frustrated with my prose lately. I feel like everything I write--regardless of story or character or setting--comes out clunky on a sentence-by-sentence level.

I consulted a poet friend that I have mentioned once or twice here before. His name is Craig Cotter, and over dinner I asked him why he made certain word choices or phrase constructions in several of his poems.

For one of his poems, Craig brought his first draft along. This was a hand-written scrap that he had somehow decided to save. I compared this to the actually published poem, and what I found surprised me. Very little had changed. From the original to the final draft, he made about four edits, but the rest of it was intact.

What I realized was that Craig had initially limited himself to what edits he was allowed to make. The source of his inspiration, the motivation that got him to write this poem in the first place, he felt, was preserved in that first draft, not in the idea of that first draft. That meant that he couldn't revise everything. He couldn't start from scratch with the same idea, because that would be a different poem--one that he could write at a different time. By him staying true to what inspired him, he felt that this work captured a very specific idea at a very specific time. He was staying true to the experience of writing this poem.

I thought about my own work.

I thought about how sometimes revising too much can make a piece feel unemotional and dead. The fact is, when you write something, that piece is a reflection of you in that moment of creation. You build rhythms in your sentences based on the sentences before it. And, if you then go back and revise something in the beginning of a story, often times, that affects everything after it. So, you end up chasing that first revision and making hundreds or thousands of other revisions to compensate for it, even if nothing was wrong with the rest of the piece to begin with.

So, now I'm asking myself if it's sometimes better to stop. Maybe a clunky second sentence is acceptable if it keeps you from altering the rest of your story that may already be working. Can you really revise everything?


  1. I think you can revise something to death--to where it does not retain that spark of life that made you want to write about it in the first place. I'm struggling with that in my rewrites. I think some of what I loved about my original story is missing now with all these rewrites. I'm not sure what I should do about it now.

  2. I like to think that maybe by revising in chunks (say, doing one chapter at a time or just a few pages at a go) I can stop myself from getting into a rhythm where I change even the things that are working. Maybe, if I keep my eyes fresh through the whole process, I can look at each piece as its own piece, and not as that part that came after the other part that I didn't quite like. If I examine everything in it's own right, then hopefully it can stand on its own merits.

  3. I have two main revision stages. One is a simple technical sweep. The other is looking at what works well and what does not, usually on a graph by graph basis. I leave the good stuff alone and try to raise the level of the rest. That way, I avoid revising everything, except for minor technicalities.

  4. This is a great post, Davin. This exact thing is the reason I decided to chuck out my old drafts of Monarch and just start over. Yes, it may be a different book now, but it's closer to what I first envisioned. And that didn't get captured when I was rushing through NaNo just to get 50 thousand words.

    More than likely, you are going to make a lot of changes to your novel before it really is what you envisioned. I think that the key is to stop trying to please others with the revising - including yourself. Let the work be what it is. Revise only what is getting in the way. That may include clunky sentences, by the way, especially if you are newer like I am, and learning to write.

    Davin, I know that with experience, I will revise less and less. Monarch just happens to be my second novel, and because of that, I'm using the poor thing to learn a lot of writing techniques, style, and voice, that I couldn't learn without a lot of revising and experimenting.

    Think back on Rooster and what it was the first time you wrote it. Now aren't you glad you revised up to this point? Aren't you happier with it? Or are you? It's not your 10th novel. You've learned things - things that will make your next book better, and require less revisions.

    I've strayed from your question, sorry. I think that yes, you can revise to much, and that yes, you can revise everything. But what's the point if you do? Is it to learn? Is it to just write something entirely new from an idea? I think it's your intentions that count when it comes to revising.

  5. Perfect timing for this post. I'm in the middle of revising a manuscript, and I'm so sick of looking at the same words. I loathe the opening paragraph. I'm second guessing the characters conflicts, motivations.

    Opening line? Horrific. Yet I loved it only a few short months ago.

    There's an edge I can go over in revising. I've learned to not cross it; if I did, the joy of writing would shrivel up and die.

  6. Because I was a professional potter for ten years, I often compare the writing process to making pottery. You have to have to master the basics of the craft before you can elevate it to art, and you have to practice a lot, preferably every day.

    A good potter knows when to stop. If you continue reshaping the same clay on the potter's wheel, it loses its structural integrity. The clay has a "memory" that wants to keep the original shape. Reworking it too much causes it to absorb water and collapse. Beginners will often keep fooling with it until this happens, rather than starting over with a fresh piece of clay.

    Reshaping a pot is usually much more successful if you take it off the wheel and let it set overnight before working it again.

    Writing works in much the same way.

  7. It's all too easy to get stuck in a Goundhog Day loop of revisions.

    I got struck in one, but that's because I didn't want to face the facts and do a full re-write. Once I started I realized how much better it could be (and is getting).

  8. Davin,

    "I thought about how sometimes revising too much can make a piece feel unemotional and dead."

    I've felt that way about some of my work; once, I revised the first 50 pages of my first novel by cutting out 95% of adverbs (e.g., there) and occurrences of "was." It sucked. Oh, rules.


    "Yes, it may be a different book now, but it's closer to what I first envisioned."

    I had this same experience with my first novel; that is, I got caught up in a certain aspect of the story then had to cut it all out later in order to stay true to my original envisioning.

  9. I'm also in the midst of revisions and this sentence really struck me:

    "You build rhythms in your sentences based on the sentences before it."

    As I have gone back to layer in necessary details I have found that it is hard to fit them into the original flow, and that sometimes they stick out like I patched it with a piece of material that is sooo close in color, but off just enough so that it doesn't quite fit in with the rest.

  10. I think we can second guess our writing until we kill it. That's why it's so critical to have someone objective and skilled read through our writing. Then they can help us see the areas that need major overhauling, and the areas that might just need the tweaking.

  11. Lois, I'm obviously struggling too. I try to make myself feel better by saying that the new thing I have created is better than what I had before. Even though I've lost some good stuff, new good stuff has taken it's place.

    Dominique, fresh eyes are so important. I wish I could do that. I know time helps. If I put a story away for a few months, to the point where I forget what I wrote, I can usually see it much more clearly.

    Frank, it sounds like you've got a good balance. I've got about thirty revisions stages, none of which are very well defined for me.

    Michelle, You make some great points. Yes, what we have after revision may be a completely different thing, but it could be a better thing. And trying to please everyone can kill your writing as well.

    Jill, what you described is exactly where I have been for about a month. I keep reading other books to clear my head. That has helped some.

    Michelle, I love your comparison. The idea of "memory" in the material is a very real thing, in my opinion. Unless you white the slate completely and get that new lump of clay, what you started out with will always be there in some form.

    Rick, so you decided to do the full rewrite? Does that mean you started from scratch? I did that a few times with Rooster. I printed out a hard copy of what I had and then I started with a blank document. That helped me quite a bit.

    Justus, Yes, I've done similar things like that. It's like I get tunnel vision. I decide something like "show don't tell" and then I hack my story to pieces and end up with something that's boring.

    Kate, Thanks...that's what I was trying to say, but I took more words to say it. It's a bit intimidating, isn't it? I had a mismatched patch, so I put on another patch over good material to try to make the first one blend better!

  12. Jody, Good point. Having trusted readers has been really important to me. I don't think everyone needs one, but having someone who can look at it from any point of view other than from the creator's point of view has always been really useful for me.

  13. Good post and comments! And don't feel frustrated. I think you know how I feel about this, as I've said that I can't stand when the heat-and-heart has been polished out of works, and so avoid this like a bad disease in my own writing. I used to polish it soooo much, I bored myself with my own polished prose. And then I'd opine about this on message boards lol, how I felt excessive polishing actually dulls the shine of too many works.

    So while I think most newer writers don't revise enough and all works should probably be revised, I also think they shouldn't be revised ad infinitum. Often when I'd do this, I wound up revising back to what I'd written earlier; now I know that's precisely when to stop revising.

    I think writers have different meanings for the words "draft" and "revising," based on their different writing processes. Whenever I say "later drafts," I don't mean I start stories over again from scratch--no! Oh wow...I'd NEVER finish anything then as I tinker with the sentences and paragraphs so much, like nonstop while revising, to get the flow right so I can read the story "right." That's my process: tinkering, cutting, adding, moving, especially moving, and often as a full run-through of the whole novel. Not re-doing the overall from Page One. If I feel an overall story is just not working, I stop penning during the first-draft stage rather than write that not-working draft to the end and then having to chuck even more text!

    I think you've expressed frustration that you didn't finish your novels quicker (?); maybe you should stop re-starting from scratch if you have been.

    In my opinion, learning what works is more important than learning what doesn't work, and learning how to keep what works is the most important part of the revision process. And that's because a piece of writing should ultimately be filled with what WORKS.

    Try keeping your first drafts as the only first drafts, and then carefully analyze what's working--don't chuck that! Cut out the crap that doesn't work from around the stuff that does work, and weld in new and improved text fitted to the stuff that works. Maybe focus on the welding process more than the cutting process. Build up, not down.

    "That meant that he couldn't revise everything. He couldn't start from scratch with the same idea, because that would be a different poem--one that he could write at a different time."

    --I agree with him. That's what I've always thought. I like both Lady Chatterley's Lover and John Thomas and Lady Jane--but, to me, overall the latter is barely recognizable as an earlier draft of the former. Ultimately they are two different books, no matter what Lawrence's intentions may have been when he penned them.

    This is also why I don't on-paper outline (though I do have a bunch of notes written beforehand and an in-my-head outline): I think outlines are separate written-work formats with their own demands, and important story aspects will probably get altered anyway in the translation to actual narratives. I've always wanted to become a great novelist, not a great outlineist; I feel I must spend the most time working inside actual novel narratives to ever achieve greatness. And if I gave everything to an outline, I wouldn't have any left for the actual work. I also never talk in specific about a work before or during the first-draft stage--I need some mystery to keep me interested in penning a story!

  14. Another great post, Davin.

    So. An English teacher commented on one of my first drafts once that my style, when unrestrained, was raw and snappy, kind of like Henry Miller's. I was mortified. Miller?. Holy Sh*#! I was younger and prudish then, so I edited the hell out of it, castrating it in a sense. Sad really.

    Ah, but now, being older and wiser . . . sh*#!, I still reign myself in.

  15. I am absolutely agree!! I hate when someone tells me to take out the emotion in something (perhaps because I'm a woman) but to me the emotion is the whole point. I'm not just telling a story, I'm feeling it and I want the reader to do the same. However, I realize too it's necessary to cut the fluff sometimes. We don't want to rabbit-trail too much. ;) Great post!

  16. I completely understand where you're coming from! Deal with this all the time! I think the thing we have to remember is, no book is perfect. No piece of work is ever perfect, period.

    I've written things in omniscient POV and people would say the voice was beautiful and sparkly, but broke all the rules so I should nix it. Sometimes I wonder if maybe THEY were on to something or if I was on to something and rewrote at my own peril. I guess only time--and the result of all those rewrites--will tell.

  17. Davin, you can definitely over revise. Revise means to alter. If you revise too much, then you change your story too much. I guess sometimes that is for the best. Me? I have only three rewrites on my novel that is done. Right now I'm going in and getting rid of all those UGLY filler words. Then it is finished. I will query. I will be done by my June 30th deadline. Only the author knows when to stop. Write it right the first draft. As close to right as you can. Clunky isn't always bad, my friend. :)

  18. Davin I def. agree with where your going with this!

    It can be crazy to revise/delete/add to your manuscript but how much is an overload? I mean if you start losing the things pertaining to your plot or the main plot is changing entirely? It's a madhouse.

    I myself make a list of stuff to check and revise, then off to my crit group--who I love and adore! Then edit their comments and see if there's anything else I can find.

    Bottom line you can always revise your stuff, you just have to kick back and chill, don't lose the emotion and feel behind it.

  19. Reason Reanimator, I really like what you said about focusing on the welding. I've never thought about it that way, but it makes sense. Instead of me trying to fix things, I should think about fixing things in relation to the stuff that's already working. And, focusing on what works is, I'd say, equally valid compared to focusing on what doesn't work. I think of it as offense versus defense, and I think both techniques can result in good work.

    Rebecca, that word, unrestrained, is a good one. I think I should strive more to be unrestrained. One still needs to revise, but the best emotion is probably that unrestrained emotion.

    Shorty, Thanks for your comments. The emotion is absolutely important. I think people differ on how they react to our attempts at creating emotion, and that makes it hard to revise sometimes. Some people don't want anything told to them, while others need a little bit of telling, and we can't please everyone.

    Ashley, I think we're all just trying our best, and you're right, perhaps only time will be able to tell who's right. By the time that happens, perhaps none of us will care! I try to keep in mind that we've got more than one book in us, and we need to be willing to experiment. Perhaps if you break all the rules with one book, you should stick to all the rules with another, just as an experiment.

    Robyn, thanks for your comforting words! I really admire your process. It's completely opposite to what I do, but I find my way quite frustrating. I'm really curious to see how your three revisions went. I hope you'll talk more about it!

    Thanks for your advice, Sara! I also have a crit group, and I am very grateful to them. They told me to stop awhile ago, perhaps even a year ago! I tried to listen to them, but then I started revising again. As a result, I got interesting feedback. Almost everyone agrees that the new stuff is better. At the same time, they will tell me that they miss some of the things that I have cut.

  20. Davin:

    I like what Michelle said: "the key is to stop trying to please others with the revising - including yourself." You do have to just look at the story and fix what's not working and bring it into the same focus/rhythm/etc as what is working. That's a hard place to put yourself, though. And that's similar to what Reason said, too. Rewrites for me have a lot of a "balancing" sense to them, of rhythm and flow and changing what interferes with the flow/rhythm of the story so that it becomes part of the big stream of story.

  21. The frustration about revising you share is why I have so many novel first drafts, but not really any revisions. It's hard to trust yourself, it takes a long time, but I'm never going to get anywhere if I don't start revising.

    I like Reason's process with the cutting of what doesn't work and just working around the good parts. I'm going to give it a try.

  22. From personal experience both revising and editing others' writing, I'd say there is always a point of diminishing returns. It's possible to "break" a story by revising to the point where the initial voice of the piece is diminished to nil. Like watercolors. You've got to be careful not mess with the original lines of the painting or things turn gray.


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