Lessons from the Revision Process

So, having now finished the draft version of my first novel, I must now undertake the most extensive revision I've ever had to do. And it's waaay harder than writing the first time.

Don't get me wrong, I do like it, finding those spots that I can change just so to make a concept or character click is one of the greatest joys in writing. But I like to feel in control of my efforts, and I am finding it difficult to maintain an organized approach. I guess I haven't found the revision process that works for me yet. Maybe it'll take another book or three before I get it down.

This entire process has been a learning experience, so even if the book goes nowhere, I've benefited. I can hardly believe the sheer amount I've learned, both from the writing style books I buy voraciously and from the process itself. I know I'm not done, but I thought I'd share some of the biggest lessons I've learned so far. Keep in mind these are just personal lessons, I'm not in any way qualified to advise others. Remember, I'm pretty much wingin' it.

ONE Revision is scarier than writing. For me, there is this constant lurking fear that I am going to change something and it won't be as good as what I had. Or I'm going to irreparably mess up everything my critiquers said they liked in my attempt to fix what they didn't. This is ridiculous. It's just insecurity and a tad bit of hubris. As James Scott Bell says in "Revision and Self Editing," you revise from a place of deeper understanding than you write. You might think you understand your characters or plot when you write them, but it isn't until the entire thing is on the page that you can see the whole picture.

TWO If your alpha readers say something, LISTEN! Even if you disagree with the suggested solution, readers are never wrong about their reactions or understanding of the text. I don't remember who said it, but writing is a kind of telepathy. Your end goal is to control what the reader experiences, so if they don't get the right vision from your work, that's YOUR failure. So fix it. It doesn't mean your vision is wrong, it means your telepathy is off.

THREE Passion is what gives writing life. If you suddenly shift focus, you lose that special magic. It isn't the individual words on the page; word-smithing doesn't create passion, although it can enhance it. I learned this because I re-read my earlier chapters. Although I've learned an incredible amount over the last few months, my first few chapters sang in a way my recent work doesn't. And as I begin to add and rewrite segments to better reflect my vision of the story, I'm rediscovering my passion and excitement for the story itself. I believe my writing will show this.

FOUR That said, the muse nonsense is bull****. I used to believe I couldn't write unless I felt the inspiration. Now, I know that's horse hockey. I totally agree that there is a wondrous kind of "zone" you can get into sometimes. But it is mainly excitement and focus - not some sort of magic that means your prose improves. The voice in your head that tells you what words to put where is the same, it's just talking enthusiastically so you feel good about it. In fact, stuff I wrote while I was in the "zone" actually needs more work than a lot of my other stuff, only it is harder for me to recognize, because I get this little echo of how great it was to write that part when I read it through again. So passively sitting around waiting for the muse to strike is wasted time. The best stuff I wrote came from ideas I got excited about after thinking and thinking about an "unsolvable" problem for days.

FIVE Washing dishes, long drives, going on walks, and taking showers are idea-generators and problem-sovlers. Steven King was totally right when he talked about sending stuff down to the "boys in the basement." Anything even remotely creative I thought of wasn't me in my desk chair.

SIX Every book, podcast, and writer says that the serious author should write a quota of words every day. Or every week. I'm not against this, in fact, I agree with the principle. Good writers must develop dedication, discipline, and professionalism, and writing every day is a step towards that. Not only that, but there is something to be said for momentum - it is way harder to get back into something when you've spend days or weeks or months away from it. However, personally I can't hold down a quota of words daily. There are too many days when I come home from work and can barely eat before I fall asleep. I'm sure a better person would be able to set aside their hour or two and slog through 500 words a day, every day, no matter how exhausted. But I have come to realize I am not that person. In the winter, I can do that and more. In the summer, no dice. So I have compromised. Absolutely every day I sit down and work on my writing. It might be a bit of an editing or it might be 3000 words.

I like my day job. I am writing because I love to write; it is enough for me that I do some small thing every day. Maybe someday that will change; I have no idea what the future holds. They say you cannot possibly be published if it isn't what you live and breath for. So if I need to commit to more someday, then I'll think about it. But for now, I think it is a good thing that I am not dying to be a full-time author. It means I can learn without judging myself too harshly, be semi-objective about my work, and distance myself a little from the neurotic, destructive author behavior I hear about and see in other writers I meet. My self-worth is not inextricably bound to my writing - I am more than that. And if that means I am never published, so be it. It is worth it to keep some tiny bit of my mind sane. But I think I will always write, just as I always have.

More later, I've got a timeline* and a heck of a lot to do.

*Speaking of which, I'm sorry to the one of you who looks at my progress bar. I'm not well enough organized to be able to tell how much farther I have to go on my revision. Suffice to say, I'm doing lots every day, and there's still plenty to go. I don't know if I'll meet my first week of September goal, but I do know I'm working hard.

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