Anyone can write—and almost everyone you meet these days is writing. However, only the writers know how to rewrite. It is this ability alone that turns the amateur into a pro.—William Knott
Confession: I love revision. Love it, need it, will have it. When the deletions and insertions are complete, when I have managed order where before there was only chaos, I want only more. I have writing pals who suggest I am ill, that my impulses are dangerous, that I risk killing stories with compulsive revision. I have no story, published or not, that I cannot look at and think: it could be so much better if only—And my romance with or compulsion for revision is motivated primarily by my belief that revision, not inspiration, is writing. Inspiration is that tingling flash of character or ground situation, an image or a title. Ideas and visions are wonderful—they are the foundations of our desire to write, but in revision the story shapes itself, rousing bursts of frenzied imagination. Writing happens in revision, where a story's subtleties and calculated strategies develop. The hallucination that begins most stories is just that: a fantasy that may or may not find solid ground or truth. The rush of whimsy that begins a story is bliss, the first taste of writing as addiction—we return to the desk praying for another taste of that heaven. For me, however, revision is bliss. There is the possibility to make things right, a chance to find and craft truth out of fantasy. Revision separates wannabes from writers. Every writer has had someone—friend, family, stranger—offer a "wonderful idea" for a story bouncing around in his head for years but one he just couldn't realize. Every writing teacher knows that students are busloads of fabulous ideas. Few embrace revision.
There are two kinds of inspired revision: one delivered via a flash—often in bed just before sleep, and another that comes from sitting at the desk every day, working and reworking words, sentences, and paragraphs until the story finds truth. Both lead to the realization that what I had thought was the best way to tell my story was not after all. I see the revision so clearly that I question how I could have ever believed the initial and subsequent approaches would have worked at all. That thrill of discovery is ultimately the same and equally as valuable as any gifts of the muse. I experienced just such a moment recently—in a grand, revelatory way that left a 125,000-word novel gutted in its saggy middle.
I have now worked on a novel for two years, a novel whose skeleton I excavated from the ruins of my "apprentice" novel, from an initial draft of over 400 manuscript pages. While drafting I concentrated on the initial chapters, establishing character and conflict, revising from a first-person point of view to the omniscient, and finally to the close third-person. Each time I revised, I began the novel in a different way, and tried to gain a new foothold. Still, this was creation not necessarily revision—or was it? I realized that even as I was still figuring the story out, I was already revising, making those changes that might or might not stick, crafting my narrative via arrangement and selection rather than simply writing from the original, inspiring images.
After several false starts and nearly abandoning the project for good, I finally felt like I understood the character and the story I wanted to tell, and knocked out the manuscript in about nine months. The novel looked like I thought it should. There would be local edits, a sexy and equally-appealing cousin to the comprehensive edit, but the global bits were done.
Of course I knew better. The book was decidedly not done, and it may never be. The French poet Valéry said, "A poem is never finished, only abandoned." A sentiment I understand. I can't read a published story or essay because I know that I will find fault with a clunky phrase, misleading punctuation, self-consciously stylistic language, or a character's words and actions. This perpetual state of in progress is a result of potentially crippling indecision, a self-doubt most writers find necessary, and partially a result of the belief that there is no one way to tell any story. And I often feel the need to try them all before fixing on the best mode. Therefore, taking a chainsaw to a story is usually the first step of revision, chopping away over-telling exposition, unnecessary scenes, chapters, and, in my case, a two-hundred-page digression. This revision is extremely satisfying, akin to the rush at tearing something apart to re-see it before us in a tattered heap. Think: demolishing a wall during a home renovation or the satisfaction at mowing and pruning an overgrown yard, cutting the wild grass until you have shaped it into a lovely lawn. Find order in the world. Chaos has been corrected, for the moment.
So, the novel. All the pieces had been puzzled together, read and reread, each time finding bits to cut, to streamline a paragraph, a scene, a chapter. But the book seemed heavy in the middle, a section scavenged from the skeletal first draft. One morning I knew the middle—a digression told in flashback and always a good place to aim the chainsaw—had to go, and I couldn't wait to get to it, as if I feared the opportunity might vanish if I didn't make the cuts immediately. Working at a furious pace, squeezing in writing sessions, some of only a few minutes, wherever I could. I removed the weight and tidied up the connections that covered my tracks. That cut digression had originally been fun to write and was a great side story, but I no longer needed it to understand my character. What I discovered when I had finished, chainsaw still buzzing, was that the story hadn't changed one bit, as if I had removed the metaphorical appendix of my story. To remove the vestigial tube to nowhere brought a surge of freedom and relief.
A few weeks later, I benefited from another unsettling but motivating revision flash. This time the prologue—exposition in scene—had to go. The details presented there could easily be sewn into the book elsewhere. I had to truly start in the middle, en media res. I ripped out my chainsaw, again rewriting with purpose. How was I not aware of this scene as a nonstarter? How? Regardless, I loved where my mistake had ultimately led me.
About a month after receiving positive feedback from an agent (but ultimately a no), another flash once again stalled my bedtime. My protagonist was simply not sympathetic enough. Instead of cutting, I returned to some of those excised bits and resurrected details from my character's past that I had decided were unnecessary in the novel's new incarnation. Yet, here I was digging through the trash for a few of those bits to stitch back into the book. And, again, I went at the revision with enthusiasm and resolve. Now, now, now all would be well in my world, and for the next few days, as I eagerly sat before the keyboard excited with ideas for improvement, I was happy with my story—for a while.
Author's Note: This reflection on revision was drafted in a single burst, then significantly revised no less than ten times. The author really wishes to but will resist further revision—then again, maybe I won't.
Revised Author's Note (as Confession): I did return to the essay and revised once more (all those cluttered sentences!), even after I sent it to Linda.