Many moons and suns ago, I used to sit at my plain, cheap desk. . . Come to think of it, I still sit at a plain, cheap desk. Well, it fits my social station. Good enough for the likes of me. Anyhow, I’d sit there writing for hours, turning out page after page, sometimes throwing pieces of paper on the floor. Bear in mind, that was in the Middle Ages, so I was using a typewriter, one of the most wretched machines ever invented.
Look how I’m rambling here, and I haven’t even gotten to my topic. That happens all the time when I write, and I have to go back and rewrite it. Revision. Right, that was my topic. I had always heard that writing needed to be revised, so when I was younger, I would revise it, change a word here and there, maybe remove an entire sentence.
If you’re not smiling sardonically reading that paragraph, it means you don’t know any more than I knew then about writing. Serious revision isn’t changing a word here and there. That’s revising the way a four-year-old would bake a cake. Here’s your pretend pan and pretend stove. Cake’s done. Mmmm, here’s your piece. It’s all imaginary and no effort.
Serious revision means reconsidering plot, structure, characters, tone, etc. It means throwing away things you love. Serious revision is actual work, and therefore ugly and filled with anguish. It begins—and this is probably the hardest part—with truly recognizing that what you first wrote isn’t the most beautiful thing that ever graced human language.
Once you honestly recognize that your drivel ain’t no prettier than anybody else’s, then you’re on the path to being a serious writer. The next step is moving beyond the shock of seeing how bad you are, to also recognize that if you WORK AT IT, you can make it better. Actually, that second step is so huge that when I was teaching writing, I had a lot of students who never got to step two.
But if you have climbed those two mountains, you now sit breathing cool clean air, surveying the mighty majesty of human endeavor. Are you not pleased, young grasshopper?
For several weeks, I have been revising the current novel (The Invention of Colors). I’ll pause for a moment while you write that title down, so that some day when you see it again you can say, “Hey! I read a blog about this!” I know, it is kind of exciting.
Everyone has their preferred method of writing, and mine involves loud music, a bottle of wine, and late nights pretending I don’t have a job. After about four years (maybe more, I don’t know, I got lost in the darkness), I am soooo close to finishing this book. Maybe within a month, finito buddy-o. But in fact, as anxious as I truly am to be done, I’m forcing myself to slow down, slow down, slow down. It’s not enough that sentences and paragraphs are fine. Can I make them better? You may not agree with the “better” part, but here is a brief example of what I’m doing:
“At three o’clock Friday afternoon, she left work and met him, then drove away from the town, out past the mall, past the impressive state prison on its pleasant tree-lined road, and up onto one of the ridges that ran like fingers through the valleys in the area.”
“Friday morning Carmen chose lapis lazuli earrings she had not worn in a year, and Friday afternoon at four o’clock she left work to meet Sebastian. Choosing an itinerary of afternoon ease and evening ale, she drove them away from the town, past the mall, along a pleasant tree-lined road that went by the impressive state prison sitting up a slight hill to the left.”
I liked the added detail about the earrings, as it was both interesting and implied that she was looking forward to seeing him, given the attention to her appearance. I’m also right proud, and you don’t need to make fun of me, for coming up with the phrase “an itinerary of afternoon ease and evening ale” as it uses words beginning “a– e– e– a–” as well as accurately describing what they were going to do. It was a lot of effort to do that, maybe twenty minutes on that one phrase.
Not all writing needs this kind of meticulous attention to detail, but mine does. So I revise, with red wine and Snow Patrol.