Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Revise *This*

by Marcus Sakey

I have a novelist friend who loves doing revisions. The way she sees it, the first time around the book is ragged, rough, and when revising you get to draw out the soul. Revising is her favorite part.

My friend is insane.

As you may have guessed, I’m in the midst of revisions myself. I turned in the draft of my second novel about two month back, and three weeks ago I got my editorial letter. It was full of nice things, kind and friendly comments about how much my editor liked the book, how he thought it was really good.

Then came twelve pages on how to make it better.

Let me get this part out of the way first—he’s right. I don’t agree with everything he said, but damn close. Which makes sense. First, he’s a pro. Second, and this is the kicker, he’s pointing out things that I didn’t see because I was too close.

For this book, I had the standard sophomore-novel worries, which truly are a bitch. Of course, I know it doesn’t really get all that much easier—I was talking to Tess Gerritsen after ThrillerFest, and she was telling me that starting her new book, her twentieth, most of them bestsellers and award-winners, that starting this one has her absolutely terrified.

Which is at once creepy and comforting.

But besides the usual writerly worries, with this novel I was trying for a broader story than in my first book. I wanted a more complicated plot, filled with twists and reversals, and some elements of mystery. Creating these things, I have discovered, is hard.

Feel free to quote me on that.

But for me, revising these things is harder. Some writers, like my friend, race through a draft. To them, finishing the first is the equivalent of a sculptress choosing her marble. A draft provides limits and boundaries, but the real work is yet to come. They go through the book over and over, chiseling out plot lines, polishing up characters, chipping away to find the form of the thing as a whole.

That’s not the way I write. For me it’s more like weaving a tapestry. I have an outline, and I write steady and methodical, a thousand words a day. I polish the hell out of things as I go, and when I type the last page, knot the last string, the book is close to submission-ready.

Which means that when my editor points out a weakness in a plot line, or suggests combining three characters, I stagger and stutter and say “Ummm” a lot. Not because he’s wrong, but because that’s the equivalent of cutting a thread and yanking it. And in tapestries and novels both, that results in a snarled mess.

I’ve spent the last three weeks banging head-shaped holes in my walls. And though it took a while—and my forehead connecting with more than one stud—I now know what I need to do. I’m combining three characters, and dramatically shifting one. I’m adding more warmth to one guy and making another colder. And the tug of each of these changes has altered the pattern of the piece as a whole.

Which is, of course, the point.

It’s not a fun process for me. A crucial one, one that will result in a better book. And at the end of the day, writing a good book is our only true responsibility. But fun?

On par with repeatedly poking myself in the eye.

What about you? Do you enjoy the revision process? Have you found any ways to make it easier?

Or is this pretty much just the way it goes?


Sara Paretsky said...

I hate responding to editorial comments, even when I think they're right, because when i send the book in, I'm done with it, I've separated from it. But during the writing process, I love rewriting--it's the insecure writer's best friend. You have text on the page, you can work with it, and you're working, so you don't have to do the hard part of thinking what happens next--I can rewrite for weeks, making each phrase perfect, until suddenly I'm at the end of that diving board again adn have to jump off--that's the part that's hardest and scariest for me.

Sandra Ruttan said...

IMHO, revisions are only fun when you have a great idea you're enthusiastic about.

Or when the end is in sight.

You might completely agree that changes are needed, and they might be all the right things, but I still find it tough. It's the idea that once you turn the book over to someone, you're letting go of it, as if it's done. Handing over your baby only to be told that he's got a seeping diaper and boogers running out of his nose and you need to clean him up before the family photo or it won't be pretty. It's like Sara said - you hand in the book and there's a separation - you're done with it.

I don't think I necessarily know anything at this stage of the game, but my guess is, once the thought of starting a new book no longer scares you a bit, you're probably coasting. I get excited about writing, but at the same time unnerved about making it work, how it will come together, what will happen if the idea I've had in my brain falls apart chapter two.

Brett Battles said...

I'm afraid I'm more like your friend on this than you, Marcus. To me my first draft is like a large, detailed outline. It's a blast to write, but just as fun is going in and fleshing it out during the rewriting process. By the time my agent and editor see the manuscript, I'll have done at least two extensive rewrites and have probably gone over the whole thing four or five times.

In fact, as I'm writing the first draft, I'll even add things in that need set up earlier, but I don't go back and do the set up until the rewrite. I'll also sometimes change motivation or character traits.

I love the writing process, but I love the rewriting process just as much.

The Home Office said...

My process is similar to what Brett describes. I get through a rough draft (I even call it Draft 0), then go back and clean things up. There will be several other revisions of specific things, but the general form is there after that second pass.

The big thing I always notice when revising Draft 0 is how much repetition there is, and how many things aren't connected as well as they should be. Writing a couple of pages of draft a day never gives me a broad overview of how things are relating to each other, which is where I tend to get into trouble.

I also love the first draft/sculpture analogy. The initial draft is hard. I'm always worried it's a piece of junk. Crafting and fixing (sculpting, if you will) the finished product is where I get my satisfaction.

Of course it might still be a piece of junk, but my agent has high hopes.

Marcus Sakey said...

Sara and Sandra, you both raise another point that makes it difficult--that sense of distance from the story. It's hard to go back and dig in not only because every choice impacts every other, but because once I've delivered the manuscript, I start to feel distant from it. It's like I'm changing events that already happened.

Like I said, both necessary and worthwhile. Just not as much fun as creating something new.

Laura Mazzuca Toops said...

I'm one of those psychos who hates first drafts. It's like a breech birth without an epidural, or even chloroform, a bullet to bite on, or a shot of whiskey, for that matter.

First drafts are only something I do because by the time there's even a hint of a first draft, I've already become obsessed with a time period, a character or a situation. So I'm doomed anyway.

And although I completely agree with Anne LaMott's wise words ("Don't be afraid of shitty first drafts"), I always end up agonizing over them. Anyhow, I never work from outlines (too organized), just scenes, ideas and character sketches that end up crocheted sloppily together in all the first draft's nasty glory.

For me, it's a lot more fun to have something "rough and ragged" to work with and build on than it is to craft that first beastly golem.

Cool site, BTW -- some of my favorite writers are here!

Rob Gregory Browne said...

Marcus, I am SO there with you about the sophmore effort. As you well know, I'm smack in the middle of it right now and, like you, I'm trying to be much more ambitious with the story, have a dual lead, a mystery, more complicated relationships and, frankly, it is a bitch.

I'm also right there with you on process. I polish, polish, polish as I go, hoping that what I turn into my editor will be more or less what goes to the printer. It was pretty close to that with the first one, but considering the ambitious undertaking that this second one has turned out to be, I may not be so lucky this time.

So I feel for you on that twelve-page memo. But I have no doubt that you'll pull it all together in the end.

ab said...

I'm on my fourth novel. The greatest revision an editor ever made me do was change a whole finished book from first person to third. It made sense, but it was not painless.

I tend to revise as I go along, I love doing that. Often start a writing session by going back and discovering things that need polishing or even drastic rewrites. If I chuck something out, I keep it in case I change my mind.

When the work is done, the editorial process is pure torture. Like many of you state I'm done, it's over, going back feels unnatural. Also, it is a real pain in the neck to have to explain outright subtle things that have to do with atmosphere and ambience. I sort of lose my grip on the work and it risks getting rewritten in the bland language of "editorese". I can see in other people's books when that is happening.

But some of the scrutiny is truly necessary, because I tend do make some standard mistakes and overuse certain words. Truth be told though, I am not looking forward to the next period of looking at editor's notes. It's like being sprayed with DDT!

JT Ellison said...

I do a combo of draft and revisions. I don't outline, so every once in a while, I have to stop, print, and catch myself up -- then jot a few notes about where to go.

I've always subscribed to the addage "Just get the story down, you can go back and fill in the superfluous bullshit later."

(That was courtesy of my dad -- it was some of the best advice I've ever gotten)

But I do love revisions. It means I've accomplished something -- and that's always a good thing.