Revision: Highs and Lows

Back in February I posted about the revision process and my doubts going into it. I made the mistake of going back to look at earlier chapters while I was still writing the end parts of my first book. In my defense I took an overly long break between periods of writing, so I needed to refresh myself on my story. But when I went back I saw with horror that some of what I had written didn’t belong in the story anymore. I ripped it out, despite loving those few chapters. It was painful but necessary. Now I have a complete first draft (it’s still awful Smile) and I’m revising it into a slightly better second draft. There’s so much that needs to be done before it can go into line edits and be ready for anyone else to see it. I want to share some of the ups and downs of this process. It’s my first time through it and I’m finding some interesting things about the whole process.

As I began, I asked myself: What does it mean to revise? I pulled out an ancient dictionary and looked it up. (If you go back to 1997 and find fourth grader me, I’ll most likely be found lying on the floor with an open dictionary, learning new words.)

revise: [<Fr. <L.<re-, back + visere, to survey, freq. of videre, to see] 1. to read (a manuscript, etc.) over carefully and correct and improve it 2. to change or amend*

*Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Languange, 2nd Concise Ed., 1978

There you have it. Revision is the act of surveying what’s been written and changing it for the better. To review, to re-see the story with new eyes. That’s why many writers recommend putting the first draft away for a while before revising. It’s easier to make brutal changes with distance from the creative part of the process. So here I am, fixing what’s gone wrong, tightening the focus of the narrative and otherwise wreaking havoc on what I’ve written. I left those two chapters out that I cut in February. That turned out to be the right decision. It also left a knocked down domino trail of narrative scraps for me to find and clean up. I’m approaching this challenge as a scavenger hunt, looking for all the weird loose ends removing those two chapters left. I found that pulling those chapters out made two characters that exist in other chapters entirely unnecessary, so I pulled them out too. Now I have another series of changes to make to the narrative. It’s challenging, but I can feel the story getting cleaner and tighter, the characters that matter have more room to move and develop, I eliminated some points-of-view (who has time to keep track, honestly?), and everything makes more sense. I have to rework quite a few scenes, but most were awkward, and now the root cause of that unease is taken care of. Things should smooth out.

I’ll save the things I removed. They can be put to use in other stories, maybe. A character name, a personality, a scene, tension, or conflict, anything in the discard pile is fair game for use later. What matters now is revising this current story into its optimal form. It won’t be perfect, that’s impossible, but it will be better. Maybe it will be good enough to share with others, maybe not. But I will have learned more about writing and revising and the work and care it takes. So far, I’m enjoying the journey. I think I’d like to do it again sometime.