I should confess that I have never been a fan of revision. I preach to my students about its importance, but I am loath to embark on it myself. I want what I write to be right the first time. A creative writing professor once suggested I’d finally written a decent short story, but he thought it needed a few more drafts. I told him I didn’t like to revise. I said, in defense of my stance: “I like first drafts; there’s a virginal quality to them.” I actually used that word: virginal. I was that dumb. 

That professor, Alan Weisman, who is now a famous writer (The World Without Us and Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth), was kind enough not to guffaw. I think he smiled, and then told me when to have the next draft in his faculty mailbox. A year later, just before my graduation from Prescott College, Weisman said: “Melanie, don’t sit back on your potential.” It was good advice. I knew I had potential; he thought so, too. I thought potential was enough; he knew otherwise. Many times in the 27 years since that conversation, I’ve had to remind myself of his closing words to me. Not revising an essay, story, memoir, or novel is the equivalent of letting that piece of writing sit back on its potential. Quick way not to get published: market all your work in its virginal state.

In some cases, these days, I would much rather revise than go through the turmoil of generating new material--of inventing something new. Revision, once you have a solid first draft, can be so much easier than birthing virgins. But my resistance still shows up, in the writing scenarios that are the hardest. Case in point: a book-length memoir I wrote that was accepted by a small press, Outpost19, on the condition I do some fairly major revisions, which includes generating several new chapters. During a residency at Playa, in August of 2012, I tried, really hard, for three weeks. While I did develop a couple new chapters that I like, I decided the whole book might need a humongous overhaul. Maybe I needed to start with these new chapters I’d just written, letting their the tone and voice dictate the book’s reincarnation. One thing I tell students about revision is to think of it as re-seeing. I tell them sometimes revision means starting over and seeing the whole thing anew. They never like that advice; I watch their faces fall. Now, faced myself with the job of re-seeing the memoir, I’ve been stymied and mute for more than a year.

But having been writing and publishing for over two decades now, I am proud to realize how many drafts I’ve tackled of any given piece. I wrote three drafts of one screenplay (Hurricane Season), and five drafts of another (The Makeover), and three of an adaptation (Antlers). I have written at least three and at most ten drafts of every story in my short story cycle, Home for Wayward Girls. Two novellas I wrote in the last three years (Eklepsi and Friday Night in America) each underwent multiple revisions, and one of them still appears on my laptop as FNIA, Ending One, and FNIA, Ending Two. By the time it gets published, I hope to know which ending is right.

My young adult novel My So-Called Ruined Life, just released from Torrey House Press, had an unusual revision trajectory. I wrote the book, revised a couple of times, and submitted some chapters to Milkweed Press. An editor there liked what he’d read and asked to see the rest. Milkweed has a 200-page limit for the young adult genre, so I pruned my book down to 200 pages and sent it in. Several months later, that editor was laid off and the person above him ended up, after many more months, saying no thanks. The next place I sent the manuscript was Torrey House, and they accepted it, with the condition that I amp up the role of the environment in the protagonist’s life, to better address the press’s mission. I immediately knew what I would do, adding a chapter after the climax, and was eager to reenter the world of Tate McCoy without the page restriction. That one chapter turned into four, and they are now my favorite chapters in the book. Such a happy revision tale!

Still much later, my editor there scheduled what was to be a 90-minute conference call/developmental edit. Ninety minutes stretched to over two hours, and the notes I took filled nine notebook pages. It is safe to say I freaked out. I had been under the mistaken impression that since my development of the nature chapters, the book was done. I was aghast to hear how much the editor still wanted me to do. We’d already sent the manuscript out to half a dozen authors for blurbs; how could it be that I would be expected to change it substantially at this juncture? As much as I loved this Tate McCoy girl I’d invented, I dreaded going back into revision mode. I was dreaming up Book Two of the Tate McCoy series, and couldn’t conceive of doing such substantive work on Book One. I put away the notes from the call, and spent the evening complaining to my husband: Why are they making me do this? I’d had several teenagers—kids of friends—read the book and they liked it. Why fix what isn’t broken?

The next day I reread the notes and they no longer came across as extreme. I saw patterns in the suggestions and was able to categorize the notes so that the job looked manageable. I had a month-long retreat coming up, in a remote cabin in the Santa Cruz redwoods, and I could deal with these revisions there. In the end, it took only eight days—four days of the first week and four of the second—and I had a new draft that addressed the entirety of those nine pages of notes. And the book was again a much better book for those eight days spent.

Since this is my most recent experience with revision, I’m a fan of it right now. Revision has been good to me, has done exactly what it’s supposed to do—allowed me to re-see. I will always wish writing was easier than it actually is. I will wish my first drafts, those lovely virgins, would be deemed brilliant. Flawless. Don’t change a single word! I’d be one of those writers who lets things gestate just long enough in her head to have them come out on paper perfect. I do have one short story that pretty much wrote itself, and soared through MFA workshop, won an award, and then helped me win a year-long screenwriting fellowship. So I’m not saying it can’t happen—these pure and gorgeous virgins landing on the page. But it’s rare. Count on having to work your stories over. And over. You are the pestering partner, always wanting more.  

For more info on Melanie Bishop's My So-Called Ruined Life, visit: http://torreyhouse.com/press-room/my-so-called-ruined-life-by-melan...

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Comment by Maretha Menichini Botha on January 31, 2014 at 3:08am

That's so true, Holly.  My problem is course, not really knowing when enough is enough, but I suppose as time goes by one gets more experienced at getting "things just right."

Comment by Holly Welker on January 30, 2014 at 7:04pm

I love revision and always have!  It's where most of the fun is for me.  I like trying to get things just right. 

Comment by Maretha Menichini Botha on January 29, 2014 at 12:09pm

Thank you for your advice about not letting your manuscript be seen and or sent to an agent or publisher in its "virginal state"  - whoa, did I learn the hard way.  One rejection after the other.  Now, I've just decided to let things happen and revise and rewrite ( I wrote a complete seven chapter new introduction to a children's series).  The long hours nearly killed my eyesight, but I feel that I've finally reached the next stage and feel more confident to procede from here.  Blogs like yours, have helped me to stay level-headed and not to get too anxious when things don't happen immediately.  :-)

Comment by Melanie Bishop on January 14, 2014 at 12:15pm

Patricia, I don't think we're ever "done" really. A piece can always get better, tighter, more precise, but we surrender at some point, and say that it's good enough to be circulating it. Even this blog post has been revised a few times since I first posted it, once for reposting on marginalia, the blog of draft, the journal of process, and then to be eligible to be featured on SheWrites, had to get it from 1690 words down to 1200. Almost always, I find, when I'm forced to shorten something, it just improves. Gets distilled down to something more essential. When forced to nix stuff, if you can nix a paragraph, well maybe that paragraph never needed to be there in the first place.

Comment by Patricia Robertson on January 14, 2014 at 11:40am
I struggle with revisions too. Sometimes feels like I spend one morning changing something just to come back in the afternoon to change it back. How do you know you are done?

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