Tag Archives: revision

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Revision

 

Fair warning: this post is not political. It is for all the writers out there who hate revising their work.

Guys, I know the feeling. You labor over something for weeks, months, even years, and when you reach the end, or what you think is the end, it’s so very tempting to stop, put down your pen or push aside your keyboard, and break out the champagne. You love what you’ve written, if only because (1) it’s finished and (2) it meets your expectations, which, let’s be honest, have been systematically lowered throughout the duration of your project. The last thing you want to do is pick over every word and line you’ve sweated over in a pointless effort to tear it apart.

I used to feel that way, too. In fact, I suppose a pretty substantial part of me still does. But today, on the eve of 2017, at the end of a year that so many people are calling a very bad year, if not a catastrophic one, I pause in my own revision work to offer other writers a new way of looking at revision.

I am learning to love this part of writing, because I see it as a perfect marriage between creativity and analysis. Note that I am  using the word “analysis,” not the word “criticism,” because that’s too negative for what I think we do in revision. The job of revision is to help make something better, not to tear it apart. (Tearing it apart should come later, during the critical review, but only in as much as the critic must tear something apart in order to see what it’s made of and how it works. A good critic will always put the work back together again after she does the work of criticism.)

My secret to loving revision, then, is this: Revising a work must involve a willing, enthusiastic attitude. The writer must regard the task of revising with excitement, because it is this part of writing that really shows the essence of craftsmanship, that separates those who write for fun (whether they are published authors or not) from those who write because they are compelled to do so. But how can a writer change their attitude about this pain-in-the-ass time sink? I’ve devised a very simple solution. Instead of hoping that your work contains few mistakes and needs minimal revision, you should assume that it houses many mistakes, some of them not easy to find. Rather than bewailing the need to revise, growing bored and frustrated with finding topical errors, learn to use revision as a sonar device to locate the buried as well as the superficial mistakes. Once found, even deep mistakes are usually fairly easy to fix–much easier to fix than most writers would think. I’ve found that when you let go of the inherent desire not to have to fix something and give yourself over to the idea that fixing it is not only a good thing to do, but an entertaining and satisfying aspect of the nature of the job, revision loses its drudgery. It becomes a pleasant and in some ways delightful stage in the work of creation, and it invites the best use of problem-solving tactics–and creativity–a writer possesses.

There you have it. Stop avoiding revision. (You know you have.) Change your attitude–for real. Love revision and all it offers. Because it’s revision, and not the mere act of writing itself, that makes us real artists. Any third-grader can write. Only a real writer has the ability, and the drive, to revise.

–Offered on this last day of 2016 with a minimum of revision

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Why I’m Trashing My Novel

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Sometimes when you write a draft of a story in your head, you go back and read it and see all the flaws in it. That’s normal; artists rarely produce good work on the first g0-round–although there is that story about Mozart showing his latest score to Salieri, who asked to see the rough copy. Mozart replied that he was looking at the rough copy. When Salieri asked where the cross-outs and emendations were, Mozart stared at him, puzzled. “The mistakes!” said Salieri, losing patience with his young colleague. “Where’s the copy with all the mistakes?” Mozart looked at him in amazement, and finally said, “Why on earth would I want to make mistakes?”

See what I did there? In an essay about writing and revising, I inserted a little story. It’s not original–I picked it up somewhere, probably from my music teacher. And it may not even be very good. But the point is that most people, other than Mozart, make mistakes as they write their stories, and that’s what revision is for. However, every once in a while you read what you’ve written, and you say to yourself that you just can’t go on with it. There can be many reasons for this: flawed writing, trouble with dialogue, problematic plots. But when you’re thoughtful and intentional about writing (which may itself be a problem in producing a story), you analyze what went wrong. It probably won’t help the draft you’re contemplating–you’ll probably still have to relegate it to the trash pile–but it may help you from making the same mistake again. In the hope of helping other writers out there, I thought I’d offer this bit of advice to those writers who have decided to end the struggle.

Before I offer it, however, I’d like to say that all would-be novelists who pull the plug on their novels should be thanked, even celebrated, for their decision. There are far too many novels out there, and those of us who decide to shit-can ours are doing a favor for our friends and family members, and for the unsuspecting public who might actually buy our poorly written and executed novels. We should be lauded, not pitied, for our decision to end the struggle. We are doing a service to readers by not adding to the morass of bad literature already cluttering up our bookshelves. Our self-denial is somewhat heroic.

But all this aside, I believe that good stories should have two qualities: they should be interesting, and they should be authentic.

What does this mean? “Interesting” is easy enough to define: a story should be intriguing enough to make us want to know more. What happens next? Who does what to whom? Yet it’s good to realize that “interesting” is a quality that will vary from reader to reader. My husband may find dramas with lots of explosions and bloody confrontations interesting, but they put me to sleep. I find Victorian novels delightful, yet he has never made it through one yet. “Interesting” is so relative a term that we will just leave it out here for other critics to dissect.

“Authentic” is another matter altogether, although it is just as difficult to define. It bears no relation to reality; rather, it is connected to Hemingway’s dictum that a writer must write “one true sentence” to be successful. By “authentic,” then, I mean that  the writer must be true to herself. This is much harder said than done. You have to put yourself into your writing, which is often uncomfortable and scary, because you can’t hide behind the writing. You have to reach into yourself and lay it on the line, and that in itself is so much harder than simply telling a story. My little story about Mozart above may be interesting (to some), for example, and it is authentic enough for its purpose (to illustrate a point), but it’s not really authentic because there’s too little at stake in the telling of it.

My aborted novel contains some seventy pages. On reading it, I found that it has an interesting idea, but it fails the authenticity test. It’s not “true” enough; I haven’t invested enough into the telling of the story. I might have been able to fool some readers into thinking it was authentic, but there are too many books out there that are authentic to try to produce one that fails in this category. And these days, those of us who self publish must be especially vigilant; there are already enough books in the world that need to be read, so why add to the chaos?

I may take up my idea again and try to make a novel out of it, but for now, I’ve learned my lesson, which is that writers have to strive for authenticity in their narratives. And that, I think, is an important enough lesson to share with others.

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In Praise of Lost Work

Every semester, I have students come to me with anguished faces: their work is lost, sent into cyber-oblivion by an ill-timed and unexpected computer shut-down. I take a moment to sympathize with them; although I am a professor, that doesn’t make me a monster who deals and delights in schadenfreude. But I don’t allow the pity party to continue very long. Buck up, I tell them. You wrote that paper once; you can write it again, certainly. They look at me like I’m crazy. “What? Write the whole thing again? Do you know how long it took me to write it in the first place?” I shrug, unimpressed by their misery, and that’s where the trouble starts, and why it’s important for me to take this opportunity to make my point clear.

I know what it’s like to lose an important piece of work. Over the past five years, I’ve had at least as many computer melt-downs. The IT people at my college have begun to look at me with suspicion, in fact, because I have had so many catastrophic computer failures. Maybe that’s why I’ve become pretty blase about lost work; it’s also why I have an external hard drive that I use frequently, why I save my work all the time, and why I often email myself multiple copies of important files. But the truth is that some of what we lose is not worth saving. Sometimes it’s good to lose things–and not only because it builds character. When I point this out to my students, they begin to protest, and then I take them through a tour of lost literary works.

Two examples: Some of us may have labored through Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution: A History (published in 1837), which he worked on for well over three years before giving  it to his friend John Stuart Mill to read before publication. Like any good writer, Carlyle wanted feedback from his respected colleague. Unfortunately, Mill’s chamber maid, who was illiterate, mistook the manuscript for a pile of used paper, with which she started Mill’s bedroom fire. Here is a rather whimsical picture of the tragedy by an unknown Japanese artist:

Image from "The French Revolution: A History," in Wikipedia

Image from “The French Revolution: A History,” in Wikipedia

Carlyle didn’t sit and bewail his fate, nor did the sad event destroy his friendship with Mill. Instead, keeping in step with his own philosophy, Carlyle sat down and wrote the whole damn thing again–all three volumes of it. The French Revolution: A History went on to become, if not a best-seller, a well respected work that made Carlyle’s reputation. Charles Dickens used it (as well as a wheelbarrow-load of other sources delivered by Carlyle himself) when he wrote A Tale of Two Cities.

Of course, another excellent, and more recent, example of lost work is that of Ernest Hemingway, whose wife Hadley lost an entire suitcase of Hemingway’s work in 1922 while traveling to meet him in Geneva. She had wanted to surprise him by bringing all of his work with her so he could work on it while in Geneva; unfortunately, it went missing in the Gare de Lyon. Only a few, previously published, works survive from before this period as a result. Some scholars believe Hemingway, who took the next train back to Paris to double-check for carbon copies in his apartment (there were none–Hadley had brought them, too), blamed his wife; they feel this may have been the first rupture in a marriage that was destined to end some three years later. However, the couple look pretty happy in this picture, apparently taken a short time after the incident:

Ernest and Hadley, in Chamby, Switzerland, 1922. From Wikipedia.org

 

The truth is that Hemingway set out to replace those stories with others, and now, so many years later, we feel no sense of loss at their disappearance–only a mild curiosity and bemusement, as well as admiration for a writer who, faced with the loss of a great dea of his work, set out to recreate it, and, with characteristic courage and determination, to surpass it in quality.

I hope all my readers understand what this means. Losing a manuscript, or a document, or a whole slew of documents, isn’t the end of the world. Sometimes, it can even be a good thing.

In addition, it means that somewhere in Paris, in some old  grenier or cave,  is a valise full of first-edition Hemingway stories, and they’re probably worth millions.

Stock image from http://thumbs.dreamstime.com/z/old-valise-15409839.jpg

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