Right before coming to Maine to spend a week with my parents, I finished a revision on my work in progress. Certain types of revisions, I find, tend to recur again and again. In this case, the revision was the sort where you make small changes to the first third of the book, moderate changes to the middle third, and completely rewrite the last third. This is basically the kind of revision you engage in when, during the drafting process, you had a decent start and then went completely off the rails. It’s the opposite of the kind of revision, also common, where you completely rewrite the first act and leave the last two acts untouched. In one case, you lost track of the soul of the book and need to find it again, and in the other case you found the soul of the book but you only found it partway through the drafting process so now you need to go back to the beginning and pretend like you had it all along.
I was pretty happy with this revision, and I thought I’d make just a few corrections throughout the text and then I’d send it out to readers (right now nobody aside from me has read the book). However I realized as I was reading through the book again, literally as I was reading the first two pages, that there are things I’ve never liked about the main love interest. I’ve tried to handwave these flaws in my conception of her (she’s too perfect, for one thing), but they’ve never run true. She’s just not what she could be.
So for the past week I’ve been doing some brainstorming, trying to reconceive her. And that in turn meant reconceiving the third major character (not the protagonist, but the second most important male character). And now that those two characters are different, all their relationships with all of the other characters are different.
And this is a type of revision I’ve never done before. A relationship-oriented revision. I mean, I did a version of this for Enter Title Here, where I spent a lot of time working with my editor, Kieran, to make sure Reshma’s relationship with the best friend character, Alex, rang true. But ultimately that was a fairly small part of the book, and this is not. This is the core of the book.
I think I know what I’m doing. Or at least, I understand these characters to a much better degree. And I think I can start at the beginning and systematically rewrite all their interactions, and then, I don’t know, see how that affects the rest of the book. I actually don’t think I’ll need to change much of the plot.
What’s interesting is that as you write a book you often have, on some intuitive level, a sense for what needs to go in each place. And even if you aren’t quite able to craft each element correctly, you’ll end up creating a void that is perfect. Oftentimes in early drafts of books you’ll have people acting irrationally, and it’s only when you go back and tweak something that you find that they were rational the entire time: it’s simply that you hadn’t yet put onto the page the reason that your subconscious knew needed to exist all along.
In the same way, in the current draft I have characters reacting in certain ways to other characters–feeling a strong connection to them, basically–that is not merited by the text. As written, the characters just aren’t compelling in the ways they need to be. But because the book acts as if they are, the process of revising them is much simplified.
Ever since signing with an agent way back in April, my novel has been chugging through revisions. They haven’t been particularly major ones, but the novel has been much improved by alterations to portions of the backstory that had previously felt a bit thin or implausible. I have to say, working with an agent is really weird: it completely changes the emotional arc of writing a novel.
When you’re unrepresented, finishing a novel or story is an act of faith. It’s an assertion that this is done. And it’s a pretty major deal. No one is ever going to tell you that something is done. You’re never going to send it out to readers but that they’ll send it back with a bunch of suggestions. One of the main dangers that faces a writer is that they’ll never reach a place where they’re ready to let go of a novel. And one of the main fears of a writer is that they’ve sent out the work too soon.
When I first submitted this novel (which is, to date, the only one that I’ve completely finished), in my mind it was done. I’d swept through it five times. I’d sent it out to readers and revised according to their comments. I’d gone through it sentence by sentence, tightening every line. And it was time to send it out. Jesus, I think that was back in December of 2011. So long ago.
My agent has a stake in it too. He won’t send it out to editors until he feels comfortable with it. And since I can’t submit it without his help, the responsibility for saying it’s done has, in a way, been transferred to him.
There’s something very comfortable about that, actually. I never thought it was possible to shift the emotional burden of composition in this way. I’m sure that in some ways it’s a bad thing. One can easily imagine some awful wrangling over edits. One can easily imagine novels held up and careers stunted because of artistic disagreements between writer and agent.
However, for this particular novel, I haven’t had any complaints with the (pages upon pages) of edits that I’ve received. (Actually, they’ve been really insightful). So the situation is actually pretty nice. I still have to do the writing, but I don’t have to do as much of the worrying.
(On a sidenote, this is the kind of post that you don’t normally see on author blogs, which makes me wonder if I’ve somehow strayed into a topic that we’re not supposed to talk about. However, I can’t see any reason why that would be. But if I’m committing a horrible faux paux, I expect one of you to tell me!)
For the past few days, I’ve been revising last year’s stories and sending them out into the world. (Although…actually…I might need to stop for awhile, because I’ve run out of places to send them.) The revising hasn’t been too extensive. Actually, I’ve made a conscious effort to start doing less revising.
Before I finish the first draft of a story, I usually put it through 3-5 (and, in some cases, many more) rewrites. During these rewrites, everything is up for change: the setting, the characters, the motivations, the order of the scenes. But once I write the final word of a story, I rarely feel the desire to change much of anything.
This isn’t because these stories are perfect. I’ve put enough “finished” stories through workshops to know that sometimes I can be very satisfied with what is actually a very flawed story. And it’s not uncommon for me to get a revision request from an editor that makes me smack my head and say, “My god. Of course. This makes so much sense.” For instance, the story that I recently sold to GigaNotaSaurus was one that I put an incredible amount of effort into. I rewrote it several times and put it through a workshop and then revised it significantly again. And then I spent the better part of $2,000 to send it out to a number of MFA programs as part of my application. But after I got a revision request from Ann Leckie, its flaws seemed so intuitively obvious to me that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed them before. I took a long walk, hatched a plot for revision, spent a day rewriting the story, and significantly improved it.
But I’m also not disappointed that I didn’t put more time into it a year ago. I had worked on it for long enough that I no longer saw any flaws in it. And I don’t believe in putting a story through critique too many times. I notice that the stories I am most tempted to revise again and again are the ones that I love the best. There’s a talismanic quality to this desire: by revising it over and over, I try to forestall all possible objections to the story and to ensure that editors will buy it.
But that doesn’t work. No matter how much I revise a story and no matter how much I love it, I can’t make editors buy it. Stories don’t succeed by being perfect. They succeed by being startling and thought-provoking and beautiful. And my belief is that most of the aesthetic goodness of a story is pretty much sealed into it from the moment that I finish the first draft. I don’t mind revising a story, but I don’t really see the point of it unless I am doing something to the story that, somehow, fundamentally alters its nature in a way that substantially affects its aesthetic qualities. And, usually, that’s not what I’m doing when I revise. Usually, I’m just polishing sentences or cutting words or adding a few explanations. It’s all silly stuff, and it’s pretty much just a time-waster.
I think there are only three kinds of revision that are really worth my time:
- Cutting 10% or more of the words in a story – I don’t do this often, but I should probably do it more. It’s a very good exercise. When I’m just idling through a story, I rarely cut much of anything. However, when I go into a story with the specific intention of cutting its word-count, I usually manage to find a number of things that could go. This might not improve the story as much as I think it should, but it’s definitely a good exercise, in terms of writing future stories.
- Changing the ending – In my first draft process, I usually write the beginning about 5-10 times, but I rarely write the ending more than twice. Because of this, sometimes my stories fall down at the end. If I’m dissatisfied with the ending, it’s not a terrible idea to change it to something that clicks a little better.
- A complete rewrite – Start with a blank page and start retyping it over again. However, if I’m going to do this with an already-drafted story, I usually need to start with a clear conception of what exactly is going to be different (how I’m going to change the characters, the situation, etc), or it usually ends up being mostly the same, which, to me, feels like a waste of time. Usually, I only rewrite completed stories if they’ve gone through a workshop, since workshop critique tends to reboot my vision of the story.
All the other kind of revising—the puttering and the polishing and the tweaking and such—seem, to me, to be of limited utility. It’s worth making one pass through the story to see what words you might want to add or change or what sections could use a little more description, but, mostly, these changes are invisible. They’re not going to affect whether or not the story sells.
I suppose it’s dreary of me to be concerned with stuff like “whether the story sells” rather than with aesthetic issues, but I do think that the aesthetic quality of my body of work is best served by limiting some kinds of revision. For whatever reason, some (most) stories are never going to sell. It doesn’t matter what I do to them, it’s just not going to happen—I don’t have the skill or vision to make that story work (or it’s so utterly ahead of its time that the marketplace is not ready for it). There’s really no point in spending all kinds of time working on these stories. It’d just be an exercise in frustration.
It’s tempting to stay back here with the stories I’ve already completed. I’m not one of those writers who is always dissatisfied with his own work. Sometimes I read a story I’ve written and am struck by its genius. I think, “My god, how did I ever manage to write something so amazing? I don’t think I will ever be able to match it. If this doesn’t sell, then nothing will.”
It takes effort to remind myself that this is false: the stories I am writing this year are better than the ones I wrote last year, and the ones I write next year will be better than the ones I am writing now. Now I just need to go ahead and write them.
Ever since late September, I’ve been writing iteratively: revising a story a half-dozen times before it’s even finished. And then I’ll often hold off on declaring it done until I’ve rewritten the ending a few times as well. The result is that by the time the first draft is complete, my stories have about as much revision as I am capable of giving them. Oh, they’re not flawless. If I subjected them to critique, I’d probably find alot more that I could do with them. But, generally, I’m satisfied with them. I often wait a few weeks, give them a few more passes for style and spelling, and then send them out.
This is not, however, the way that I always worked. I used to race through and complete a first draft as quickly as possible and then hold off on revising it for six to nine months (out of sheer inertia and lazineness). This system was tremendously annoying and also kind of silly, and I’m glad that I abandoned it.
However, I still have about 11 stories that I wrote under the old system, which have just been languishing for ages. I’ve seriously considering just not revising them and not submitting them. This prospect is a little tempting since nowadays I’m suffering from a relative lack of markets to submit to. I’m ineligible for Writers of the Future; I can’t submit to Strange Horizons because I’m reading slush there; and I can’t submit to Clarkesworld or Apex for a few more months because I’ve recently sold stories there. I know, I have a hard life, filled with terrible problems. But, anyway, it wouldn’t be entirely awful if I didn’t have as many stories coming to market as I usually do.
But I couldn’t just abandon the work like that. Some of these stories are actually not at all bad (my recent sale to Clarkesworld is a story that came from this period). So I think I’m going to spend the next month doing some intensive revision. Editors, beware….eleven steaming Kanakias are about to be dropped on your desks.
I’ve been revising a novelette recently (the longest work I’ve written [well…except for the novel]) and I came to a conclusion about cutting words. Usually I’ll be going through a work for the tenth or eleventh time and I’ll suddenly realize that an entire scene, or an entire exchange, can easily be dispensed with. This is quite vexing.
This time I purposefully decided to go through and cut two thousand words. But every time I came to a cuttable part, I generated a plethora of reasons not to cut it. So I decided to cut everything I thought was even a little bit cuttable, and then see whether I wanted to put it back in the next pass. It’s a good shortcut. It fools the part of the brain that is unimaginative, and can only imagine the story the way it currently is. But the way it currently is is not the best way. I remember writing the story. When I began it, I did not know how it would end, and I added in all kinds of little hooks that I hoped would lead to an ending. Sometimes it is hard to remember that.
That’s probably my biggest problem with stories. Once I finish them, I forget that they could have been any other way. I forget that the decision of what to put in was kind of arbitrary and almost unconscious, and that, if I asked it to, my unconscious could probably supply something entirely different to occupy every major and minor point in the story, from the largest plot-point to the littlest noun. I sometimes think that it is wrong of me to put my stories aside for a few months before revising them. When I finish a story, I should immediately go back to the beginning and start rewriting it before the clay has hardened.