5 Thoughts on Revision

So while working on the recent revision post for the League of Extraordinary Writers I realized I had more to say on the subject than could fit on one post. 

Here's the deal. I'm deep in revisions now, trying to turn a rough draft of a new novel into something I won't be horrified to show to someone else (namely my wife/agent/editors) so I'm a little revision obsessed right now.

Over on the league blog I wrote about approaching revision like triage. Start with one or two of the most central changes you need to make and then work down from there. I also had a few other random thoughts about revision I thought might be worth mentioning.

1. Don't be afraid to ask people what they liked. Too often I see feedback seekers asking people to "be brutal" and to "tear their work apart." They seem to regard getting praise as ego stroking. It's not. Sure, it's important to get unvarnished opinions about your work, but if you want a clear and balanced understanding of what you've written you need to know what's working just as much as what isn't. I can't tell you how many times I've had people point out some aspect of my work really resonated with them and it was something I never would have guessed. Finding out that an unexpected element in your book is really working can take you in new and exciting directions. Added bonus: if you know something is awesome you won't make the mistake of cutting it. 

2. Ask one question. When asking folks for feedback I have one question that I ask every single time without fail. First, I write down everything they have to say and then I ask:

"If you could give me only one single note, what would it be?"

I find the question forces people to think deeply about the work and weigh major and minor concerns. I think the answer to this one question can really help focus a rewrite. 

3. Run Away! After you receive feedback put it, and the book, away for as long as humanly possible. The best scenario is to get involved in another project entirely while you're mulling feedback. Write a short story, start a first draft of something else, pursue a hobby, anything that will take up all your brain power. In an ideal word you'll come back to your work in progress and it will seem just slightly alien to you. You want distance, from your writing and the notes you got on it, so you can approach a rewrite objectively.

4. To hell with Faulkner. We all know and love Faulkner's (or was it Hemingway's? Or Twain's? Or Sir Arther Quiller Couch's? ) quote about killing our darlings. The exhortation to find your favorite, most loved bits of writing and brutally cut them sounds satisfyingly bad ass,  but there's a real danger there. Sometimes a piece of writing that seems superfluous in one spot is absolutely essential in another. Or sometimes what looks extraneous only seems that way because you need to build to it better. The point is that, yes, there are times you need to be brutal with your cutting, but don't start cutting willy nilly. If you love a bit there's a good chance your audience will too so try to make it work. Tweak it, move it, build to it differently and then, and only then, if it doesn't work, then you kill it. 

5.You're not a writer, you're a sculptor. Here's a quote by Michaelangelo that I love and always think about when I'm writing a rough draft.

"In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me... I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it...."

To my mind, when you sit down to write that off-the-top-of-your-head rough draft you're not really writing a book. You're creating the raw material for a book. You're making your block of marble. You'll chip it into a sculpture later. So throw every wild idea you have in there. Over write like crazy. Go down a hundred blind alleys. Be as creative as you can be. Once it'd done and you get some feedback, and you get a little distance from it, you'll be able to see the "lovely apparition" that rests inside. Then all you gotta do is bring it out. How about y'all? Any revision words of wisdom you can share?