Revising is Hard, But Not in the Way I Expected

Keep calm and revise onI’ve now been actively revising my WIP for about three-and-a-half months.

I have to admit, I haven’t progressed nearly as far as I’d anticipated, to date having reworked only seven chapters out of a total 31.  And that’s not counting the fact I have to go over chapters 1-3 all over again.

Long before I actually started revising, I had the goal of completing a chapter a week, which would see me finishing this entire draft around the end of August.

To be fair, I could still make it – not all of my chapters require the same amount of repair as the early ones.  Plus, I could increase my pace the further along I go as I get better at this in general.

But in truth, this goal of mine didn’t really account for my other obligations that will prevent me from maintaining my customary writing schedule: overtime, volunteer commitments, socializing, income taxes, vacation.

So at this time, I’ll suffice it to say I’ll be finished this draft when I finish.  I continue to make progress, which itself is something.

A commenter on a previous post about my revision stated that it’s just work and I know how to do work, which is very true.  And the harder the work, the greater the sense of achievement at the end of it.

But it is difficult, revising is, though not entirely in the way I expected.  I can wrestle with the words and ideas as much as needed and gradually they do take some sort of workable shape.

The much more challenging battle, however, has been with my own perception of what I’m doing.

A war of one

Revising, I’ve truly come to discover, is a mental battle with oneself.

The actual drafting of a novel, by comparison, is a carnival free-for-all.  Anything that seemed like it was even remotely a good idea at the time made its way into the first draft.

To be sure, I did have an overarching narrative in mind while drafting, as well as an outline that I (more or less) followed – thematically, if nothing else – and a clear sense of both where I was going and what it would look like when I finally got there.

However, my motto to myself when writing, much like the first rule of improvisational acting, is Always say yes.”  That is to say, when I’m not quite sure what to write next, I’ll work with what comes to me in the moment to see where the idea takes me.

(Sometimes, it takes me pretty quickly to the delete key.  Sometimes it takes me to a place where I’m still not certain but its good enough for the time being.  And sometimes, magically, it takes me exactly where I was going all along.)

Revising, however, is a stage of writing that involves calling everything that currently exists into question.  As a result of this, I find myself, unsurprisingly, questioning everything.

But not always, or even mostly always, in a good way.  I agree it’s important to be critical of your work, but lately I’ve found myself being critical of my work.

I’ve found myself questioning whether it’s even any good – whether it’s interesting; whether anyone other than friends who love me and family wondering what exactly I’ve spent so many years on (and still am not yet done) will even care.

Questioning whether those years gone by and years to come are just so much time wasted.

The Six Million Dollar Man

Test-pilot Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man

This is such a novel experience for me.  Self-doubt, I know, is something that many writers face, but I can honestly say it’s never afflicted me before.

This isn’t to say I’ve never believed something I wrote wasn’t good, for I have – many times.  But always, I’ve believed I could fix whatever was wrong with it.  To quote the famous line from the 1970s TV series The Six Million Dollar Man,

We can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him better than he was. Better, stronger, faster.

I’ve also written things I thought, though rough, were pretty darn good.  I did a lot of writing in my teens that I’d look back upon a year or two later and want to burn.  But gradually, with increased age and experience, this began to change.

Whether rightly or wrongly, either “Wow, I wrote that?” – or the aforementioned “I can totally work with this” – has been my reaction to my writing ever since.

Until now.

Commitment issues

I think my self-doubt is owing to a few different sources.

For one, this is the first time I’ve ever worked a piece with any sort of perceived audience other than myself.

This is a book I want to share with the world – the one I want to launch my writing career.  I plan to submit this book to agents when it’s eventually ready, and the premonition of what they might say or not say about it is definitely a whispering presence in my mind.

Another factor is that the revision process is really giving light to the artistic choices I didn’t make – the roads I didn’t travel within the narrative.  The possibilities that become more and more impossible the further along I go.

Revision is about, among other things, making a work more cohesive, more internally consistent with itself, and more directive towards a not totally expected yet still inevitable conclusion.  With every decision made in a story about what does happen, this closes the door on any number of other things that could have happened but didn’t.

But what if I made a wrong choice?

The revision processRevision forces you to commit to a single version of the story, which, frankly, is kind of terrifying.  Of course, there’s nothing to stop me from changing the story in subsequent drafts – and no doubt I’ll have to, at least to some extent.

However large scale changes to the core of the story several drafts in requires a lot of effort.  Call me naive or lazy or delusional or something, but I’m expecting each draft I complete to ultimately require less work than the one that came before it.

I might be completely wrong in this presumption.

Revising my mindset

Either way, the pressure is definitely on in this revision, but I recognize a lot of that is self-induced.

Rather than talking myself down with doubts that people won’t like my work or that I’ll be swamped in endless drafts and never actually finish, I instead need to focus on the work itself and put the judgment of it aside until my current draft is actually complete.

In the sporting world, a lot of attention is paid to an athlete’s mental game.  I believe the mental game of writers is an important consideration as well.

For me, while drafting, my greatest asset was my discipline and ability to show up every day at the page.  I need to retain this discipline while revising as well, for the time being focusing more on the quantity of my work rather than trying to evaluate its objective quality.

And if I’m lucky, the words of Canadian short story writer Nancy Lee – “You can’t conceive of an idea you’re unable to execute.  It was your idea.” – will prove all too true in the end.

Writers, do you find revision difficult?  More difficult than writing the first draft?  Why or why not?  Let me know in the comments.

(Image source #1, #2, and #3)

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9 thoughts on “Revising is Hard, But Not in the Way I Expected

  1. First drafts are fun. Second drafts are hell.

    I don’t know if I’m in a position to give you advice, but I’m going to do it anyway: Commit to the story. If you find yourself chasing dragons, trying to make it the masterpiece you’re sure is hiding in there somewhere, you will never finish. You may even get lost, run out of gas, and have to hitch-hike home. Edit the story you have, not the one you think you maybe possibly could turn it into.

    Outside of poetry, I’ve done just about every kind of writing there is. Fiction is by far the hardest.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You know I’ll always entertain writing advice from you, and this particular advice is well-received indeed. 🙂

      I have, I think, finally managed to settle upon a version of the story. From there, rather than interpreting commitment as the shutting down of possibilities, it’s more so become a drive towards creating a single, coherent product, i.e. not two halves of two different stories. Ultimately, I decided that at the end of this draft, I’d rather have a version I don’t like but still works than a patchwork of many different versions that’s unreadable. (Actually what I want is a cohesive version that I love, so that is the endpoint I’ve visualizing as I keep working.)

      You should totally write some poetry. It could well be the medium you never knew you needed in your life.

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  2. What he said. I’ll add: if you’re really confused about its worth, read a chapter out aloud. This will find and help fix those problems of syntax and grammar, and will show up any glaring horrors with style. If it passes the reading out aloud test, it’s ok. Revising is hell but it’s where the real writing craft starts. Good luck!

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    • Thanks, Jess! Reading out loud is a valuable step I’ll definitely take (or as someone suggested in a previous post, getting screen-reading software to do it for me). That probably won’t happen with this draft though, as most of my work right now is structural: stripping away the excess to get at the meat of the story underneath.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You are merely paying for your previous choice: Always say yes. You will decide, after you get this published, whether that works for you in general. Otherwise, you may decide to prune sooner in future books. Until you try, you don’t know how you work, so it’s all learning.

    The real advantage to planning and outlining (or whatever system you use) is that you don’t even bother to keep or try the things that don’t make it past the sniff test: will this smell right in the final version. For me, doing this in advance clarifies the story.

    When I’m revising, I know the story ‘truth’ – what actually happened in that universe at that time with those characters – and that gives me a comparison for each bit.

    Ideas come like water from a firehose – you will have to accept some and reject others at some point – and you, the writer, gets to decide when.

    It could be you wouldn’t get as many good idea to choose from if you limited the process up front. And only you can tell how much you hate cutting stuff you like later in the game.

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    • I’m definitely still trying to learn what my method of success will be – only time and more practice with more books will reveal that – although one concern I have with doing too rigorous an outlining process up front is that I’d later become too resistant to cutting anything. It’s about finding that balance between fear of commitment and over-commitment I’ve been lucky so far that everything I’ve cut has immediately jumped out at me as not need to be there. But then, this is only draft 2; the harder cutting will no doubt come later.

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  4. Interesting to read how other writers approach their revisions. As I’ve noted before I more or less always go with my first draft with a light edit, and be damned. I’ve no wish to be commercial so I can be cavalier, but also I can’t be bothered wrestling with the thing for weeks and months. So I entirely see what Eric ^^ is saying, and good advice from Jess ^^ as well. (I wouldn’t presume to advise anyone else though.)

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    • Having never done this before for a project this long, I’m just doing what seems like a good idea and hoping (praying?) it all goes well. I don’t mind a bit of wrestling with this, as I knew going in it had a lot of problems (not the least of which is being the wrong genre) that wouldn’t be solved by only light editing. We’ll see how I make out as I continue on.

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