I’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.
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.
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?
Revision 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.