Surviving the Revision Gauntlet

It’s no secret: revisions are extremely difficult for me. One of the things I dread most about finishing a project is the prospect of then having to begin revising it. It’s hard for me to identify precisely what it is about revisions that bothers me so much; sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of imperfect material that I have to slog through, while other times it’s a question of beating down my ego in order to recognize what is wheat and what is chaff, and how to separate the two.

Point is, revisions are not my favorite thing.

More often than not during the revisions process, I find myself staring at my manuscript until the black words marching across the page begin to swirl like ants being flushed down the toilet. I’ll force myself to tinker with a few sentences here and there, rearranging words without much confidence that any one phrase is better than another. And then I’ll give up, shuffling off to stab pencils into my eyes out of pure frustration.

But the first step is admitting you have a problem, right? So in an effort to get over this revisions mental block, I’m setting off to identify where my issues lie, and how to start overcoming those obstacles.

Switch from writer mode to reader mode. When you spend months pouring words out onto a page and living a story even as you weave it from nothing but pure imagination, it can be difficult to step away from the perspective of omniscient creator. I have to forget that I am the god of these characters, and this world, and begin to inhabit the perspective of a reader. Someone for whom a plot hole is extremely confusing, for whom pacing is the difference between finishing and quitting, for whom character incontinuities are annoying and off-putting. I have to learn how to be my own best critic.

Start small and move to the bigger picture slowly. It can be difficult to feel like you’re getting anywhere when all you’re doing is nitpicking over awkward sentences and improper grammar, especially when you know in the back of your head that there are plot holes waiting to be filled and characters waiting to be fleshed out. But if the language is clean and tight, free of grammar or spelling mistakes, it is so much easier to see macro-level problems. I have to learn to accept that correcting and polishing small mistakes is still productive, and will make it easier for me to see bigger problems in the long run.

Don’t be afraid to affect change, and don’t be afraid of its effect. As Shakespeare writes in The Tempest, ‘Nothing of him that doth fade/But doth suffer a sea-change/Into something rich and strange,’ meaning that just because the substance of something is transformed, the form can be retained. Often we instinctively want to protect the things we create, but that is a selfish and egotistic attitude. Mindful and conscientious change is nearly always a good thing. I have to remember that just because I’m altering something that I’ve previously created doesn’t mean that I’m not being true to the thing itself. Chances are, whatever I change will be just as good, if not better, than the original, and will still be my work.

It’s okay to love the bad parts, but that doesn’t mean you have to keep them. There are going to be times when a scene or a conversation personally speaks to you as a writer, but that you know doesn’t work in the story or slows the action. Cut it out, but keep it. I’ve started keeping a word documents with paragraph fragments or descriptions that I loved writing but that didn’t work in whatever project I was working on. You never know–you might find a perfect place for that sentence or description somewhere down the line, but it doesn’t have to be today.

Revisions will never be my favorite thing, and I still have a lot of work to do before I become more effective in the revision stage of a manuscript. But recognizing where my difficulties lie is the first step in learning how to streamline my process.

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