Throughout my childhood my mother gave me dolls and my father gave me puzzles: a typical parental dichotomy.
I ignored the dolls and went for the puzzles, in spite of not being very fast at figuring them out. Which led my dad to give me still more of them: jigsaws, table mazes, wire contraptions and carved wooden figure puzzles. Whenever I’d get frustrated and throw one down, Dad would just say, “Try it again later.” Feeling hopelessly dumb, I’d run outside to ride my bike or find a friend to harass.
Hours or days later, I’d pick up the puzzle again. To my invariable surprise, this time I’d get further. I could see it better. Suddenly it would seem obvious that this double-wedge piece of wood was the key to the whole little elephant, or that if you twisted your fingers just so, the heart would detach from the ring all by itself.
What had happened? The puzzle hadn’t changed; I was the same kid.
Yet somehow I had become less dumb (as I saw it). I never knew what to make of the phenomenon until I became a writer and had to work out problems I found in my stories—in other words, to revise.
“Revision,” every writing coach will tell you, means “to see anew” or “to visit again.”
But what does that really mean?
We all instinctively know that when you work on a thing for a long time, your feeling for it can get stale, and eventually your efforts reach a point of diminishing returns. And we know that when you walk away temporarily, you give yourself a chance to come back to the work with a new eye—a fresh eye. When you do that, your work now looks somewhat different. You’re seeing it from a new angle. You’ve gained perspective.
How do you know when you need perspective on a particular piece of writing?
- You’ve submitted your piece a bunch of times and it’s gotten nowhere.
- Your revision has lost energy and direction, but still feels incomplete.
- You’re getting consistent feedback that your writing needs work. (Notice I say “consistent.” More on that later.)
- You’ve come down with CRD—Creeping Rot Disease, which strikes all authors now and then, making us feel as if what we have spent so much time and effort on is nothing but junk.
Gaining perspective may well be the most important part of revision—and it can often be the most difficult. Fortunately, there are several methods that can guide you, no matter what type of writing you do.
The most obvious—and easiest!—way to gain perspective is to put your work away for a while.
The truth is, we don’t know how taking a break frees up the mind, but it does: Somehow it freshens our little neurons, or perhaps it prompts the brain to create more cleverness molecules.
If you can bear to let a short piece sit a week and a book-length work a month, do so. Longer is fine, too; some authors have abandoned manuscripts for years before unearthing them and realizing, Hey, this isn’t bad, and renewing their energy for the project.
But even just a couple of days totally away from your first draft can help. Your brain needs a rest from the whole damn thing. Therefore, physically getting away from your project isn’t enough; you also need to stop yourself from thinking about it. If you spend your “break” reflecting on it, obsessing about it, turning over the same problems in your mind, you’re not going to be fresh when you come back to it.
How do you take your mind off your work?
Trying to force thoughts out of your mind rarely goes well, but you can seek a state where you’re not judging things as good or bad, but allowing everything simply to be.
Directing your attention to something else works wonders for this. Which brings us to a second key aspect of gaining perspective and preparing to revise.
SHARPENING YOUR SAW
You may have heard the expression “sharpening your saw.”
That is, you can keep sawing away with a blade that’s becoming duller and duller the more you bear down on it, or you can stop your work, step away and sharpen your blade so that when you use it again, the work goes better and with less effort. Sometimes we are reluctant to sharpen our saw because we don’t want to leave the work—we confuse stopping to do essential maintenance with quitting. But really, it must be done. Your writing mind gets dull, even fragmented. Sharpening your saw is a vital step to take between writing “The End” and beginning revisions. You need to regain your keenness.
What are some ways to sharpen your saw?
Seek. I’m a big believer in getting outdoors, as were Thoreau, Hemingway and many other authors. If you can afford to take a few days entirely away, spending time in the natural world reconnects you with your calm, clear inner core. A backpacking or camping trip, either solo or not, can help center you and restore your mind to wholeness. Alternatively, go for a day hike, engage in your favorite sport, or just take a walk around your neighborhood.
Clean. Tidy up your writing space. Throw out junk paper, file the rest, and act on the pending tasks you’ve been putting off. Vacuum the crumbs and open the window.
Organize. Shape up your books. Shelve the ones that are lying all over the place, cull some to sell and make room on your shelves for new ones. Clearing stuff out in general has metaphorical value as well as practical.
Read somebody else. When in need of perspective, I find it both comforting and refreshing to pick up a favorite book from the past, be it a classic like Wise Blood or a trash masterpiece like Valley of the Dolls, and take a spin with a friend I can trust.
Do something else creative. Draw or paint, even if you haven’t done it since way back in art class. The act of putting up an easel and squeezing some colors onto a palette is a tremendously exciting thing to do. Grab a brush and lay on some paint. You’ll be using a totally different part of your mind. Alternatively, try your hand at a new craft project. Or if you play a musical instrument, pick it up.
Begin. Start a completely different writing project. It doesn’t matter what, as long as it’s new. Sometimes writing a short story is the perfect follow-up to finishing a novel. Or if you’ve finished an essay or article, you might just have the momentum to grab a fresh stack of paper and boldly throw down the words “Chapter One.”
Brainstorm. If you don’t want to begin a new project, just consider ideas for new material. Do character sketches, dream up a list of heart-clutching moments, ask yourself what you want to write about. What ideas, themes or grudges have been banging around inside you?
No matter how you do it, when you give your conscious mind a break from the writing you’ll soon revise, you turn over your work to your subconscious. That’s good because your subconscious is where your magic lives. While you’re trying to outsmart a trout, or swinging your staff along a trail, or stopping to watch a flock of kids on the playground, your story is still inside you, taking shape, settling, flying, settling again, resolving.
And when you bring your conscious mind back to it, you’ll see things you didn’t see before. You’ll perceive better how to exploit the strong parts, and you’ll see more clearly what to cut, what to fix, why and how.
You’ll gain confidence.
When you’re finally feeling ready to return to your work, don’t start with Page 1 just yet. As we know, the main reason you get dull is you’ve gotten too familiar with your material. So, just before you begin revising, try reading parts of your work out of sequence. This takes away context, which allows you to see the writing from a new angle. It’s the difference between meeting a new person at some fancy function, all dressed up and scented, and meeting that same person in the sauna at the gym. Context can distract us from essence.
GAINING AN OUTSIDE PERSPECTIVE
The most time-honored way to gain perspective is to borrow another set of eyes. To beta test—a term from the computer world—means to try out a not-final version on volunteer end-users. The ideal beta reader is someone who: a) you know is a discriminating reader, and b) cares about you. That is, someone who at heart wants you to succeed as a writer.
The main, open-ended question you want to ask a beta reader is, “What did you think of it?” Make it clear that you want to hear it straight, good or bad. Sometimes you’ll hear vagueness like, “It was different!” or, “I really liked it,” or, “I don’t know, I couldn’t get into it.” Such feedback is essentially worthless. To avoid this, coach your beta readers in advance by saying, “I’m just going to want to know wherever you went over a bump.” That way they’ll feel free to say they were uncomfortable with a scene, or felt something didn’t work, without fearing that you’re going to expect a step-by-step dissertation.
Then, when you sit down to get feedback, ask directed questions, questions that get your readers to comment on specific aspects of what they’ve just read.
Let’s say you’re in doubt about a particular scene or chapter. Ask:
- How did you feel when you read this scene?
- What did you like about it?
- What didn’t you like about it?
- Did you ever get bored? Where?
- What part made you feel the most emotion? How come?
- Then you can dig deeper into their gut reactions on the work as a whole. Readers love stories that make them feel. So zero in on their emotions:
- Did you feel dread anyplace? Horror?
- Did you get grossed out by anything? Was it a good gross-out or a bad gross-out?
- Did you feel stirred romantically? Whether yes or no, tell me more.
- Did you stay up reading later than you intended?
- Did you learn anything new?
- Was it ever a slog?
- Did the characters come alive? Which one seemed most alive? Which least? Do you feel you can clearly see them?
- And then: What is X character like? (I have found this question to be especially rewarding. Readers have different takes on characters, and there have been times I’ve learned that my characters are coming across in ways I hadn’t known, sometimes quite differently than I’d intended. Sometimes a reader sees depth in a character that I myself missed! With unique feedback like that, you’ll be able to populate your fiction more realistically.)
Needless to say, be receptive. You don’t have to agree with everything, but don’t waste time defending or explaining your work. A useful response is, “Thank you, I’ll think about it. What else?”
Remember earlier I mentioned consistency of feedback?
The responses you receive may be all over the map. You will hear variation after variation, and some of those variations may be exactly contradictory.
For example, from Reader A: “I like how your beginning gradually builds speed, but you didn’t play fair with that random explosion at the end.”
Reader B: “The beginning was slow, but you ended with a terrific bang!”
If you start rewriting in response to the specifics of every critique you receive, you risk eventually being driven to put a bullet through your brain. Be a bit cagey when taking comments. But if you start hearing similar criticism from multiple sources, sit up and pay attention. If, after considering the feedback, you think it has merit, go ahead and revise your work accordingly.
Still, you must trust your own internal writerly core above all.
I’ve kept notes from a years-ago phone conversation with a powerful figure in publishing who told me my novel was awful. I’d better stop submitting it, she said, and get some remedial training in storytelling.
I didn’t listen. I knew in my heart that she was wrong, that my novel was publishable—if not the next Light in August—and, moreover, the other feedback I’d gotten on it didn’t remotely reflect what she’d said. I soon sold the manuscript to another publisher.
On the other hand, when my agent talks, I listen, even though she’s only one person. I listen very hard.
Why? Because: a) she’s made a career out of distinguishing great writing from the mediocre, and b) she can articulate exactly why a particular plot point or passage of writing works or doesn’t work for her. We don’t always agree, but I give her opinions a great deal of weight.
In the end, consider what Jack Kerouac told The Paris Review: “I spent my entire youth writing slowly with revisions and endless rehashing speculation and deleting and got so I was writing one sentence a day and the sentence had no feeling. Goddamn it, feeling is what I like in art, not craftiness and the hiding of feelings.”
Then he wrote On the Road.
Don’t make too much of revising.