Revise Like You Mean It

There is a fairly common misconception about what >b>revision</b> means. That is, if you are a talented writer, you will write an inspired first draft, which you can perfect by making sentences better, fleshing out characters, checking facts, catching continuity problems, and the like. But real revision – in fiction at least – is a rigorous imposition of the imagination on a piece of writing that is certain to be incomplete, or that is fatally unsure of itself, or has a surety that will be revealed as false if you look closely. True, there are some brilliant works that have come to the writer as a whole. This is a mystery to writers (and scientists, when it happens to them), and we’re all lucky if it happens once in a lifetime. Best not to count on it. Best to come to an understanding of what revision really entails.
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There is a fairly common misconception about what revision means. That is, if you are a talented writer, you will write an inspired first draft, which you can perfect by making sentences better, fleshing out characters, checking facts, catching continuity problems, and the like. But real revision – in fiction at least – is a rigorous imposition of the imagination on a piece of writing that is certain to be incomplete, or that is fatally unsure of itself, or has a surety that will be revealed as false if you look closely.

True, there are some brilliant works that have come to the writer as a whole. This is a mystery to writers (and scientists, when it happens to them), and we’re all lucky if it happens once in a lifetime. Best not to count on it. Best to come to an understanding of what revision really entails.

(Learn how to deal with writing critiques -- with 3 these helpful hints.)

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Guest column by Dianne Warren, a writer of short stories and novels.
Her first novel, JULIET IN AUGUST, was published in 2012 in the US.
(In other countries, it was published earlier under the title "Cool Water.")
Dianne claims to have been working on this book her whole life since it
is informed by the iconography of the western books and movies she
grew up with, and the shadow of the past in the novel is, in a sense,
her family’s past. Dianne lives in Regina, Saskatchewan with her
husband, visual artist Bruce Anderson. They have two sons. She
is currently at work on a new novel. Her hobbies are reading & horses.

The first draft is the accumulation of material organized in a functional, preliminary way, and it’s my contention that the imagination does its best work after the struggle of the first draft is completed. Imagination is the hound dog that roots its way through the first draft finding all the amazing images and connections you didn’t know were there; the obsessive road engineer designing the perfect route through the complexities of a first-draft narrative.

There is so much work yet to be done once you are free of the task of simply getting a draft down on paper. This kind of work, of course, leads to more work, but it also leads to the heady realization that you’ve discovered or created another layer of meaning or literary enjoyment for the reader, and a structure that brings the work as close to perfect as you can make it.

When I was writing Juliet in August, the first draft seemed like one endless struggle with time and place. I knew my characters and their stories well, but because I was writing about lives informed by the past and facing an uncertain future, the novel could have begun several generations ago, could have gone on forever, could have included locations beyond Juliet, even outside the province of Saskatchewan. What were the geographical and chronological boundaries to be? What structure was to give the story particular rather than general meaning?

When I was approaching the completion of the first draft, my husband and I went on a camping trip that involved a fair amount of driving through the vast and open Saskatchewan landscape. Being on a driving trip – at least in this kind of landscape – always stimulates my thinking about whatever I’m working on at the time, and the famous Tevis Cup endurance horse race in California began to worm its way into my story, perhaps because I have a friend who went there as a volunteer.

(Learn how to find good beta readers to help you edit & revise your work.)

By the time the trip was over, I had the idea in my head that informed the entire revision process and made rewriting the novel an imaginative rather than a workman-like experience. That idea became the hundred-year-old, hundred-mile horse race through the sand hills that provides the novel’s past and defines the boundaries of time and place in the present tale. From that point on, I was able to write and rewrite with clarity, with the hound dog’s nose for finding those images and echoes that could now support the meaning I was creating, and with commitment to a structure that I knew was right.

My first drafts tend to show my struggles to create meaning and once I reach the point of feeling sure, another sense of satisfaction comes in cutting. As I find and delete labored explanations of why a character has done something, or why she is the way she is, the story and the structure rise and speak for themselves, and the language and images are freed. It feels like a risk to remove these carefully worded sentences, but their weight is a burden. It frees the writing to have them gone, but I am never sure enough to hit delete during the writing of the first draft, even if I sense that they are wrong or overwritten.

When I teach writers who are attending their first class or workshop, revision is what I most talk about, and something related to revision finds its way into the answers to almost every question. For example, “What is talent?” Answer: I don’t know. My advice is to forget about talent and learn to revise. Accept that talent and first-draft inspiration get you only so far. Don’t despair that you have a lot more work ahead of you because you’ll learn things that you can learn no other way, and you’ll love it, and you won’t want the writing to end.

At least, that’s been my experience.

(Hate writing synopses? Here are nuts & bolts pointers for you.)

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