Thursday, October 10, 2013

Them Old Revision Blues

I revise my work, but not as much as I used to, and I wish I had the universal, 100% unqualified answer so that I might know when to stop revising.  But I don't.  Every once in a while someone criticizes a book by saying it's been overwritten.  I'm not quite sure what that means either.  But, here are a few thoughts I've cobbled together on the topic of revision.

I went to college, ok?  There, I admit it.  I learned some good things and picked up some bad habits (not all of them recreational).

One thing impressed upon me was the idea of revision.  After taking x number of literature courses and x number of writing courses my impression was that a writer has to revise, revise, revise.  But I cannot recall any lessons on how to finish a piece of writing.  And the stories were told about how the great writers worked and worked and worked on that single or double, or perhaps three or four literary masterpieces.  Hence, or possibly ergo, the young writer learned to revise.  But again, no one ever intimated or shared any lessons on how to tell when something was finished.

And so, hi-ho ho-ho, it's off to revise I go.  And revision isn't all bad.

For example, November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).  That's the month where people sign up on the website and the expectation is that the writer can puke out 50,000 words during that timeframe (Thanksgiving be cursed to the second or third line of a priori).  I've completed NANOWRIMO, twice, and have the brownie buttons to prove it.

What I had at the end of the project was the equivalent of a fresh can of Play-Doh, possibly opened and possibly shaped into the snake or the smooth ball or, flattering myself here, possibly the bowl.  That's about as far as I ever got with Play-Doh.  But what the writer has is 50,000 + words of writing, and it is impossible to revise nothing.

A 50,000 word manuscript, fresh out of the November oven, is major goodness and an accomplishment not many people can enjoy, but it's not finished.  My advice is, after the story is told, put it away on the thumb-drive and don't look at it until, when you read it again, parts of it you cannot remember.  For me, that's about three months.  That's when I'm ready to revise.  And revise I must because it is far easier to begin something (anything) than it is to finish it.

Consider the real word; a landscape vastly different than college.  The worker soon learns the value of the finished product, or soon finds him or herself unemployed.  If the task doesn't get completed, no one is paid (unless you're the President or in Congress).  It's that simple.  The world rewards finishers and would prefer if you kept the revision process to yourself.   The project manager wants to see where you're at.  The boss wants to know when it will be done.

So how many revisions of a piece of writing are enough?  I don't know.  No one does.

But consider, the third of Robert Heinlein's (Science Fiction dude) five rules for writers directly addresses the topic at hand.  He tells us, "You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except To Editorial Order".  Did you catch that?  Write it and send it out and don't touch it until the person willing to pay asks for changes.

And while the artistes among us will grouse and mumble about prostituting one's art, the more pragmatic who worry about the mortgage payment will understand.  Heinlein was no slouch-wannabe-got-writer's-block-and-would-rather-talk-about-my-writing-than-write.  There's something to his advice.

Then again, J.R.R. Tolkien (Fantasy dude) worked on the Lord of the Rings for decades.  Perhaps that's why we know what Sam and Bilbo had for breakfast every day.

It's a bit of a sweet spot or an intuition, knowing when to be done.  And like I said earlier, my attitude towards revision has changed over the years.  This here little essay, for example will be done very soon.  I started it this afternoon.  I'll go over it once and look for typos and tighten it up here and there, but I'm not going to sweat it out.

A writer has to ask him or herself, how long am I willing to work on one project when I know I have so many other ideas I want to tackle?

No comments:

Post a Comment