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R is for Revisions

November 1, 2012

There’s an old episode of Magnum, PI, in which Higgins, Rick, and TC all tease Thomas about some unnamed event that’s coming up for him. Every time they come close to saying the words, he stops them. Each of them, in their own way, teases him, then wishes him good luck. Left alone, he finally chokes out the dreaded words: tax audit, wincing as he does so, mentally buckling under the weight of his coming ordeal.

Revisions are the same way, at least for me. As documented here in the past, my revisions usually start out well enough, until about 100 pages through, I wind up writing the first draft of an entirely new–though very similar story.

It’s a discipline thing for me. First drafts are fun and you can rack up big numbers. But writing–if you want to get published–is a business.

Now, with my 216th first draft of my novel having aged for the appropriate four-to-six weeks, it’s time to plunge back in. For the first time with this story, I don’t have a plan. I guess I’ll read it through, making notes as I do. But I will try valiantly not to actually change anything. Maybe reading the entire thing through without changing will cut down on the impulse to rip everything out.

Maybe I’ll convert it and read it on my Nook, rather than doing it on the laptop in Word, where wholesale changes are easier and more likely.

Revisions aren’t as much fun as scoping out the first story. A first draft is about speed and the excitement of a new story unfolding before you. Revisions require attention to minute detail, and they require a much slower pace. You have to (I have to) not only make the big things work, but pick the right word for the situation and the character. To understand whether my first-person narrator would really refer to a situation the way I have. Or whether a different character would move in just such a way under just such a circumstance.

Revisions require reading the manuscript not as a reader or even as the author, but as a forensics expert–as a dispassionate editor. They require your being open to finding vast tracts of lovingly tailored prose being completely superfluous. They require your willingness to remove a once-beloved character from the narrative because they really don’t have anything to do.

They require discipline and dedication. For me, at least, revisions are the hard work of writing.

What are your struggles with revisions? How do you overcome them?

  1. November 1, 2012 9:00 am

    Very interesting to hear your perspective on revisions Chris, because I feel exactly the opposite! The first draft is unexplored ground, bumpy and difficult to push through. Fear of the unknown. I like the surprises, most of the time, that I come across, but it is slogging for me to get that first road map out. Now, when I get to edit that first draft, this is when I get excited. I have a road map. I have a beginning, a middle and an end and I love the relaxation of knowing I have that map and can take whatever detours arrive along the way, the delving deeper to put in those expressions, words, movements that take the story from a flat road map to to a fully fleshed-out topographical countryside/city/place on earth. I can dig deep and come back up knowing I haven’t lost my way because I still have the map. I think of it as the bones of a story come first, then I get to attach the muscles, blood vessels, etc. Then I get to put on the skin and dress it up. I like the revision part. That’s when I really get to know my characters and their dramas, learning curves, and (hopefully) triumphs.

  2. November 1, 2012 9:24 am

    I expect that is why prompts are such a challenge for me. It’s always a first draft! Maybe, going by what you say, this is why I like mysteries involving forensics!

  3. November 2, 2012 10:43 am

    I adore Lisa’s comment above. In general, I also love revising my work, since I can really see it getting better and better. The first draft can be killer when I have an idea in my head–sometimes accompanied by images, sounds, and impressions–and need to convey it in merely words to the reader.

    BUT, when I’ve done a few drafts, and I get input from friends/colleagues, and there are still SO many flaws that need to be fixed that I’m overwhelmed—that’s when I just want to chuck it all. It’s hard to stick it out when you feel like the piece can never be saved from itself. Fortunately, I’ve seen a few pieces like that were successfully resuscitated after I’d thought they were goners. That helps me to soldier on.

  4. Chris Hamilton permalink
    November 2, 2012 12:39 pm

    Maybe we should engage in a scientific experiment where our three brains inhabit one writer. There’s plenty of spare room in mine.

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