I’m in the middle of revising my third published book and my revisions tend to be Messy (yes, with a capital M). Sometimes I think about revising as being similar to cleaning up your office or room. First, there’s the easy stuff like collecting all the writing utensils in one place, throwing away trash, collecting dirty dishes and laundry. Then there’s stage two: the destruction. This is where things tend to get really really messy. It’s where you go through piles of papers and old mail and magazines, throwing them into stacks on the floor to be dealt with later.
This is the point where you feel like you’ve made a ton of progress only to realize that actually things are MUCH MUCH worse than when you began. Now you have messy piles all over the place and the office isn’t any cleaner and you’re no where near the end and you start to second guess whether you should have embarked on this stupid clean-up project in the first place.
Yeah, that’s where I am. Several weeks ago I had a lovely draft and now I have a big uncontrollable mess. I’ve cut out chapters, drafted new scenes, and totally totally messed up the continuity of the story.
This is the point at which the notes to myself start to look something like: “okay, she has a machete now, go back and put that in earlier so it makes sense and OMG I HATE THIS BOOK SO MUCH!!”
(Yes, that’s a real note in my manuscript and yes I’ll delete it before turning it into my editor). As I wrote that note to myself I was thinking, “What have I done? I’ve never hated a book this much. I can’t fix it. It’s broken beyond repair.” (And of course because authors are nothing if not emotional parasites I then sat down to catalog exactly how this made me feel so that I could mine it for future character descriptions).
Then, as I do in cases of emergencies such as this, I emailed my husband and critique partners to break the horrible news that the book is toast and that I hate it oh so much and it will never work and will always be a horrible mess.
Their response: “Yeah, you said that with the last book and the one before that and see how those turned out?”
Of course I knew when I started revising I’d end up in this place, full of despair and terror — that’s one reason I put off revising in the first place. Usually I say that I love to revise because I get to fix the mistakes I made the first, second, third, etc time around. But sometimes the task just feels overwhelming: pulling one string can cause the whole to collapse which might be necessary but then you still have to go build everything back up again.
It’s an exhausting undertaking. Some people are really clean drafters but I’m not one of them. Unsurprisingly, I’m also not someone who keeps my office tidy as I go along but instead must face huge cleaning binges a few times a year. Sure, life would be easier if I’d just keep things orderly and organized as I go along (i.e. Wrote cleaner first drafts or *gasp* outlined) but I’ve learned that’s just not how I operate.
I recently blogged about the role of absolute faith in the writing process — sometimes when we despair of ever fixing the mess we’ve created, we have to have faith in ourselves that we’ve done it before and so we can do it again. This is one reason I think it’s so important to finish writing that first book simply so that you know you *can*. This is the ultimate faith and it can be terrifying.
Right now I’m in that place where I’d just rather close the door to the room than face all the piles I’ve thrown on the floor. I’ve cut scene after scene and have pages of notes of what needs to be added or rewritten or tweaked. I know that somewhere in there is order — some of the piles will be sorted and tossed, some will find a new home, and some will sit there and nag at me until I figure out what to do next.
Eventually, out of necessity, it will all get tidied up it will be better than before but that can still feel a long way off. Sometimes, the task can feel so overwhelming that we ponder circumventing it. We just create a bit more space in drawers to throw those piles so that on the surface of our office looks great again. But that solution can only last so long and eventually you’ll get found out.
For me, the only solution is to dive in, start throwing things with the knowledge that yes, there will come a point where you’re exhausted and things are looking much much worse than when you started. It would be easier to just worry about the surface issues — to tidy up what you can see and not worry about the drawers stuffed with junk. But ultimately, that’s not what’s best for anyone. Dive in, have faith, and get it done. I promise you can do it and I promise you’ll be happy you did.
Oh, and if you’re my editor… I totally love my book and revisions are going swimmingly!