Revisions are a messy but necessary beast

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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!

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11 comments to Revisions are a messy but necessary beast

  • Thank you for this post! It’s very… inspirational. I’m at that stage of first revision of my first story, and it’s gone from “This is fun!” to “I hate this! It’s a complete mess! This story will never work!” It’s incredibly frustrating. But it’s good to know that this is just another hurdle that can be surmounted.
    And I loved the bit about being emotional parasites and cataloguing the emotions for later use. So true! And I know exactly where I can put this frustration… :)

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you so much for the cleaning analogy. I’m definitely one who has to make a huge mess to put things in order, and it’s looking like I’m working that way on my story too. Thank you for reminding me that after the freakish despair/fear and tangle there WILL come a time of order and satisfaction. Now, if only fixing my story was more like cleaning my office and less like cleaning and reorganizing the whole house!

  • This is almost exactly where I am and yes, it does feel like that. I am to the point of hating the book so much but yet I can’t stop writing/revising it. It is like a Problem Child. You love it and hate it at the same time.

    Thank you for talking about this. I needed it.

  • And then you find out you’ve put things away in the wrong places and then you have to go back in and straighten up what you just cleaned. 😉

    Well, though I’m not hating the book I am at the point of revisions and cleaning. It’s going a bit slow, but I do think it’d go a lot faster if I could quit taking on more projects. I remarked to my bro that once I get these revisions done I’ll have to read through it again to find any places I broke by changing/revising on this pass and fix those places.

  • Carrie, I totally feel your pain. I tend to write fairly clean manuscripts, and I do outline some. (I also have a fairly tidy office.) But I still struggle with rewrites — in a way it’s worse for me because I don’t deal with messy well. It’s like Felix Unger stepping into Oscar Madison’s bedroom. (ODD COUPLE reference; for those to young to remember, ask your parents….) And I agree with you: It is all about faith. Faith in your process, in your ability, in your story and characters. Writing in general is a leap of faith, and we are most tested when things are most difficult.

    Best of luck with the rewrites. I hope things get better in a hurry. I have every confidence that this book will wind up being as brilliant as your others, and more rewarding for all you’ve had to endure along the way.

  • You describe the revising process perfectly – but I must say that you left me a bit confused. Something you said implied that there are (for other people at least) different possible ways of doing this. Heresy!

  • Carrie, I feel your pain. For this novel, rather than continually go back and make changes I wrote the changes into the current chapter and made a note.

    For example, I expanded the singers from three to five and made the two new ones children. *Note* Somewhere in training, introduce the singers and special notice from MC that two are barely older than his eldest daughter.

    When I start revisions next week, I have to go back and change all the inconsistencies and broken plots, on top of foreshadowing the key elements of the MC’s emotional arc. I’m almost wishing I were a short story guy.

  • I’m one of those oddballs who actually likes revisions. That’s the real meat of writing for me. The initial physical writing, for me, is just an attempt to get the thing on the page. Revising is where I can shape and mold and make the book shine. That doesn’t mean its any bit easier, I just don’t loath that step in the process as many do. So, for you, I wish you the best of luck grinding through.

  • I finished a novel last night (okay, technically this morning but since it was dark and I was still awake I’m calling it what I want to.) Anyway, as I was approaching “The End”, I kept wanting to go back and fiddle with this section in Chapter 12 or that conversation in Chapter 4, which will slow you down to a crawl if you let it. I kept telling myself there would be revisions, that I must leave it alone and let the editor tell me if it needed fiddling. Remembering that gave me the freedom to finish.

    So for the moment at least, I kinda love revisions! 😀

  • Young_Writer

    I love revisions, until I see a major problem in the plot and have to do a lot of editing. That’s when it gets rough. But I’m done now and I’m finally going to send it to some beta readers.

  • Thanks for all the fantastic comments (and sorry for my delay in responding — revision deadline swamping my life!). Stuart, I kind of like revising too (when it’s going well) because I really do love pulling the story together and making it work. My only issue is that sometimes I drag my feet because once you dig in deep you really have to commit :)

    I’ve been known to dedicate one whole revision pass to one issue such as “remember they have a dog with them” and that meant going back to every scene and referencing the dog. Yikes!