April 11, 2012

What Is a Revision?

Today we finally get around to the real answer to the question I imagine lies behind all kind inquiries about my writing: "Lisa, what do you mean when you say you're revising?"

Revision is the process of taking a completed (in the sense of containing a beginning, middle, and end) manuscript, subjecting it to real scrutiny (help from critique partners is recommended for this step), and then making changes (often drastic changes) to improve the story. These changes are likely to include some of the following: making the plot or characters more believable, improving the pacing, removing unnecessary or repetitive scenes, raising the stakes, aligning subplots with the main plot, adding characterization to major or minor characters, fixing continuity errors, adding or removing backstory, adding or removing description, adding or removing clever literary devices such as themes and motifs.

As you might imagine, these kinds of changes take a lot of work, and that's on top of the work of writing a novel in the first place. It would be nice to get all the elements right in the first draft, but that would be a pretty impressive feat. Maybe some writers are able to think everything through in advance and produce a flawless first draft that only needs a little polishing at the sentence level before it's ready to go out into the world. I assert that most writers who believe they fall into this category are mistaken.

After I finished all the planning and procrastinating that led up to my current revision, I had a good idea of what changes the manuscript needed and how I intended to address each issue. The changes were more extensive than I'd hoped. They were also, I'd eventually recognize, more extensive than I understood at the beginning.

I started actually revising in February 2011. I can't remember what timescale I had in mind when I wrote, "I don't have a good idea of how long this revision will take, except for being pretty sure that it will take longer than I want it to." But I seem to recall that my most pessimistic estimate still had me finishing by the end of the year.

What can I say? I'm a fiction writer -- my grip on reality is tenuous. If I'd really thought about it at the beginning, I would have seen that my planned changes were so significant, and my desire to get things right in this revision so strong, that I couldn't possibly write this draft faster than the previous one, which took eight months. I suppose I didn't want to really think about it, because it would have been too disheartening.

There's nothing wrong with taking a long time to make a novel good. You might even argue that it's highly advisable. But I'm impatient, and I was ready to be done a long time ago. And I imagine that I inadvertently passed that expectation on to my family, friends, and blog readers, who are by now puzzled that I'm still doing whatever it is I've been doing.

What revision consists of on a day-to-day basis isn't especially interesting to describe. I take things one scene at a time, consult my notes about the changes needed, and do the appropriate combination of incorporating material from the previous draft and writing new material. Eventually the scene is complete, and I move on to the next one. I always work through a story in order, though in this case I'm revising my three storylines one at a time rather than according to the interspersed order of the novel.

That's the ideal of my revision process, at least. In practice, there's also a lot of reconsidering my earlier decisions, discovering things I failed to take into account, and having potentially brilliant ideas that send the story off in other directions. All of which cause the revision to take that much longer. So at this point, I still can't accurately predict when I'll be done. Someday, and it will be worth the wait.

Now, have I answered all your questions about how my novel is coming along, or is there still more you want to know? Please comment if there's anything else I should address. And thank you again for asking.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Meg Wolitzer, writing for the New York Times Book Review, covers the variety of problems with the term "women's fiction": "If 'The Marriage Plot,' by Jeffrey Eugenides, had been written by a woman yet still had the same title and wedding ring on its cover, would it have received a great deal of serious literary attention?"


Henri Picciotto said...

Your second paragraph conveys the scale of the project. It takes some stick-to-itiveness to work through all that, three times!

Lisa Eckstein said...

Writing it all out like that did help me realize that this is a pretty big project!

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