Revising is not the same thing as editing.
When I edit my work, my vision of the story remains the same. I may eliminate entire chapters, rewrite complete scenes, change every sentence in the book, but the structure remains. I have a stack of edits sitting beside me: pages full of marks and squiggles and notes to “tighten” or “rephrase” or simply “fix.” Edits are often about wordsmithery. I pour myself into a world of sound and rhythm and presentation. Editing is a delicious way to spend time if you love words.
The world of revision is a messier place.
If editing is rearranging furniture, revision is knocking down walls.
Revision takes a good deal more skill than writing or editing and I’m not convinced most writers ever do it. It’s not that they can’t do it. It’s just a hellishly frightening leap and it’s enormously difficult. The easier path, always, is to set aside a book that needs serious revision—and write a better one from scratch.
Remember: you don’t have to make a lifetime commitment to every book you write. My first book was so bad, I don’t even claim it as my first book. I call it Book Zero. I’m convinced gazing on it directly may cause blindness. I’m not going back there. And that’s okay.
So why revise? If revising is more difficult than writing a new and better novel, why do it?
I’ve found only one reason: because a really wonderful idea chose me and I discovered, through the process of writing, that I lacked the skills to do it justice. I wanted to tell that story more than any of the stories I possessed the skills to tell.
We revise to become better writers, to earn the right to tell complex tales. Is that worth our time? Maybe it depends on the story.
So what do some of those scary revisions look like?
During the course of revising five novels, I have:
- Changed the point of view. Changed it again. Oh why not? Changed it again.
- Changed from past to present tense. Fell in love with it. Fell out of love with it. Changed it back.
- Eliminated a significant subplot, including a major character. (The first major character I eliminated was named Mim. Now, whenever a character disappears from a novel, my early readers and I call it “being mimmed.”)
- Changed the focus of the entire book by changing what the main character wants. I’ve done this one more than once. This usually results in eliminating more than half the chapters, inserting new ones, and rewriting the ones that remain.
- Changed the rules under which my world operated.
- Pulled out a tightly-woven subplot to make it the focus of a separate book.
- Eliminated an entire setting, creating new bridges from Point B to C and Point D to E. (The real challenge here was working in the material I wanted to keep.)
- Discovered that an existing plot hole revealed more of interest than the current plot line. Reconstructed the whole thing.
- Changed the relationship between major characters.
And what did I gain from all this?
- Confidence. I’m no longer afraid of any change request. I know I can do it.
- Loyalty to a story above any set of words. If I can make the story better, I’ll cut my favorite scene in the book. It will make room for one I love even more.
- Material for future narratives. The beloved bits I eliminate become polished material for later writing.
- Skill and flexibility. Not only can I make the changes, I have energy to play, to see which version I like best.
- A wicked sense of humor about my characters and the changes they go through.
What’s the biggest revision you’ve ever undertaken? What did you learn from it?