Last Friday was the monthly meet-up for my critique group, and we spent the evening helping one of my critique partners figure out how to tackle her agent's revision notes. It is so much easier to see your way through someone else's revision than your own. I wish I could see all the things I need to do with my own book with such clarity. But one of the huge benefits of helping someone create a path for their own revision is learning how to apply your burgeoning critique skills to your own process.
I've been thinking quite a lot about my revision process lately, or the fact that I don't have one. I have tried to be very logical and organized about revisions, but it never works for me. I write and revise instinctively and organically, and while it's messy and, occasionally, agonizing, it gets the job done.
I see a lot of aspiring authors struggle with drafting and, even more so, with revision. There are so many websites and books out there that spell out different approaches to the entire writing process, and to be honest, I think they're a little dangerous. Knowing how plot and character interact, understanding how the basic plot structure works ... these constructs are important to your craft. But I sense that a lot of writers want someone to tell them, "If you just pull this lever and push this button, you will write a book that sells." Sadly, it doesn't work that way. And if you approach your revision mechanically, I suspect the odds are pretty good you're going to end up with subpar work, a book without a soul.
So, here's what I'll say about revision. You begin with a rough draft, and it's terrible. That's fine. It's supposed to be terrible. You rewrite it, refine it. It's still terrible. Again, that's okay. Now print it out, and put your pen down, and read it. Don't worry about the cringe-worthiness of the writing. Ask yourself this: What were you writing about?
Look, you wrote a book because there was an idea that surfaced in your mind, one that stood out from all the other ideas floating around in the complexity of your brain, and you had to write it. As human beings, we are wired to tell stories. We seek to understand the world through narrative. That burning idea you had to explore? That was your mind's way of unsnarling something it needed to understand.
My own books have a lot to say about my experiences as a woman. Most readers won't see this when they read THE BIRD AND THE BLADE, but for me, that book serves as a metaphor of the self-sacrifice that comes with being female, particularly as a wife and a mother. I hope it speaks to the fact that we, as women, give up our selves every day with no recognition of any kind. And, worse, our constant and unending self-sacrifice, which holds civilization together in every corner of the world, is labeled "weak" by society. THE BIRD AND THE BLADE is me calling b.s. THE BIRD AND THE BLADE is me saying a woman's self-sacrifice is not weak; it's is freaking heroic.
But that idea isn't spelled out in the book, nor should it be. The whole reason we tell stories is to understand something on a primal, instinctive level. That's why our metaphors and ideas and themes should hide deeply in the ink.
Think of a book as an iceberg:
The physical novel--the words that make up the action of the plot and the way characters move through the book--this is the tip of the iceberg. This is the part the reader sees. It's what lies on the surface. But the intangible things that keep a reader engaged, that give meaning and power to the narrative ... These are hidden beneath the surface, swimming in the inscrutable sea of words. (Wow, I got very Moby Dick there.) This is where the real work of revision lives. And what's interesting is the fact that your subconscious mind has already done much of the heavy lifting for you. All you have to do it find it.
I'm going to explore this topic more deeply in future posts (probably and rather ironically, when I desperately need a break from my own revision work). In the meantime, happy revising, all!