Writing is easy, revision is hard. That’s the maxim for writing that’s bandied about between writers, on the internet, in classrooms, conferences, and in all those secret Machiavellian meetings that publishers have behind closed doors where no one can see them eating donuts.
Oh God, the donuts!
And I agree. Years of experience have proven to me that, indeed, revising is hard.
Part of the problem for me is that I can’t see what I’ve written with fresh eyes until either a good deal of time has passed or somebody other than me has provided comments, thereby forcing me to see my words anew.
Otherwise, what I see is exactly what I’ve written exactly the way I’ve written it and would write it again if given another chance, right at that moment, to rewrite the work. Without an outside perspective (and here I claim Time as an outside observer) I can only see the work as a finished piece. Even if I know that there are problems with what I’ve written, I can’t yet imagine a different way of having written. If I could, then I wouldn’t have written it wrong in the first place.
Now there is an easy kind of revision and a hard kind of revision.
I recently wrote a review of some poetry books for a magazine I’ve written for before. I know that they like my writing and my critical perspective, so I’m not really afraid of their comments regarding my work. And in this case they are also paying me, and when money is on the table I’m much more amenable to revision requests than I might be otherwise.
(If I’m not being paid, then I feel much more tied to my own work. The only thing I’m getting out of publication is the presentation of my work to a larger audience than I can manage on my own, and so I want to have complete control over my work since it’s a representation of me more than anything else.)
Revisions regarding this review have been very specific, and the comments my editor had related to changing the tone of the review through excising certain comments and changing certain words. Yes, it mollifies my “true” feelings about the books on display, but not to a point where I’m untrue to myself or to the work.
These revisions are easy because they involve only a matter of cutting or slight rephrasing, and these small changes have measurable effects to the overall piece. They are the simple solutions that I always hope for in revision.
But they aren’t always the most satisfying.
The difficult kind of revision actually involves re-visioning. It means getting back into the work mentally, seeing the world again (or the argument again, in terms of reviews and critical papers) and living it. It involves changing the world or argument.
This is what I’m dealing with in revising GOD’S TEETH. The plot is all there, the writing is mostly there, but the world isn’t completely formed. I need to go back and add scenes that make the world and Darren’s existence in it more tangible, more felt, more affecting for the reader.
Sure, there are bits where what I need to do is rephrase a sentence or smooth out language or make a description more complete, but that is simply a matter of words and I have no problem with words.
Re-visioning, though, is not simple revision: it’s writing. And writing takes energy and focus and, damn it, just when I thought I was done with writing, with a draft complete, with a novel finished, here comes the inescapable knowledge – through other’s comments or my own re-reading – that what I’ve written is not as perfect as it could be.
But that’s what’s satisfying. Not only getting back into the world and fixing the problems you see, but writing again, making what you’ve written more than it ever was before.
It’s the difference between creation (I’ve made something!) and re-creation (I’ve made something better!).