Thursday, September 20, 2012

Re-Envisioning as Revision

Revision--bane or boundary bender?  Sounds about right to me.  When you embark upon revision whether it's a reread and polish of the paragraph you've just written or a revamp of the full draft of a novel, you approach it with trepidation and frustration--right? Well, most people do.  If you dive in eager to see what new things take shape, then you're probably in the minority.  And since I've never been one to fit into the "in-crowd," let me take this opportunity to invite you all to go on a bender.  No, not the Hemingway route to inspiration (Sorry, Ernie!), but the boundary testing bender that allows you to treat revision as an opportunity to discover what might be dwelling in the cracks of your unconscious and waiting to come out. 

Attitude is everything--we've heard this adage applied to sales pitches, athletic performance, and nearly every other human endeavor, why should revision be any different?  The way you see revision directly effects how you will experience the process.  If you treat revision as an artistic re-envisioning of your work that allows you to explore new territory and expand on what you've already written and/or learned, then it came be a much more fulfilling and exhilarating experience.  If you look at the process as drudgery or the correction of mistakes, then it will be just that-- a bit like the writer's version of self-flagellation ((Need a definition for that implied metaphor? click here).

I know of a writer who worked for years on a novel, then rewrote it a short story and got it published.  Another writer and friend of mine writes a first draft, puts it in a drawer, then starts over.  Most of my writer friends labor over revision, fervently trying to get it right.  I love Janet Wong's response to that idea. I'm paraphrasing her here, but she says, "Revision isn't about getting it right.  It's about finding other ways to do it."  Want to know more about Janet? Check out her website.

For me, I like to think of revision as the mental equivalent of doing an archaeological dig in your subconscious.  When an archeologist sifts through a dig, s/he is uncovering the story of a former life/culture one artifact at a time.  Over time, the dig will reveal new pieces of evidence that completely changes the way we interpret the culture/people who lived there.  It's these discoveries in fiction that can really cause us to see our own work in new ways.

Let me offer a few examples from my own work.  When I wrote The Keening, a supernatural historical novel set in Maine during the influenza pandemic, I created a loner protagonist who discovers that she shares a secret ability with her father that she learns about after her mother dies and her uncles try to have her eccentric father committed to an asylum so they can sell their family home and buy another fishing boat to add to the family business.  (How's that for a run-on sentence?  Perhaps I should revise it?  Nah.).  In the original version, Lyza (the loner) had no friends because she was shunned by people who misjudged her dad and she meets a boy on the road at the end of the story  who is a part of the big reveal.  The responses I kept getting from editors about the story was that it was too moody and remote-- it needed more immediacy.  I figured a friendship would make Lyza's situation more immediate and accessible to readers by offering a foil for Lyza, so I went back into the story and made that young boy on the side of the road into her best friend.  In so doing, I had to weave him into the story in a way that made him seem as if he was there from the very beginning.  As I moved through the novel chapter by chapter, I found places for him to just walk right in.  In fact, until the conclusion of the novel, I didn't have to restructure the plot to bring him in-- it was as if he was meant to be there all along.  In fact, he seemed to fill voids I'd seen, but didn't know how to address until he came along.  I call these "expansion joints"-- places in a story that appear like Diagon Alley.  You think to yourself--where did that come from?  But once you enter them, they feel as natural as if they've always been there.

Expansion joints are just one of the many possibilities for discovery.  Exploring these areas of a manuscript can also lead you to discover new things about your work that turns you in a whole new direction.  In addition to being an outsider in her own community, Lyza fears travel and never wants to leave her family home on the ocean.  Originally, the novel ended with her embracing the idea of venturing beyond her home, but the exploration of this new friendship and his fascination with urban life leads Lyza to venture to "the big city."   This change made her a far more active part of the resolution of the story.  As a result, revising the story to include this friendship lead to a whole new ending organically.  I was as surprised by the turn of events as I hope my readers were.  It's this type of experimentation and discovery that can make revision quite a bit of fun.

It can also be a learning experience.  For longer than I'd care to admit, I've been tyring to write a retelling of the myth of Cassandra in a coal mining community in Virginia in 1911.  It wasn't until an inspiring conversation with a poet friend about the boundaries between a novel-in-verse and a thematic collection of narrative poetry that I fully embraced the idea that I could write this story in verse.  Once I started it, I realized the story fit the medium and it came alive on the page.  I can't say where the revision process will take me with this story because I just started the process--a literary journey that I'm personally looking forward to.  While I'm off revising-- feel free to share your insights and ideas about revising.  I'd love to hear your ideas!

Here's to the new places revision takes us!


  1. For my story "Claustrophobia" the protagonist is claustrophobic, but I was thinking about changing that phobia to something else-potentially Nyctophobia. I was also thinking about emphasizing the protagonist's friendship and having her friend walk into the hidden cave with her. Honestly, there are many different routes I could take with this story, and I'm starting to get a better idea on where to go.

  2. (Genre 360-Andy) I feel the example of your friend who writes a full first draft and puts in a drawer is very helpful. Often when i'm critiqing i'm too set on my original draft to make major changes. However, in my last revision of a scene I completely scratched the original and took the scene in a new direction. I'm satisfied with my new scene, and I think that style of revision is effective.

  3. A. La Faye, I agree with you on re-envisioning as a good way to start a revision. I guess I find that true but the part of leaving getting frustrated once revision is required, I think that is where I need to move faster and leave that emotion to rest. Indeed, attitude is the difference maker!

  4. Greetings! I realize you wrote this post awhile ago, but I just came back to your blog today and so appreciated what you had to say about revisions. I wish I could say I always approached my revisions with a ready and eager spirit, but sometimes I just can't muster it. Recently I had been dragging my feet after the fourth or so revision of a short story, and was feeling discouraged by what was being asked of me by the others involved in the project. But I can say that what I ended up submitting to them was stronger and I can see will serve their purpose far better than the earlier version. But I do agree that I have learned more about my stories when I have allowed revision to happen (let alone the prose improving). Sometimes it's jaw dropping revelation. And if I hadn't returned to revise a certain section I would have never learned that about this character. Thank you for this post! Jessica I.