There’s nothing dirtier than revision. Its dirtier than dirt. Such a grimy task, a filthy word for a filthy business, really. After the free-fall adventures of brainstorming, after the gumshoe pursuit of research, the bulk of writing is a messy, painful, crazy-making process, comprising ninety percent of the work, give or take a few percentages.
Revision comes in all sorts of manifestations. Here are some of the shapes noted thus far during labor. You might recognize them yourself or have some to add.
Tunneling through the Mountain of Crap– If you’re the type who likes to get all the possible story ideas and words out in one blobby mess then you might be familiar with this beast. Some writers like to throw all their ideas onto the wall and see what sticks; this process often feels like tunneling through a mountain of crap once you sit down to see what you got. Digging though is an endless task. You have to constantly find your footing, unsure of what exactly you’re stepping on, wondering if the ground steady enough to hold you, so you can go further. You hone your senses, alert for avalanches that might bury you and take weeks if not months to climb out. Its not a pretty picture, sitting there wallowing in the middle of your own crap, thinking this shouldn’t be necessary. You could be at a BBQ, throwing back a couple beers, letting the sun do its work on your skin, but you push through because you’ve been fatally stung by the literary fever. The way of the words is in your blood and there’s no getting around it.
Civil Engineering- There are those writers who prefer to revise as they go. They have a clear sense of the shape and content. The map shines bright and clear in their mind. Working more like civil engineers, they plot the land, flatten where it needs flattening, dynamite through massive boulders, and drill, bulldoze, bolster, solidifying the groundwork before laying down the tracks that the plot and characters will follow. These engineers are masters of surveyance, practicing an art otherwise known as outlining. Whether its mental cartography or massive diagrams pinned to the wall, outlines are the preeminent foundational work of revision.
Wrestling Your Sibling– At some point the manuscript gets more familiar to you. You recognize it as a part of your being. You share a history, a bloodline, but you still don’t quite understand the piece. It’s moody; it turns on you, it stabs you in the back, feeds your insecurities, and then, out of the blue, reminds you of your own cleverness or reveals how brilliant life can be. You unexpectedly enjoy spending time with it. You share a few laughs and tears and wonder how can this quixotic being exist. How does it work? What makes it tick? The inner workings still eluding you, you plug away, trying to penetrate the mystery of the manuscript, which really is the mystery of yourself.
In the Footsteps of Rodin– As the sculptor, you’ve cleared away a lot of the unnecessary bulk of the first few drafts, enough to see the strong veins that will give you a striking contour, or at least tapped in deep enough to follow a vein though you know you need to do more shearing. You cut, and cut, and cut away admiring the smoothness. You find muscle, and you want to unearth it, let it do its thing. You are honing, chopping, knifing, and you’ve found a pace, a rhythm that is starting to feel consistently good though, every now and again, you run into stubborn knots, but this time around, its expected, and you have ways and means of working with it or around it.
Shadow Boxing the Lyrical Punch– You have the inner workings down. You understand what makes the piece move, but its not quite moving, certainly not with the pace and breadth that you’d prefer. This form of revision is painstaking, arduous, nitpicking, until you get into the flow, which comes and goes, but when you’re in it, its sleek, shiny, and rides like a dream. You never want to let go of this feeling. This is why you write, why you put through with all the many stages that came before. This is what it means to create.
Other shapes and forms of revision include handwriting and note-taking. Some writers who are accused of being luddites prefer to pen their manuscript first by hand and then transcribe to computer. The transfer from one medium to another is undoubtedly a type of revision, since the author is most certainly re-imagining the shape and feel of the piece via a new medium.
As a close friend explained, revision is a collaboration with yourself. Your past, present, and future selves must all work together. “All good art is not epiphanal but lends to epiphany for the audience.” The creative process is not, repeat, not borne from epiphanies. When you practice an art form, like writing or painting, revision is the beginning and the end.
Writer’s Digest newsletter featured a step-by-step guide of revision in their article “How to Outline (the Easy Way) Like Janet Evanovich by Zachary Petit, published April 20, 2012:
Evanovich: Storyboarding is a little more visual. When I’m plotting out a book, I use a storyboard—I’ll have maybe three lines across on the storyboard and just start working through the plot line. I always know where relationships will go, and how the book is going to end. When I storyboard, they’re just fragments of thoughts. I write in three acts like a movie, so I have my plot points up on the preliminary storyboard. Another board I keep is an action timeline. It’s a way of quickly referring to what happened a couple of scenes ago. The boards cover my office walls.
Yuvi Zalkow stresses revision in his online video “10,00o hours” from the Failed Writer Series #11
To stay sane and save time, strategic plans can be indispensable. Some of the vital steps to revision include but are by no means limited to some of the following:
1. Print out draft.
2. Check out exercises on Revision to keep in mind in reviewing draft.
3. Have a clear system in place for note-taking to add, take away, and revise to the manuscript.
4. Count how many scenes are necessary and have a clear list of these scenes that you can rearrange.
5. Create a timeline or calendar and track the dates from start to finish of the manuscript. Be sure to include flashbacks, and events that may have occurred outside of the manuscript’s present story.
7. Determine what can be left out or explained in exposition.
8. Tighten every scene.
9. Tighten the dialogue to push for speed and distance.
10. Make sure characters are consistent.
11. Weave in concrete details and added research to peg the story down.
Revision is endless and takes infinite forms. These are just a few noted. What experiences and encounters have you had with the one and only creative process?