My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Mailbox: Revision Land!

What does my revision process look like?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer them each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox.  I'm happy to tell you about my process as long as I get to put in a few public service announcements about the topic in general along with it.]  

Amy Asks:

What does a day in the life of you look like in Revision Land? That is, how do you approach it (versus how you want to approach if that's applicable) in terms of mood/muse? Do you enjoy making enormous changes to the way the story unfolds, such as altering the timeline (perhaps switching from linear to flashbacks or whatever), completely changing character motivations, etc.? I ask this latter question because it's my favorite part of revision. It's like using powerful construction equipment to move enormous beams and other building materials. What I have at the end of the day is so different from what I had at the beginning of the day that I feel like my brain has gone on an all-day weight training binge.

My reply:

I love any chance to give people a tour of Revision Land.  It's a magical world where the unicorns prance about in happy joy.  Well, all the unicorns except Charlie The Too-Good-To-Revise Unicorn.

"Charlie it's time to go to Revision Land, Charlieeeeee."

"Yeah, Charlie.  Revision Land, Charlie!  Yay!"

"Yay Charlie!  It's an adventure Charlie.  An adventure to Revision Land, Charlie!"

"Come with us to revision land, Charlie!"

"I don't really want to go to Revision Land.  I don't like Revision Land."

"Charlie, you have to go to Revision Land.  Everyone has to go to Revision Land, Charlie."

"Yeah Charlie, Revision Land is awesome.  It's an adventure, Charlie.  An adventure to Revision Land, Charlie.  How can we have good writing if we don't have an adventure to Revision Land Charlie."

"I don't really think Revision Land is that important.  I think about my writing a lot before I write it, so I don't need to go to Revision Land."

"Shun the non-believer, Charlie."



If you don't get this reference, click this link.
I can't say for sure you won't feel like you just lost five minutes of your life,
but at least people might believe you when you tell them you don't live in a cave
...a cave with no wifi

Now before I give Amy a tour of revision land, I want to make sure that something is perfectly clear to our readers at home.  So imagine that I am turning away from Amy sitting in the seat next to me here in the studio, and looking directly into the camera...

I want everyone to pay attention to exactly what Amy asked me.  She didn't ask me if I revised.  She asked me how I revised.  It didn't even cross her mind that I wouldn't.  This is because Amy (who is a friend of mine) is a professional writer who makes money word smithing--sometimes even writing fiction.  And Amy knows revision is a vital part of the writing process.  Amy knows that it is as likely for a writer to be published or well-regarded without revision as it is for a band to attempt to sight read their songs at a concert or for a theater troupe to do no rehearsing before a show or for a visual artist to get rich off of concept sketches hung in frames at a gallery.

Art is about refinement and perfection.  A number of writers talk about how shitty first drafts can be.  Hemingway's first drafts, which have only recently shown up among his effects, were downright embarrassing.  One of the best modern essays on revision is called "The Eleventh Draft" and it talks about how that is the point (at the 11th draft) that you really start to see the quality artistic stuff peaking through.

I need a little tiny hipster symbol for "This is pretentious as shit."

Simply put, if you want to be a writer for anyone but yourself, you must revise extensively.

Now there are obviously books on my bookshelf, some of which I even love, that haven't been through eleven drafts (a few seem like may not have even seen a third or fourth), but it kind of shows. Even writers you might classically think of as plot based storytellers with hastily written prose (like Stephen King, Dan Brown, or JK Rowling) admit to doing at least three complete drafts of their books before entering the fine-tuning stage, so even "commercial" work has had a fair bit of revision.
"Refinement and perfection are a part of the artistic process and writing is no different." 
So before I tell Amy about Revision Land, let me just make sure that it's clear that this is how I navigate Revision Land.  Every writer has a different process, and yours doesn't have to look like anyone else's.  Do whatever works for you.  I have met several writers (some with names an avid reader might even recognize) who do not look back when they are writing something until the very end.  Then they go all the way back through and make major changes.  I've met others who revise just a few pages behind where they are writing and are almost rigorous about "keeping up with themselves."  Perhaps the most famous example of this would be Kurt Vonnegut who would rewrite a page on his typewriter dozens--sometimes hundreds--of times until the page he added to the stack was perfect, but once he had that perfect page, he was done.

Okay, back to revision land.

No.  Not that kind of tweaker either.
I'm a tweaker.  Not crystal meth, mind you, but a constant fiddler.  When I'm writing something, I'm constantly going back and fine tuning what came before it.  If I decide to add an aspect to a character, I go back through and find places where I can bring that aspect out.

In fact, most of my writing sessions on my fiction begin with some revision of what has come before to kind of jump start the process and if I've ever let a story rest for too long and the plot feels fallow and the characters stale, one of the best ways to get myself back into its groove is to go back to the beginning and read through what I've written so far with an eye on revision.  Just getting involved in some brush up tends to remind me where my head was and get me back in the game.

I also notice that revision is, for me, a much more intellectual activity while the major drafting (first and second drafts) tend to be the deeply emotional parts of writing.  I notice that for those who tend to make huge changes in revision, the revising is often a much more emotional task.  For me, I can write my early drafts at any time of day, but I need a fresh head and a good night's sleep to tackle revision.  But once my head is clear, I can sit and revise for hours and hours without even needing a break, basically until my fingers or eyes give out, but when I'm writing I have about four good hours in me (and maybe two more if I'm really on a tear) before I feel too emotionally drained to continue--like I've been arguing with a loved one all night or something--cathartic, but exhausting.

That's probably why my really successful marathon writing sessions involve several hours of revision and then several hours of writing afterward.

To answer your last question first, usually I am terrified by the big changes.  That's actually the part I hate the most about revision.  When I feel like something has to change and be completely rewritten, I kind of look at it like an oncoming train...filled with napalm.  I hang my head and sort of feel about it the way you might if your teenager just drove a car through your front door. You can't sue your own kid and they're never going to pay for it out of their allowance. You pretty much have to resign yourself to the horror. Obviously that part of revision has to be done--and I respect the writing process to know that I can't do whatever metaphorical equivalent there is of hanging plastic sheets over the car-shaped hole in the wall and pretending it's not a problem.  Those are my "darlings" and I need to "kill" them, but  I really hate having to pull out all the parts and put them back together again.

So I tend to love the first draft and the 3+ draft and kind of hate the 2nd draft part.

My revision process after I have a rough draft on the page goes a little bit like this:

1- Clean up the glaring bullshit for the second draft.

There's always something that's just bullshit about my stories in a first draft.  Just absolute total fucking steaming pile of bullshit.  I knew it wasn't working when you I was writing it, but I powered through because "shitty first drafts" and "just write" echoed in my head and drove me forward.  When I wrote Penumbra, my first draft had "Norma" calling the main character "cracker" every other word because that was part of the experience that was based on something that had really happened to me. But it didn't fit to reinforce that reverse racism narrative with story's broader themes, so that was one of the first bits to go.  In Falling From Orbit, Millie's father was far too supportive in the original version--he needed to have more of a bite to him so I tweaked him to more closely represent those who assume so called "non-traditional relationships" are pretty much just about sex.  I first wrote The Look as a play.

This is the time to filter through the really big mistakes.  Characters who don't belong.  Multiple scenes doing the same thing story-wise.  Gaping continuity holes.  That sort of thing gets fixed here. This is as close to heavy lifting as I willingly get when I am revising, especially if I can see that major parts of the story (like whole characters or entire motivations) are going to need revision.  I do it because that's what the orgasmic haze of a finished artistic creation demands, but this is my least favorite part of the entire writing process.

[Let me turn away from Amy once more  and back to the camera to give the reading audience one more bit of advice--one solid "rule" about revision amidst all this touchy feeling "whatever works for you" crap:

The computer can make you too vested in what you have on the page.  The ability to "tweak" without changing is too refined.  Once upon a time we had to rewrite the whole manuscript no matter what because typewriters, so making a major change wasn't as scary.  One of the reasons I'm so bad about second draft is that I cut my teeth writing on a word processor (way back on my Macintosh 512k) and you can change a lot without actually having to rewrite a manuscript.  Computers can make writers afraid to make big changes, but those big changes HAVE to happen.

They're like the difference between Game of Thrones and you telling us about your Dungeons and Dragons game last week.

This is why almost every modern writer (and I'm included) says that you should print out at least your first draft and completely retype the whole thing into a new file.  If you're rewriting the damned thing anyway, you will be more likely to accept big changes that your story really needs to be good.

And back to Amy...]

2- Take a break.  

Now is the time to put my story in a drawer for a while. The longer the project, the longer it gets drawered. Ideally I want it in there long enough that I forget what I meant and can see it more objectively, but not so long that when I come back to it I have one of those, "Everything I wrote back in those ignorant days of ignorance was absolute crap!" reaction to it.

3- Tease out what I've found

Now I read my story, and as a careful reader, I'm going to find things I didn't even notice were there when I wrote it. This is a very, very normal part of the process, and virtually every writer talks about it. Almost every discussion we had with published authors in the Creative Writing programmed involved the phrase "Oh, I never noticed that" from the author, at least once, in reference to their own work. (And this was stuff undergrads caught after only one reading--like multiple references to angelic wings or a pervasiveness of the use of streamers of light.) A creative brain is just ROILING under the surface of careful work. It's one of the reasons you really can't just submit first drafts if you want your writing to be at all good. So much good stuff is just out of reach in that first draft. This process is more like careful excavation.

This is possibly the most difficult part of revision for me (even though I enjoy it) because I find that if I am in a very different mood I will see very different things hiding beneath the surface. So it can be both helpful and possibly confusing to approach a work multiple times from multiple frames of mind. I just have to be careful not to let a mood that is antithetical to the work affect me too much or I will change the tone of the piece. I often have difficulty intellectually deciding whether or not to change language, and I often end up changing things back and forth and back and forth during this part.

4- Consider the work artistically

This part will sound like so much bullshit to most, but this is the moment where I actually try to run through a checklist of craft elements and make sure that I've not simply neglected one or another.  I basically want to make sure that every decision in the work is conscious--even if the decision is to leave it out.  Though it is a bit of an artifice to consider the elements separately rather than as part of a tapestry, the list allows me to consider each of the main elements and whether they are working with the elements I discovered in the second draft.

5- Get some readers

Now comes the part I can't do alone. I need people to tell me what is working and what isn't.  I need to find out if something I tried to be subtle about is ham handed or if something I thought I was overdoing was actually invisible.  I can start with a few people I trust including the few folks I consider "my audience" (as in "write for your audience"). But eventually I'm going to need to get readers who might not want to bang me.

The trick (for me) with feedback is knowing that the more it stings, the more they're probably right. A writer who's never had feedback before or never been through workshopping might not know how to filter bad feedback from good feedback (which is one of the reasons to get some feedback flinging oneself into the shark infested waters of critical review), but I have a pretty good feedback-dar for what is worth listening to. Shitty feedback is easy to blow off. It's the stuff that nails me right in the feels that I know is dead on.

Most of my posted fiction is technically still in "beta readers" phase. That is to say that feedback from W.A.W.'s readers would be incorporated (either immediately if it were a small change or into a future version if I felt that the change required a fundamentally new draft).

6- Begin the process of refinement.  

After this point, the story is probably mostly what the story is going to be.  Changes beyond here usually have to do with specific word choices and/or proof reading.  Little things.  It's a process of refinement and feedback.  You might know a plot or a main theme when you're drafting a story, but the more hidden and subtle stuff you don't know so it would be impossible to make choices that reflect them in earlier drafts.  But now you have an idea of those things and even the choice between two synonyms can work for your overall vision.  This is where you get down and basically think about just about every word and whether that is really the right word.

And because I'm not an MFA instructor or an editor of a "proper" literary magazine, I will probably abandon this process sooner than most who concern themselves greatly with "artistic integrity" might.  I will settle for done instead of perfect and Janusprof will shake his head and sigh a deep sigh of sighfullness.

Of course, like any codified artistic process, these steps are rarely separate and distinct, but rather tend to bleed together into a gloosh of activity.  I may be cleaning up bullshit on one part of a story while I feel like another is basically in its final stages of refinement.  Art is never really as clean as artists make it sound.  And they make it sound pretty fucking messy.

Usually the aggregate changes from all those little tweaks does the trick to get me to something I'm happy with.  Like most art, writing starts out in broad brushstrokes and gets more and more detail oriented, so it's rare to discover that an entire character or plot needs to be removed after the first couple of drafts.  Usually that second major rewrite takes care of the big shit like that, and I know I'm going to hate taking an axe to my darlings, but it must be done.  However, every once in a while I do discover, even late in the game, that I'm simply going to have to make some major change, and that is generally when I bust out the fifth of Jack Daniels, put on my French Maid outfit, close my eyes and think of England how much better it's going to be when I'm done.


  1. Replies
    1. Depends on what I'm writing, but I'd say anything I'm trying hard on has had at least 4.

  2. What you wrote about in step3 about interfering with the mood or tone in an inconsistent way, I seem to struggle with that as I feel whatever mood I'm in affects my writing. I wonder if putting it away for less or more time would be helpful..if you have any other ideas on this I'm interested.

    1. As an artist, I struggle that same issue. When I am more depressed, my bright green and yellow painted sprigs of grass could turn darker green and grey and quite messy compared to the original daintily swept ones that I did for most of the bottom part of a mural on my math teacher's wall. I was also painting cat tails, a pond, a frog on a lily pad, and a mallard duck. All of which had to be redone in the same bright and cheery manner I had when I first envisioned and started the mural (in a cheery, optimistic mood).

      By the way Chris, you are hilarious and I love your blog already. I stumbled across it on contentstudio.io