I don’t want you to stress about revision.
I don’t want you to because I already do, and it’s way too much for anyone’s good.
You can come up with all the formulas and processes and formalities you like (and trust me, I’ve got a pile of Lyn’s Rules for Revision, and checklists, and rubrics), BUT you must accept, at the end of the day, that
REVISION IS LIKE A CAT.
You will never know if it likes you. You will never be sure that the work invested is really working. You must keep leaving out the treats and trusting in the process that will eventually come back to you. You must accept that the idea you once thought so brilliant will slink away to undiscovered, dusty places, never to return. It didn’t look so good in daylight and needs to stay out of sight.
Meanwhile, the idea you’d rather not pursue? It sneaks up on you and places a cold, wet nose on your skin, nudging you to do the thing you think you cannot do to that manuscript. You better get up from your nap, or in the middle of the night, and feed the damn thing.
Revision always seems to be in control.
And that’s okay. It’s not your fault. For those control freaks out there (myself included): just like you will never a master a cat, you will never, ever master the art of revision. Unless, of course, you prefer to produce books that are based on a formula and might be better written by AI.
Some people hate cats (“snakes with fur,” anyone?) and some love them. Sorry, dog lovers, but you must learn to love the feline nature of revision.
“Hold on loosely,” like the song says, because the moment you think you’ve mastered the process, it will squirm away from you. And there’s no need to get scratched.
Listen to each work of art. Keep notes on your discoveries of how best to revise THIS particular novel, and let that be your guide.
Like our beloved felines, each book’s revision process is different. You must stay open to the the nature of surprise that is revision. It’s mercurial, it’s fluid, it’s mutable. Like creativity. You can show up with the food and the warm bed by the fire and the cat might just wander over…if it feels like it. Revision, let’s face it, is a constant and annoying process–it never goes away, and as author David Jauss argues, it starts immediately.
Since revision is reimagining, it often means generating new material, and we need that catlike fluidity, flexibility, and fluency–three elements of creativity. We need to see revision for what it is: surprises found in unknown crevices of feedback and brainstorming, and the humbling knowledge that the process, not us, is often in control. (Who owns a cat?)
How are you making time and space that is conducive to that kind of creativity, where you are challenging yourself to re-see your work?
Maybe it’s the quiet of a sleeping house so your nocturnal or early-morning thoughts can roam and get your story into trouble. Maybe it’s a delicious treat for you (latte) and something chicken-flavored for the cat. Maybe it’s the warmth of feedback on a deadline, someone rooting for you: a great beta reader, writer’s group, or agent. Think like a cat: what’s the MOST comfortable setting for your greatest creativity? What treats send you back to the page, motivated to start again?
What will shake your story up?
Author Corey Ann Haydu recommends tossing a “purple monster” in the midst of your story and seeing what happens. Try adding something so totally off the wall you have to write circles around it till it makes sense. You’ll see your characters become surprising contortionists, and you will make discoveries. I don’t recommend this “just because”: I recommend Haydu’s approach when feedback is telling you your story is lacking and you can’t quite figure out what will make it right.
Revision will keep pawing on the door till you do it.
You can’t skip it anymore than you can skip feeding a cat. It will meow at you constantly till you put in the hours, and I do mean months.
HOWEVER: you can’t always revise. Sometimes you must play music louder to drown out the pawing, because it might not be the best time to mess with your pages (and yet your cat is still on the other side of that glass door, staring you down). Instead it might be time to immerse yourself in scene, live it and breathe it, and tell us that tale. Just write the thing, and put your perfectionistic self on hold. Recite mantras of openness, trust, and vulnerability. Refuse to listen to voices of doubt. Leave notes and markers that say “return to add details” or “need to research x.” Sometimes you must pull the shades on that beast paw-paw-pawing on your glass door and turn up some Mozart, Boy George, or Bach.
But come on, where are the Rules?
Even cats need vaccinations and stuff. I live for checklists and questions to help me be better a reviser, so here are some that can be the care and feeding of your Revision Cat:
- Every story should be asking one or more questions and striving to answer them in some way. Do you know the Grand Story Question? (This term is compliments of Margaret Bechard and Will Dunn, authors.) Teachers, you know this as an Essential Question. If you don’t know why this story is here, or why you’re exploring it, start asking yourself some questions about it. Note I didn’t use the words “theme” or “message,” because as author Martine Leavitt notes, you don’t want to be a didactic or pedantic writer trying to express a moral here. You’re taking a journey of discovery and at some point, you want to know what you’re asking of your characters and the world. It doesn’t mean others will see the same questions, but that’s okay; if your book is rich, it will probably raise myriad questions.
- What does your character want–an external desire, perhaps obvious to many–and what does your character need--an internal desire, perhaps not so obvious to the character? If you can’t answer both or either, start mulling.
- What is the voice, mood, and tone of your book? Try reading the first page aloud and then try explaining one of these three things to someone. (There are very clear distinctions between these three, but if you can wrap your head around at least one of them for now, it will inform how you revise everything from plot to sentence level).
I could give you a whole big revision checklist but that’s not the voice/mood/tone of this post. I’ve already overstayed my feline welcome here. Stay tuned for more rumination and tips on this topic.
The Story Question Rubric (coming soon)