Old article-thing here. It originally ran on The Cult back in . . . sometime between 2005 and 2008? But The Cult went away sometime the last year or two, so I had to dig this up from a cache, copy and paste it here to sort of save it:—SGJ
The biggest lie I tell myself about revising is that I do it as I go. You’ve heard this, right? I don’t think I’m coming up with anything new here, anyway. And, it’s a seductive thing to believe-to want to believe, at least. And the finished products even tend to support it. Take a novel, say, and note how that first paragraph, that first scene, maybe even that first chapter, it sings, it gleams, it sets a standard which, if the rest of the novel could rise to meet it, or just keep up, man, that book, it would be a bulletproof thing. But nearly every time, that level of quality, that shine, that attention to words or loyalty to story or clarity of vision or whatever, it slackens and wobbles and wanes, until you’ve got a squid-ending: a big cloud of ink standing in for what might have been, what the writer was almost able to grab, hold out for you to see.
But things fall apart, of course. There comes a point in your novel where you’ve got enough pages stacked up behind you that recrossing them just to get to your starting point, it’d take all day, and you’ll never move forward like that. While you’ve been able to, though, yeah: that opening, you’ve been through it so many times that there’s simply nothing left to tweak. It’s perfect. Unrepeatable. Nevermind that your readers are fully expecting it to repeat, and will consider the book a disappointment when it doesn’t repeat.
And, ideally here, the trick we’d all come up with to get around this problem is, instead of rereading from the beginning of the piece each time you sit down, just rereading (and tweaking) the last twenty or thirty pages. This way, the opening wouldn’t just get the microscope treatment, but pretty much the whole work would.
And of course we’ve all figured this out as well too.
So why do we keep getting novels that are pretty up front, less so the nearer we get to the end?
Really, I think it has less to do with how many times you’ve gone over it and more to do with how people conceive novels. Usually, when you get that flash of how this story can work perfectly, you get either a cool, perfect opening scene, which you suspect can only lead to cooler, more perfect things,(1) or you get an ending already fully-formed. Which is to say you don’t get the middle parts very much; the slog. These, you usually have to dream up, guess at.
Meaning there shouldn’t be this preponderance of strong beginnings, I know. Or at least they shouldn’t outweigh the strong endings. The trick is, though, an ending is only strong and perfect if it perfectly sums up or answers or (fairly) twists everything that’s come before. By itself, it may be beautiful, but, tacked onto a mess, no such luck.
Opening scenes of course don’t have to worry about this, and so can be beautiful in isolation.
And no, I’m not wholly disagreeing that first scenes are cleaner because they’ve been gone over more, revised more, I’m just suggesting that the extra attention they seem to get is effective because openings tend to be better or more fully conceived. Thus the disparity in quality-why they tend to make promises the rest of the book won’t be able to keep. To put it differently, oftentimes polishing a piece as you go, I don’t know: you can’t help it, yeah. But at the same time, it’s a lot like waxing the car while it’s still in primer.
So, back to the lie, that I only realized was a lie when I heard myself saying it at a reading once: that I never leave a sentence or a paragraph or a chapter etc until it’s as good as I can get it. Because, writing like this, where it’s two steps back for each step forward, you’re supposed to be able to reach that final page and just be done with the thing.
The trick here, of course, is that the lie isn’t in the first statement-that you never leave a sentence until you think it’s working-but in the thing going on under that: that that last page is a ramp you run up, to jump back into the world, because your time with this piece is obviously done; the piece is obviously done.
Instead, yeah, that last page is more of a loop, really.
When I first started writing fiction-this is 1991, I’m nineteen-I never rewrote anything. Once or twice I think I slapped a new title on a story. Okay: once also I rigged up two separate endings for the same story, because I couldn’t decide which worked better (note the use of ‘better’ there, instead of ‘least bad’). But, the way I saw it, the only reason you’d ever rewrite a piece is because you were afraid that, after this, the well was dry, you’d probably never have any other compelling lies to tell, all that.
Being full of lies, I of course wrote new stories instead of fixing broke ones.
And, yes, this is what I still do.
So what am I doing here, in a piece about revising, right?
The obvious: in 1998, I started writing novels. Which are a lot more difficult to throw away, replace with better, less-broken novels. Granted, my preference is still to just kick out book after book, let them stack up around me into some kind of crazy-halled house, but of course too I want each to be not just as good as I can get it, but as good as it can be.
Example: this one novel I have right now-it’s listed on the book sites, but was never actually published-the first draft of it I brought to my then-editor, I think it was around three hundred pages. Maybe five hundred. Between three- and five-hundred, anyway. And the editor read them, said the usual stroke-job stuff, but then suggested that I do this one thing differently. Which involved tearing it down to about ten pages, building it back up from there, in a completely different direction.
With enough medication, I managed to do this in a few weeks, got it built back to four-hundred or so gleaming-pretty pages. Then it was like my editor was reading off the back of a shampoo bottle: rinse, repeat; rinse, repeat.
So I did it again: tore the book down to twenty or so pages, built it up again, in a direction I hadn’t even thought possible.
And, yeah, it was painful and it hurt-I essentially scrapped two wholly serviceable novels in order to wend my around to a third, which was itself to be scrapped in favor of a fifty-percent new fourth-but, too, aside from what I learned about the give and take of forced revision, the ‘endless compromises’ Getty Lee’s been telling us about for years, where ‘suggestions’ are actually demands, I learned a lot about the utility of revision. I mean, for my first two novels(2), the changes I made to them were by and large cosmetic. Which was a treat and a gift and a rare privilege, yeah, the advantage of working with a small press. And, I’m not saying I didn’t learn anything with All the Beautiful Sinners, either, just that what I learned there is common-sense, really: never give somebody pieces of your as-yet unfinished novel to critique. Because, without the end, which can and should re-inflect everything, there’s little to no hope of getting anything like a helpful suggestion. Whether you’re working with an editor, friend, enemy or family-member (or some Hydra-like hybrid therein). I mean, whenever I’m helping someone with a novel, they always ask if, A), I want to talk it through with them first, and, B), if I want to see it chapter by gleaming chapter.
The answer to both is always no, and please no.
Both for the reason I just mentioned and because I’m superstitious about even talking about unfinished things. Too, though, I’d much rather be forced to work with somebody in that ‘installment’ manner than to work with somebody who’s been writing the same novel for ten years now. Just because there comes a time when revising smacks of resuscitation, and what you really need is somebody to put their hand on your shoulder, give you some Michael Landon look of consolation, and shake their head once, no.
But I was talking about that other novel, which I’ve written five times now, I guess. And realizing suddenly how cornball it would be for me to tell you that it’s perfect because of all that revision-You’d take my word on it, maybe?
The process of revising it, though, that I can talk about, I think.
In the first draft of this, this is exactly the point where I started listing ‘Revising Tips & Tricks,’ I think it was. That was a week ago, when, after rereading those craptacular tips and tricks, I decided that no, I really didn’t have anything useful to say about revising-I mean, I don’t even teach it in the classroom. I suggest it of course, say it’s a good idea, much like oral hygiene or safe sex (not mutually exclusive, there), I even make all kinds of suggestions on stories for how they should be fixed, but I always politely (I hope) but insistently refuse to look at them later. Just because one place you never ever ever want to be is in the neurotic little cesspool of some other writer’s attempts to overcome his or her internal hurdles/deal with his or her issues/etc. Not saying that’s not a good and necessary place to be, just that that’s a place you’re in alone. I mean, sure, we’ll step into that tepid bathwater with you for a few minutes, but once you start circling that drain, we’re stepping out too, and probably locking the bathroom door behind us. Then raiding your refrigerator.
Too, in the second section up there, there was this huge long digression where I tried to explain how I learned revising by watching the deleted scenes for Ravenous over and over and over again, and then I tried to convince you that the theatrical release of The Butterfly Effect was just far superior to the director’s cut, which suggests that sometimes the intervention of a third party (producer, editor) can be absolutely invaluable, and save you failure, embarrassment, all that fun.
Then too, unfinished, I had all these possibly ‘clever’ notes about the word itself, ‘revision,’ that splitting it in two told you all you needed to know, really. But that finally comes down either to ‘be objective’ or ‘look at it from the audience’s point-of-view,’ neither of which are all that revolutionary, I don’t think.
And, that piece about the bathwater a couple of paragraphs above: it’s a lift from another now-deleted bit.
All of which is to say now, finally, fifteen years after I started writing, I revise.
And yes, this feels like a confession, like I should be mouthing my name into a crackly microphone then waiting with downcast eyes for your validation.
Either that or I should be grinning, maybe, thinking I managed to smuggle in some of what I cut.
But the important thing, I think, I hope, is that I did cut. And the selection process there, which, finally, comes down to the main and only possibly-helpful thing I have to say about revision. Which I learned from Seven Spanish Angels (the unpublished one), yes, but from Demon Theory maybe even more (which I’ve rewritten just as much, if not more). Simply put, know your weaknesses as a writer, and then cull them, fix them.
I mean, with me-and, I hate talking about my own stuff like this, but I’m the only person I have this kind of access to, finally-these are my apparently intractable weaknesses, I think:
- Overcomplification. Itself a complicated, probably made-up word. But, I get about thirty pages into a novel, and I get suddenly nervous that, just because I can see the end so clearly, then the reader can too, so I throw up all this dust and smoke, all these insane characters and twisted plot lines, in hopes of getting the reader lost in the maze, so I can tunnel their vision down at the end, to whatever end I have half-planned. Meaning what I always have to do the second, third, and fourth times through is dig for dramatic throughlines-something on page twenty which I can connect in some causal, casual way with something on page one-twenty, which’ll allow me to kill the hundred pages between. And, sometimes, I have to force these, even: copy the novel into a scratch file, then randomly cut out thirty-page blocks, see if the bleeding edges don’t try to grow back together.
- Hallucinatory crap. Where both the content of the scene and the prose being used to render it are all smeary. I think this is maybe supposed to be cool, or impressionistic, even Joycean maybe, I don’t know (lie: it’s probably me aping Pynchon). What it comes down to, however, is me being the only one with even a remote clue what’s going on, much less what’s at stake. Not saying it doesn’t make my heart just thump to write this kind of stuff. Just that-like with that litmus test for science fiction, say: can this story be pulled off without those tentacle monsters and their laser guns? That is, will the emotional core of the story remain without the distraction of the tentacle monsters? Could the tentacle monster instead just be the big kids down the block, their lasers now dirtclods? If so-if nothing will be lost-then yeah, make it a neighborhood story rather than an interstellar one. The same with the hallucinatory stuff: if you can render it in some Chekhov/Carver/Hemingway-ish prose, which is always grounded in things that are real, then, hey, maybe give it a shot, at least?
- ‘Wet’ scenes or chapter endings. As opposed to ‘dry.’ Which is to say I always dance just as close as I can to the melodramatic, like Richard Hugo suggests. Even the sentimental. Which is fine and great, but, yeah, in moderation, I suspect. Sometimes a person needs just to walk out of a room, not have all this thematic (etc) baggage dragging behind him.
- Em-dashes and ellipses. I overuse them. I mean, with em-dashes, if I’m not careful, my prose can look like poorly formatted Emily Dickenson. And, ellipses-Is there a cornier punctuation? This isn’t to say I’m not addicted to them, either. And colons and semi-colons as well. I mean, really, I should be able to limp along quite fine, even run occasionally, with just the standard periods and commas. Or, looking at it from the other side: those em-dashes and ellipses lose a lot of their punch when overused. And italics too, which I use the same way beginning screenwriters use character direction: to try to absolutely control how this or that line is said. And yeah, in this bullet-point alone there two colons and a em-dash. For me, that’s restraint.
- Logical coordinators. ‘Though,’ ‘although,’ ‘but,’ ‘yet,’ ‘however,’ ‘anyway,’ etc. Which aren’t that dissimilar to semi-colons and colons and em-dashes, really. But I use them to death. Sometimes I wish my keyboard wouldn’t even let me type them. I so envy those writers (see: Walker Percy, or Ross McDonald) who can get through their prose without pole-vaulting along on ‘though’ and ‘but.’ So, for me, a big part of revision is isolating as many of these as I can, and then excising, making the surrounding sentences work without them.
Or, really, to break out of this little list, which is suddenly threatening to go for pages and make me hate myself and go beg for one of my old jobs back, what it all finally comes down to for me is identifying indulgences in either my prose or my story. Those places where it swells up with this or that or whatever for non-story reasons, essentially. Where I’m chasing down rabbits which are either only of interest to me, or are only running in the first place because I’m nervous about being able to pull off this storytelling thing.
But how to be ‘objective’ enough to know your own weaknesses, right?(3)
I mean, how can you really and finally be your own best reader, that reader who both strictly adheres to Poe’s dictum (If it doesn’t contribute to the end, it doesn’t belong) and can then go into the story, cull those non-contributing parts, and then add in those pieces which anybody but you is going to need to navigate the story?
How can you be your own editor, yeah.
Answer: you can’t.
And no, I’m not going to recast ‘objectivity’ here as ‘being honest with yourself’ or anything.
I will, however, suggest that you look around, at whomever you usually give your fiction to, for help. Is your best reader the person who’s read your stuff the most, maybe? It’s that way with me. I mean, my best reader, she’s been putting up with my useless little tricks for years now, and can identify the moment, the word, the letter when I go off on some new and improved kaleidoscopic adventure, and rein me back in to the story at hand.
But, if we agree to this, that the person who’s most familiar with your work is perhaps the most helpful reader, then of course the next step is Why isn’t that person you? Has anybody read your stuff as much as you have? Probably not.
Like, that list I made above, it’s something I have my students do at the end of the semester sometimes: evaluate their own stuff; identify where they always do this same damn thing. And no, I usually don’t have some quick-fix for whatever they’re doing, the same as I don’t have some quick-fix for all the mistakes I insist on making story after story, time after time.
I am, however, at least becoming more aware of my many deficiencies, and can usually sap them on the head a time or two when rewriting.
So, my invective here, it’s, first, to simply write enough that you can line up 500,000 or so words, in stories and novels and whatever, and then find what’s familiar about each of them, what they each share, what you keep doing time and again, and then see if those repeating bits or developments or whatever, if they’re actually working. If they’re not, then be happy: even if your next story has them, now at least you’ll know, that second time through, to kill them dead and bury them deep, and to tamp the earth down over them, pack the words down tight enough that, maybe, the next story, you won’t even have to deal with all this.
It’s a lie that you won’t have to, of course, but without a few lies we wouldn’t be able to write at all.
(1) Movie executives seem particularly susceptible to this.
(2) Talking order of composition here, not publication order (an order itself upset by Demon Theory, which I wrote right after Fast Red Road, right before Bird is Gone). By publication order, All the Beautiful Sinners is second, when in fact it’s something like fifth or sixth, I’d guess. Though you’d never guess that.
(3) To say nothing about how to be ‘objective’ enough to realize you’re using rhetorical questions as a structuring device, and then trying to cover that by being the first to point at it, etc.