Thursday, March 5, 2015

Andromeda: The Never-Ending Story of Revision

Just When You Think You're on Vacation, It's Time to Revise Again

Almost exactly one year ago,I wrote about how many times I’d already revised a certain novel-in-progress and how I could no longer see clearly enough to keep rewriting it. I was sending it off into the publishing world, fingers crossed.

One year passed: more revisions (even though I had said I couldn’t see past my blind spots anymore), submission and acceptance, a visit to my editor in New York, some new notes, one cashed check (which doesn’t mean the work is finished), and…I am revising again. Only one week to go until the final deadline, in fact. I’m pretty happy with the beginning—which just happens to be the most revised part—and hoping that feeling will stick. But who knows? If there is anything I’ve learned over the last decade, it’s that there isn’t one way to open any particular novel. There isn’t one way to do anything in a novel.

Just a little while ago, having not re-read my own manuscript for many months and prior to receiving my editor’s excellent notes, I confessed to my daughter and her friend that I was pretty sick of this novel, actually. Then I clicked open that file folder (64 different versions inside, and these were just the ones I'd renamed and saved), and the work itself pumped me with new energy, affection for the manuscript, and optimism for the challenges ahead. I had let things settle well enough to be able to see again. My editor’s detailed notes pointed out new places to explain better or to show more, things that I thought were clear (but weren’t), and as always micro-level errors of repetition that I should have noticed but didn’t. I also dove back into my research, re-reading background materials I first read two or three years ago. Even at this stage, new details jumped out at me. Things that hadn’t seemed important to include when I barely knew my characters (who are based on real people) seemed urgent this week. I’m glad I re-opened those manila folders to take a look.

When it comes to revision, we all need at least two things:

Time. Lots of it, with periods of rest between our revision attempts.

External feedback: friends, fellow writers, agents, editors, teachers. Other people can see what we can’t. That’s why an old pro like Philip Roth kept using peer readers right up until his retirement.

The difference between the writer I am now, and the writer I was ten years ago, is that I do more—not fewer— drafts. I consider deeper structural changes. I’m less likely to give up. I have more endurance and, I hope, more tools in my writer’s toolbox. Like Alaskan Rachel Weaver,who wrote an inspiring post about revision just this week, I now consider my willingness to revise deeply an essential part of my writerly identity.

I’ve heard there are a few writers who work very slowly and carefully, fixing things up as they go, line by line, and are basically finished at the end of the first draft. That’s not me, and I’d be willing to bet it’s not you, either. It isn’t Louise Erdrich. In 2010, she said she was revising one of her long-ago published novels, The Antelope Wife, still trying to get the ending right, with the intent to re-publish. (And won’t it be fun to read the two versions side by side?)

If you have a novel or memoir that is at least halfway done, and are looking for some revision guidance and a chance to workshop, but can’t find time for a face-to-face class or simply prefer the convenience of online instruction, please consider my next 49 Writers offering: a six-week online Revision Intensive that begins April 5, a month from now. You still have time to sign up and prepare. 

Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of The Spanish Bow, The Detour, and Behave, a forthcoming novel about psychologists Rosalie Rayner Watson and John Watson. She teaches in the UAA MFA low-residency program and for 49 Writers. 

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