• Here’s the Story

    I wrote a book called The Forest for the Trees and it’s an advice book for writers. For four years, I blogged every day about the agony of writing and publishing, and the self loathing that afflicts most writers. A community of like-minded malcontents gathered and thus ensued a grand conversation. Now, the most popular posts are gathered in Greatest Hits ( a work in progress) Gluttons for punishment can scroll through the archives. If I've learned one thing about writers, it's this: we really are all alone. Love, Betsy
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Some Things Never Change

When I wrote poems, what I really loved was revising. Counting syllables, interior rhymes, turning quatrains into couplets, scrutinizing every line break for its potential drama or opportunity. I just loved the shit. Revising prose is another animal completely. There is nothing more thrilling than to read a work that has been transformed through the art/craft of revision. On the other hand, there is nothing more disheartening than to send away a writer with meaningful notes and have them return weeks later with a “revision” when you the know the work required would take a few months.

Sometimes, writers will send me a memo with the revision outlining everything they have done and explaining why they didn’t take certain notes. These documents are as boring as synopses. My only interest is the revision and I want to read it without the benefit of a road map. After all, there won’t be a note for the reader: took out that detail about my mother because she would kill me. Sometimes if you address one change, other problems automatically resolve. I never care if a writer takes my notes so much as uses them. There’s a great charge from working with a writer when the collaboration produces something more powerful than originally anticipated. I think editors live for this feeling; it’s akin to consummation.

There are six basic types of revisers with many variations. They are: the “pay as you play” meaning your revise each sentence again and again before moving forward; the “slasher” who mostly cuts; the “tinkerer” changes one word such as cup for mug and back to cup; the “padder” who keeps adding sometimes to good effect, sometimes not; the “architect” who drastically alters the structure; the “mule” who can not change very much; and the “hawk” who sees it all and kills it.

How do you go about the work of revising? Any advice? Nightmares? Successes? Secrets?

30 Responses

  1. If I decide to revise anything I write, and that’s often, I will revise it again and again….and again and again. For both novels and poetry, I go through it line by line, making sure everything is where it should be. That’s how I revise. It is tedious but necessary if I want the work to be good.

  2. My first draft is redundancy ad nauseum, saying the same thing 25 different ways. Slash ‘em all but the first, leaving just one way of saying it, and I’ve edited out 4/5s of my original draft.

  3. I’m a slasher. Love the term. Two agents gave me revisions on my novel and I took them all. Love getting suggestions, when I agree with them, that is. I took your suggestions on my pitch and I slashed away. I’ll find out in the morning if it works. (Another sleepless night?) After so much revising, I can’t be objective anymore; but if I hear a professional opinion that rings true, I know it cause it hits me in the gut. And then I’m glad to do it.

  4. I guess I’m a padder. I tend to write very sparingly. But such a slippery slope! I’m looking forward to building my file of rejection slips and suggestions.

  5. The sun rose like a sleepy baby lion, no; the hot sun popped up like a child’s lost balloon; no; the blazing ball severed the pink sky; no; the sun came up .
    ahhhhhh no; …..I guess I need more coffee. I’ve been revising this sentence for three weeks.!!!!

  6. You know, revision is a great and under-discussed topic. I recently brought it up with the students in one of my writing workshops, and I recommend to everyone an essay by Jane Smiley on the subject: “What Stories Teach Their Writers: The Purpose and Practice of Revision.” It’s in an anthology called Creating Fiction, released by the AWP.

    My belief is that if you don’t know how to revise, you don’t know how to write. Because let’s face it, who spits it out perfectly the first time? Personally, I’m one of those people who revises their sentences so many times as they are in the act of being typed that I have to stop myself (sometimes I do this by typing into a black screen. Can’t mess with my words if I can’t see ‘em.) Then there’s the whole next layer of revision: understanding what it is that you’ve produced and trying to honor it with your structure. That’s the hardest part, for me. It means taking everything everything apart and scattering it and then pulling it all back together again. Feels like being disemboweled. That’s where I’m at right now. Hurts.

    Some notes from famous writers on their processes, revision and otherwise, here. They are mostly as tormented and kooky as the rest of us, as far as I can tell, which I find…comforting.

  7. Thanks Nancy….I saved the article and will look for the book!

    “black screen; taking everything everything apart; feels like being disembowdled; hurts; tormented and kooky…comforting”
    I am so happy to be a writer! I am tormented! the grass needs mowing, the dishes are piled high and there’s an odor coming from the frig; dog hair is stuck to the toilet paper; I just stepped on that broken glass from, oh, I think last week. But, I keep writing until the neighbors call the health department because I haven’t been outside since January.

  8. When I clean out my closet (every three years or so) I drag every single thing out, hangers, shoes, socks, pocketbooks, belts, and throw it all in a big pile in the middle of my bedroom and after walking around it for about a week to get to the bathroom, I dig in and begin to sort (an existential exercise, trying to decide what has meaning and what doesn’t), throw out about two-thirds of the shit, and then try and make sense of what stays…a lengthy and pain-staking (bordering on OCD) process. Pretty much how I go about revising (I don’t know why I’m doing this because I hate extended metaphors). Fill the pages on impulse, pretty much vomit it up, and then stare at the pile/puddle until certain aspects emerge…and then begin the making sense part…which is why I’m four and a half years into my first rewrite…

  9. In revisions I try to sharpen details (ie “yellow-breasted chat” instead of “bird”) and get rid of self-indulgent bits (hard!). I write too thin in first drafts and have to add a lot. I also slash whole sections that don’t work, tinker endlessly with sentences etc. I’m definitely not a mule because I know that skilful editing can transform a solidly good ms into an excellent one.

  10. I use to be a padder because I thought my economy of words was a flaw. Killing 70k words off the novel I think gains me the prestigious title of serial slasher.

  11. I’m a big fat fake as far as being a writer. I didn’t go to writing school. I don’t know the rules. I know how the story begins and ends. It’s all that middle stuff that’s the problem. If only books didn’t have to have a middle.

    I’ve managed to get as far as I have because evidently I have a voice that agents and editors like. I didn’t mean to have one. It just came with the rest of me, and I guess sometimes publishing folks look for that.

    I’m a slow writer because I have to wait until the story appears. Then I obsess over each chapter and creep along until I get to the finish line.

    I know I’m lacking in the plotting department and story arcs baffle me (I didn’t even know there was such a thing until a few months ago) so before I send my ms in, I hire a good freelance editor to save me from myself. It’s not that I’m wealthy, but my kids are grown, the braces are paid for, there are no more music lessons or sports camps, so that money goes to an expert who knows about middles.

  12. I’m a revise-as-I-go person. I have always remembered this quote from William Langewiesche (in Robert Boynton’s New New Journalism) because of the last line. That last line is perfect:

    “I write straight through, start to finish. I have a hard time writing sections out of order—I’m too neurotic, or perfectionistic, and I feel that I’m missing opportunities when I write without knowing every detail of what has come before. The revisions, as I said, are continual. The process is something like a wave on the beach, breaking forward, lapping back.”

    Having said that, working with a good editor is one of the few real joys on this crap-infested planet. I choose my battles carefully (that is, what changes I do or don’t make), and I never explain preemptively to my editor. The writing has to speak for itself–or fail trying. If it’s the latter? Well, that’s when the best conversations begin. Some of us writers live for that consummation as well, Betsy.

  13. Slasher. One hundred percent. I get a masochistic pleasure from my own red pen.

  14. I pay-as-I-play and I tinker. Revising is–hands down–my favorite part of the writing process. I fucking hate writing. I LOVE having written, and I love playing with the words on the page and reading them aloud to the dog again and again.

    Broader structure revisions are a big, fat bummer. I always thought my agent/editor would be all up in that shit. Ha. My agent says I was born 50 years too late and Max Perkins is dead. Sigh. Off-topic.

  15. More hawk than mule, I have a few of the attributes you mention, especially architect and slasher. I don’t tinker, and I don’t pad. I work incrementally and restructure as I go, building the book sentence to section for thematic effect.

    Your agent disappointment with a client’s revisions set me thinking, (worrying), about my agent requested revisions recently submitted. I haven’t heard back yet and am in that uncomfortable mental waiting room hoping my efforts pass muster.

  16. Bonnie,

    I used to have plotting problems too but I took a page from screenwriters who really know how to make a story work. Favorite book hands down is John Truby called The Anatomy of a Story: 22 steps to becoming a master storyteller. Blew the top of my head off its that good. Totally changed the way I wrote.

    • Thank you, Karen. I checked it out on Amazon. Great reviews from the trade publications and readers, too. I’ll order it when I find another book I want, so I’ll get free shipping. Thanks again!

  17. I’m “pay-as-you-play.” I can’t even imagine doing it any other way! But as long as it gets done…

  18. Can someone who is ‘pay-as-you-play’ please ‘splain me how you ever get through a first draft that way? I always feel like I’m using a totally different part of my writing brain for a first draft than I do when I’m going back to revise and I can’t do the later comfortably until I have 200 to 300 pages down. I would think I would never get the momentum to get through a draft if I were critiquing as I went because I can only move forward by thinking ‘fuck it, if it sounds like garbage I will rewrite it later’.

    • I don’t feel that I have a choice. If I know a section is garbage–worse, I mean, than my usual garbage–I can’t continue. I hear it sneering at me every time I sit down. It’d be like driving across country with an awful grinding sound coming from under the hood of my Pinto.

      I don’t really get momentum–I just keep writing.

      I like this: “I never care if a writer takes my notes so much as uses them.” The best editors know that they’re great at pinpointing problems, but not so great at offering solutions. That’s our job.

      Not so much, this: “… when you the know the work required would take a few months.” Nobody know that but the author. You don’t read my memo, I don’t check your calendar.

      • Yeah, I took 2 weeks on an agent’s revisions, but in that two weeks I did nothing else, stayed up all night, etc. Like I was on speed. Right after I handed it in, I read on some blog that it looks bad to hand it in too soon. I thought, Oi Vey, he’s gonna think I did a rush job. Well, maybe I did, but it was perfect, just what he wanted. And then he didn’t take it.

      • Yeah, it’s probably wise to hold onto things for a few extra weeks, maybe sending anguished emails now and then, but who has the patience? I live in a state of constant urgency. If I don’t sell something this month, screw it, I’m getting a job. Okay, -this- month. Okay, by June 1st. Definitely by June 15th.

        Have you ever mentioned what you write? I checked your website and now wanna write a noirish mystery about a gay Jewish songwriter/psychic.

        Probably already been done.

      • Yeah, by me. Maybe Kensington would have offered you more if you stuck in the gay part. I’ve tried them (leaving out the Jewish songwriter part) and they didn’t offer me squat. I’m just too “literary” for them. At this point, I’d take 3K.

      • That $3,000 book never sold. Neither did the next one. I don’t really know the answer to Betsy’s question about what drives us to write, but at some point simply refusing to quit out of spite worked for me. There’s something satisfyingly aggressive about making people read my stuff–especially if they don’t like it. Maybe I can’t write, but I can sure as hell make them waste time reading. When you think about it, there’s something almost penetrative about forcing editors and agents to take in a chunk of whatever you send them. I’d say more, but I’ve got brokestraightboys open in another window …

      • Interesting. This perhaps explains why I also never get anything on my car fixed until it breaks down and almost run out of gas on the freeway at least once a month. True story.

  19. This meditation on revision–especially your intimation of poetry–is just lovely.
    This obsession–”Counting syllables, interior rhymes, turning quatrains into couplets, scrutinizing every line break for its potential drama or opportunity”–I share with you. Exquisite, isn’t it, the way the act of revising a poem makes the world vanish for a short while.

  20. [...] quote literary agent Betsy Lerner, “I never care if a writer takes my notes so much as uses [...]

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