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A Time To Be Born, A Time To Die

Dear Betsy: I’m a big fan of the blog and both of your books, especially Food and Loathing. I have a question about revision. How many revisions are too many? When should you put a project away and start something new? Or is giving up a mistake? NAME WITHHELD

Dear Revisionist:

This question has challenged talmudic scholars for years. No answer on the horizon though much discussion.  Sometimes I think you have to be very holistic about revision, understanding that even if you put something away, all the work that you put it into will register in future works the way mastering a piece of music enables you to move up a rung. Revision has also been compared to finger painting. It looks great as you add one color after another and then one color too many it’s all brown and there is no turning back. Some people revise the way my mother criticizes me, little by little. Others slash and burn. Some people wait until the manuscript or poem is done, then start revising. Others can’t move from one sentence to the next unless it’s perfect (seeming). When do you stop revising? When do I stop dieting? NEVER. When do call it quits? When it would more liberating to start something new. When it bores you. When it hurts. When ten years have gone by. When the earth cracks open and an ancient hand reaches out and touches your cheek.

How do you decide to put a piece down? When do you keep revising?

34 Responses

  1. I have two computers, a general purpose computer connected to the internet and my writing computer which is not connected to the internet. I was in the midst of working on my writing computer revising a story I’ve been working on for more than a few years when I heard my internet connected computer ding on the arrival of a new e-mail which was, of course, this blog posting. I really need to get back to working on my story (I normally don’t even have my internet computer on when I’m writing) but for now I’ll just say that revision is never done. I worked on my first published story for seven years before it was accepted for publication and I’ve read the story a few time in public and I revised it at each reading, speaking aloud words and phrasings not in the printed version of my story. If and when it ever appears in an short story collection, the story collection version will be different than the originally published version and with a different title. “Them” by Joyce Carol Oates (Betsy mentioned this book in a recent blog) won a National Book Award and the publishers allowed Oates to revise the text for a new printing a few years back. My wife is a painter and she points out that mistakes in painting can sometimes be corrected but they are more often irreversible. One of the beauties of language is that if we don’t get it right the first time, we can change the words until it’s right. The story I was just working on has driven me crazy for several years. I think it may be my best work yet and I’m going to keep working on it until I think it’s done and I think I’m really close to that point which contradicts what I’ve written earlier. I think there are some stories that are good, perhaps even great, that could be greater with some minor revisions and then there are stories that are just perfect. I can think of tons but for now I’ll just name a few:

    “Kiss” by Tobias Wolff
    “A & P” by John Updike
    “Life Expectancy” by Holly Goddard Jones
    “Rock Springs” by Richard Ford

    That’s just four. I could name many more but I’ve got to get back to revising my own story and I’m cutting off my internet connected computer. Good night everyone.

    Take care

    Keith Hood

  2. “How do you decide to put a piece down? When do you keep revising?”

    I never consider a piece finished until it’s published. I’m always open to revision. I can keep hammering at a good idea until I’ve either wrecked it or fashioned it into something decent, and sometimes I can tell the difference.

    (And I revised the hell out of this comment before I posted it.)

  3. Oof, this hits home in a way that makes my teeth hurt and my toes curl. I can’t seem to give up even when I know I should.

  4. It hurts and it bores me, but if ten years is the limit, apparently I have a ways to go yet. Thanks for that.

    • Don’t be fooled, Sherry. That 10 year thing can be a clever disguise.

      I’m a slash and burn-er. Then I freak for months about what I slashed and burned. It never ends.

      I am SUCH a ray of sunshine today. All bright and shiny.

  5. You put it away when the story just isn’t good enough and nothing you do can make it so. I think you know in your gut when it just isn’t there, but a trusted person just outside of reach might be the answer.

    I wait until the whole thing is done. Then it’s time for gastrointestinal bypass. If that doesn’t fix it, it goes in a drawer.

  6. When that ancient hand punches me in the face It says, you thought you were done, did, ya? Being a human is such a task. It’s independence day around here, so I’ve been watching Twilight-Zone episodes. He seems cheesy now, but in his day he was The Man, meaning what we call genius Shaky word, if you ask me.

    Mark me as a total loser, but I am trying to fall in love my character, take that as you wish, but he sees things the way I want him to see things. He is not trying to change the world or regurgitate an old moral. It’s not easy. I’m a human-being. I’m suggestible I want to be loved., This character is love. It’s a strange and sometimes confusing situation.

    Anyway, Betsy rules, and yes I am going to repeat myself since Betsy has no problem doing it herself, I’ve noticed lately

    : .

  7. PS. the fight has a long history, if you care to look it up. It doesn’t necessarily mean a punch-out, or violence, though don’t get me wrong, the world is what it is, but sometimes it simply means standing up for yourself. In my experience, sometimes, that is enough. Believe it or not. Love is good, and complaining is a waste of time, and energy. I guess the physicists would know about that, since they created this world. Yikes!

    • Hey…weren’t you gonna go fuck yourself and never come back? Indian giver.

      • Nice.

      • An Indian: why not take the opportunity to educate instead of widening the gap?

      • mary: you read a lot in An Indian’s one-word comment. It is ambiguous at worst. As the warning in the underground goes, ‘mind the gap’.

      • What’s the point of words if you can’t read the gap into them?

      • Just to mind my own gap, I have to make it clear the use of Indian-giver made me cringe. I’m sure it wasn’t meant in a bad way at all, most likely without a second thought. It’s a common term. But I also think if any other ethnicity were attached to “giver”, a lot of people would complain bitterly. It’s amazing to me how many such slights to Native American heritage still exist in contemporary American society.

      • Native American, Polish, Irish, Latino, et.al. – if one falls into any or some of these nationalities you quickly learn to ignore the jokes and stereotypes.It’s healthier. In elementary school, I actually had classmates throw stones at me for being ‘only’ 2nd generation American. I moved on: most of them are still living in the same little neighborhood.

      • When I was a kid, the expression was not a Native American giver.

        I’m a mick/kraut mix, please feel to call me such.

  8. Henry James revised AFTER he was published and so did Felix Mendelssohn. I’m a compulsive reviser and actually liked doing it for agents who made suggestions. But after publication, forget it. Once the thing’s pubbed, I think I’ll have had enough. Time to finish the new novel and revise that. Oi vey, The Talmud…don’t get me started.

  9. If I can read it through and correct maybe one typo–I’m done. But some times I wake up with a thought so there must be this back burner in the brain.

    If this comes back to bite me in the ass, that’s gonna be okay too. Bite away. And I’m a burner, not a slasher.

  10. My mother criticizes me by telling me how good I am at things I haven’t done yet. (“Your Aunt Simona loves your thank you notes,” is just one of many examples of this particular technique, which has kept a therapist and Walgreen’s pharmacy in business for years.) I suppose this is why when someone tells me my work is good I think they are saying that I have a lot left to do. And yet I do think it’s helpful to have another perspective on this question of whether something seems finished. It’s a delicate thing, which is why I like having deadlines — “it’s finished when it’s due” is a lot easier standard than “it’s finished when it’s great.”

  11. Betsy, I love the piece about mastering a work on the piano in order to move up a rung. My maestro always says this: But Caterina! How much will you LEARN when you know this piece! Now I see the same applies to writing. Some stories were good exercises and fun to play to strengthen the fingers and instruct in musical sensibility. But you don’t keep playing Bach Inventions forever!

    The worst is that editing is a parallel mania to writing itself but far less compelling. I think it’s bollocks when they say Learn to Love Editing. It’s work, and work. I’ve been doing it all year and I can’t wait to jump into a green chilly pool of new words and characters.

  12. You never know. When every single reader LOVES everything you wrote? As if. You give it your best and know that your best will be even better on the next book or story. You can revise forever and never publish or publish and know this is who you are right now and what, right now, you are capable of. You can only offer your best and hope the market/readers agree.

  13. You’d think I’d be able to answer this question, considering how many drawer novels and half-finished shipwrecks I have. . . but I can’t.

    Sometimes when the writing gets difficult, I can power through. Other times, it’s the kiss of death. Sometimes a finished piece is worth rewriting. Sometimes, not so much. . .

    I guess the answer is that I don’t know until I get there.

  14. I go till I’m pissed off at it and can’t stand another look. My fantasy is my agent writing and saying, enough already. Let me see that fucking memoir. But I haven’t made him any money yet so it’s hardly to fair to expect, right? Maybe if your agent isn’t interested after one read, it already sucks and you’re the only one without a clue.

  15. I wrote the first draft of my novel in a year and have been rewriting it for five and a half. I revise a chapter at a time, don’t move on to the next until the one I’m working on feels fully imagined. It takes me anywhere from three to six months per chapter. And I think what stumps me most is my intention. I go into the chapter thinking i know what i want to say, but what comes out reads false or over-determined, like i’m moving little dolls around a set. Sometimes I write sixty pages before an image pops into my head, e.g., white lights hanging from a rafter, that feels true. And every chapter seems to have an arc, I feel wildly optimistic that I’ve nailed it out of the gate, gallop along for about 10 to 20 pages and then hit a wall, repeatedly, am nearly consumed by self-doubt, step away, buy ten novels to add to the 10,000 stacked around my house, read fitfully for a few weeks, filling the books with marginalia, sift back through what I’ve written, salvage the sentences that ring true, and start anew. Chapter-wise I’m nearly done (two to go, after I get through the wall – if i get through the wall – on this one) but I haven’t begun to address the enormous phobia I have over what to do with the “finished” product.

  16. I hate to have something in common with Jeff (whose writing actually moves me but the mean parts push me far away). But as I read that ancient hand line of Betsy’s (and it is gorgeous and evocative and perfect), I wished it would happen like that but right now it feels more like the hand has been reaching out and punching me. Or scratching in the way of a Raymond Carver scratch. Still, as long as the sense of the earth cracking open is there, something’s working.

  17. There are a few people I never stop thinking about. I can’t meet them for lunch or call them on the phone but still. If my story stops living in my waking day dreaming back o the mind daily life if its truly dead to me I don’t even have to decide. The collective mind behind that ancient hand decides.

  18. There are a lot of parallels to writing and sewing: I’ve sewn an outfit, wore it, then a few years later removed the sleeves or modified the neckline. Those outfits get a longer lifespan and my wardrobe stays -somewhat-current. As I write, I similarly adjust, delete and modify. Probably one of the only joys to being (presently) an unpublished writer: last year’s WIP still is current this year.

    I’ve also re-purposed clothes into quilts, but I’m not yet at that point in my writing efforts!

  19. I keep tinkering until someone tells me the piece is finished–or sucks with such astonishing completeness that there is no point in continuing.

  20. I don’t know the technical aspects. It just feels right? But given the fact I haven’t sent the thing out I may be way off. If I am I’ll be tinkering some more (even if I supposedly thought foreign citizenship and not me working my ass off would get me a book deal).

  21. “…and then one color too many it’s all brown and there is no turning back.”
    Ooooh. Have you seen Apple’s new Lion OS demonstrated, with iCloud? Every draft will be waiting for your return. One too many edits and your beauty turns to muck? Just go back to the version you like best. Keep what you want from each draft. We’ll be able to “take back” as much as we want and never have to write finis.

  22. I quit revising when I’ve done all that I can do to make it better with the skills I possess today. (Of course, that doesn’t mean that when I acquire better skills, I won’t go back and revise, if it hasn’t already been published… .) I left one manuscript alone for 10 years, came back to it, and voila! I can make it better…so out it goes again.

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