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    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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I Still Want You By My Side

I spent most of the weekend reading. Lots of clients delivered manuscripts they had been working on this summer. And some prospective clients have surfaced. I’ve been blown away by a few revisions. THere is nothing more impressive to me than a writer who isn’t afraid to junk some material in favor of  a fresh start, or who can really crack open a piece instead of just moving the mashed potatoes around the plate. One of my great pet peeves has always been when a writer returns a manuscript  a little too quickly, claiming a full revision, only to find a work that has been tweaked like a hem raised a quarter inch. But then, another writer will go away, burrow in a for a while, and eventually return with a revision that inspires you all over again, and produces in you that feeling that got you hooked on this work in the first place.

I tend to  think that writers generally overestimate how much they revise their work — am I wrong?

23 Responses

  1. How interesting to read this post. I am in the middle of yet another revision of my MS before I deliver it to my agent. At this point I am making revisions nobody has asked for, but ones I feel are necessary. As you said so well, I’m junking material I feel didn’t work and not just moving the mashed potatoes around on the plate.
    But as I alternate between slashing and burning, feeling inspired and toturing myself with doubt, I sometimes wonder if I’m mad. How do you know when your revision makes a scene better and not just different? How do you know when you’re done?
    I find revision to be a paso doble I dance alone on the edge of a sword. Sometime I fall and bleed. Sometimes I make it to the other side, still dancing and exhilaratered. Every night I go to sleep bleary eyed, only to talk to myself as I drift off, re-imagining moments between my characters. I wake up still bleary eyed and begin again. I can’t say I’m overestimating how much I revise. I can only hold my breath that when I’m done, the work will be better for all the lonely effort.

  2. You revised your post. I read it in my other email box. That what you mean?

  3. Yeah, we do that. The prospect of deleting a paragraph — or a chapter, or a character, or seven characters — feels like a death march. But once done, it’s like waking up twenty pounds lighter.

    Okay, maybe five pounds lighter…

  4. You see a lot more manuscripts from a lot more writers than I do, so I don’t know if you’re wrong. I can speak with greatest certainty only for my own work, then maybe attempt to reason from the specific to the general. But I will try not to be a bore by going on about my work in detail.

    To the general then, with the specific being an unstated given, an assumed ground. Often a writer is too close to the work to see what revision is necessary. An attempt will be made; however, the revision then is not a revision, but a polishing. Polishing a flawed gem results only in a gem more highly polished but still flawed.

    If the writer is too close to the work to see how drastic the necessary revision may need to be, there may be only two solutions. One is time; time to grow emotionally distant from the work and lose the unquestioning love that one can have for it when it is new, and time to gain in skill sufficient unto the labor of large-scale revision. I had an editor once who told me of one of my early failed novels, “Take your axe and hack away everything that is not sweet, innocent, wacky, and dear.” I knew he was right and I knew I couldn’t do it, and I knew why. I was both emotionally too close to it and I lacked the skill.

    The other solution could come from someone the writer trusts who can specifically tell the writer how drastic the revision may need to be and where it needs to happen. For instance, “The opening line is great, but throw away everything after that and try again.” Or the more common thing that can happen to a writer who needs to be told, “Toss the first two pages and start on page three because that’s where your story starts.” Or another example: “This fourth chapter is very clever but pointless–cut it.” But these all seem like small change in the face of a large work that needs large revision.

    Now come to think of it, there may be a third solution, or solution-complex, and that is desperation leavened with being fed up. The writer has taken a certain approach with a work and has tried and tried, but the thing is just not working, so the writer tries a new POV or a new chronology or who knows what-all to get the damn thing to work.

    Revision means “to see again.” Such seeing again is almost always made more acute by seeing with a new set of eyes, either those of a trusted reader or one’s own eyes distanced by time and learning. And revision takes courage and faith. It takes courage to see that months of work need to be thrown away and then to throw them away, and faith in oneself and one’s writing to work the work until it’s right.

  5. I’m an obsessive chopper. Maybe too much?

  6. I don’t know how many revisions and edits I have done of my current book (in the past I realise I never never did enough) but when it came to tweaking the first paragraphs I found I couldn’t budge, it would have been like unmooring the whole thing again. But otherwise yeah, I’ve been chopping and rewiring for weeks.

    And probably yes I am overestimating wildly.

  7. Here’s my dilemma: an agent has looked at the first chapter of my novel and thinks it’s got problems; a publisher has looked at the same material, likes it and wants to see the rest. Do I chalk this up to differences in their personal taste and ignore the agent’s comments? I’m reluctant to change what the publisher liked, but I can understand the agent’s p.o.v. I’m so confused.

  8. For a long time, I confused polishing with revision. I repeatedly polished stuff I later threw away . . . when I actually revised. As Tetman said above, the later takes distance (time, generally) or expert outside advice.

  9. One often reads of writers working on a book for years; throwing out hundreds of pages; then writing the final draft in a very short amount of time. This is revision. When you see what’s supposed to be there it’s a matter of writing it down. Before then–lots of flotsam floating around.

    I am one of these. If a paragraph goes it all goes until it becomes clear. Then a paragraph can go because it is a misstep not a lack of understanding.

  10. I err on the other side. My poor agent; she asks for a few revisions and a couple of weeks later she finds an entirely new book in her inbox. I am on version four of my current WIP and each one has changed tremendously in concept. The good news is that each one is better and more marketable thanks to her suggestions and the revisions, but still. Poor woman is going to get whiplash before this book is done.

  11. Betsy,
    I’ve always wondered if agents/editors ever get back a massive revision that has destroyed the work. Sometimes I’ll be following the thread of crumbs only to turn and the crumbs are gone. I have torn up threads for the better, and sometimes for the worse. Does this happen at that stage of the game?
    I can’t imagine the feeling of horror an agent would have to when they have to say, “No. You’ve lost your way. It was better before.”

  12. The sewing/tailoring analogy is interesting: the structure of the outfit will determine whether a drastic adjustments to seams or the addition of darts actually improves the outfit or converts it to something else. I recently converted a “designer-label” long wrap skirt into a sundress. I think my solution was a better use of the fabric. On the other hand, I deleted almost an entire chapter and re-positioned a character’s importance in a WIP, but those actions didn’t change the plot. I’m hopefully it improves the pace of the story.

  13. Just what I needed to read as it’s taking me so long to do this massive revision for my agent.

  14. Once, when I was teaching a research writing class, a student and I went over his ENTIRE 8 page paper, making hundreds of corrections. (English was not his forte.) He then had about three days to make the corrections and turn it back in. He turned it back in on time…a nice, clean copy. With ZERO of our corrections made. He later told me he thought that I wouldn’t bother re-reading it, just take it for granted that he’d fixed things. He failed my class, the little twerp. Just had to share this lovely revision story with you.

  15. At the end of my revison, I sit back, take stock and smile at the completed product. Then I revise again the following week, and the following, and the following.
    I don’t think it ever stops, even when the editor says, ‘You’ve nailed it.’

  16. “One of a novelist’s inalienable rights is to be able to rework his novel. If he takes a dislike to the beginning, he can rewrite it or cross it out entirely.” — Milan Kundera, THE BOOK OF LAUGHTER AND FORGETTING (trans. Heim)

  17. I wrote a better ending on the mss. that I had revised four times. I had kept the same ending from years back. My agent actually sent it out and got rave rejections. After introspection, I realized I never changed the ending but had altered everything else. So I redid the ending. Whoa.

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