Sunday, July 14, 2013

Passion and Revision Both End in “s”-“i”-“o”-“n.”

The luckiest writers are probably those who adore revising. A whole string of metaphors exists for this achievement: Sculpt the contours, trim the dead wood, justify the arc, and, ultimately—make your dream of what your novel could be come true.

Naturally the flip side is a competing set of metaphors: Buckling down, facing the music, dragging your heels, missing the good times. So is there hope for passionate revision? Of course. They share four letters in common—and more, besides.

“S” is for seriousness. Whether the ardor’s about ping pong or pinball, Puccini or promiscuity, people take their passions seriously, perhaps obsessively. Obsession makes some writers adore revising until the scenes sizzle and the sentences sing. Other novelists are daunted, even bored, by striving for perfection. Maybe you find tinkering torturous. But, seriously, is anything more thrilling than making your good novel great?

“I” is for intellect, because that glorious, electric, utterly creative and uncensored flood of words, images, and ideas has ceased. It’s time for a clear-eyed assessment based on your knowledge of craft combined with your best efforts to apply what you know. Does this seem unrelated to passion? Hmm, unless you’re doing some thinking about even the most fundamental kinds of passion, you’re apt to behave like a teenage boy. Unless you actually are a teenage boy (and possibly even then), combining mental agility with ardor will likely achieve happier results. This applies to fiction, too. 

“O” is for old. Been there, done that. And this is the reason those who dislike revision usually offer first. “I don’t want to revisit what I’ve done. I want the thrill of something new.” But does real passion ever get old? If what you adore is Beatles or Beethoven, do you truly mind hearing it one more time? If your characters stride and your prose hums, will it hurt you to keep improving even more? Old things mean you’ve laid the foundation; you’re not always worrying about what follows, because you already know. Finally, old stuff is invaluable: Antiques, good wine and cheese, vintage clothing, Shakespeare’s sonnets, Botticelli’s paintings, and the last draft you’ve completed, still awaiting the magical touches you’ll add next.

“N” is for new—yes, new. When revision works for writers, it’s because the process of polishing, of reaching for perfection, doesn’t just redo but continuously produces something different from what preceded, i.e. new. Philatelists go nuts over a new stamp and lepidopterists over a new swallowtail. Successful novel revisers revel in each draft—as different from the preceding as another stamp or species. If it feels old hat, if you’re not learning as you go, if you’re sucking the life from your manuscript, then you’re not revising with the passion you need, and of course you don’t enjoy it that much.

Your attitude toward revision controls your approach. How much baggage do your drag along? What might you leave behind? What can you add to your bag of tricks?

Tip: Revise your attitude toward revision to fuel it with passion.

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