It is spring, nearly summer and I’m so excited to be at the end of another semester and my first full year as an MFA-seeker. I have done very little new writing in the last quarter but it’s not been a creative loss. I’ve been learning what “revision” truly means and how it differs from editing. About 80% of what I previously thought of as revision was actually just editing.
Editing is important–no one wants typos, spelling errors, or grammatical inconsistencies in their work–but revision is more substantial. Revision is akin to redesign. I imagine it as a jeweler. I’ve got this beautiful stone and metal (my story idea) and I design a ring, crafting the metal to hold the stone, cutting the stone to fit. Once I think it looks good, I slip it on and realize it doesn’t fit right–the stone can’t be seen and it’s awkward on my finger–it doesn’t really work the way I thought, so I take it apart (revising) and put it back together again until it’s right. Once I get it right and slip it on and it fits and works, then I polish the stone, buff the metal and make everything shine (editing) and ready to wear.
A peer recently said in a critique that he didn’t feel I’d really revised anything in my WIP. He thought I’d edited it well but he didn’t read any significant changes. At first I was hurt/defensive but I quickly realized he was right. I hesitate to take things apart. It feels like so much of me is poured into the initial stages of writing. The idea of ripping it up feels like a demolition of all the hard work I just put in. When I stopped resisting and made some major structural changes, I saw how much better the story was. It needed revision at that stage. It wasn’t ready to be polished because it didn’t fit right.
I’m sure you’ve heard the quote by Terry Pratchett, “The first draft is you just telling yourself the story.” This past spring has been a deeper plumb into what that really means. For me it means, my work will take longer as my craft is still in its infancy. It means my first idea/design/structure probably isn’t my best and finding my best will involve experimentation. My fiction workshop this semester was with the highly acclaimed Lori Ostlund. She’s a pretty big deal and her work is incredible (I highly recommend After the Parade. Her other book, The Bigness of the World is on my summer TBR list) so I tried to take in and digest everything she said in class and in my written critiques.
I followed her advice to the tee when revising my WIP Triangle. Her advice ranged from “scalpel work” (e.g. word choice) to bringing in the wrecking ball. At first I was hesitant to take the end of the novel and basically open with that scene as she suggested–talk about redesigning (I checked and double checked that I had the original draft saved in case it didn’t work out)–but she was right (of course) and it made the entire thing more engaging. Everyone in class responded to it in a fresh way including me.
The moral of the story: Don’t be afraid to really revise. Don’t be afraid to cut it all up and Frankenstein it back together. Worst case scenario: It’s a monster and you have to kill it/go back to your previous version (unless it escapes to the far north and you die searching for it, heartbroken, and filled with regret). Best case scenario: you’ve made something that was okay into something that dazzles and fits perfectly (no Frankenstein analogy for that–sorry).