Thursday, August 6, 2015

Writing versus Rewriting

Most of my author friends say that revision is by far their favorite part of the writing process. They have to force themselves to confront that initial blank page and write that inevitably bad first draft in order to get to the real joy of writing, which comes in revision. I took an online writing course a few years ago from writing guru Denis Foley. Among his many memorable aphorisms was that the writing process has three stages: 1) think it up; 2) write it up;  3) fix it up. He claimed that the vast majority of a writer's time should be devoted to #1 and #3, with #2 done as quickly as possible.

I'm trying to sort out my own stance toward (initial) writing versus (repeated sessions of ) rewriting. I find the joy that comes in writing to be more simple and direct; rewriting brings more exhilaration, but also more disappointment and exhaustion.

So here is my own personal balance sheet of comparisons:

1. I can write for only an hour a day; I can rewrite for as many hours a day as I can sit at the computer, dragged away only by competing life obligations or mental/physical fatigue. I feel completely satisfied by my hour a day as I create the story for the first time; I need time away to allow what I've written to settle, to allow the creative well to refill. But with revision, at least once I have my plan for revision in place, I just want to do more, more, MORE.

2. With the initial writing, I have a more transparent and unmediated connection with my characters. I feel as if I hear them talking and just write down what they say. Actually, that isn't quite true. That makes it sound as if I hear them talking first and THEN write down what they say. Instead, it's more that they talk through my pen, that as my pen flies across the page I'm giving voice to these characters, discovering what they are doing and how they are reacting to what other people have done. Intellect plays little role. I'm a medium at a seance.

Revision for me is much more intellectual. It involves considerable analysis: this scene isn't working - why? - how can it be fixed? My editor said my main character was unlikeable (ouch!) - what can I do to tone down her unlikeable features and let the reader see her more loveable side? What scene can I add to develop a currently underdeveloped subplot?

3. With the initial writing, I don't see what I'm writing as bad AT ALL. I think it's wonderful. In the act of creation I believe that this truly is going to be my best book EVER. But I revise in the wake of extensive critique from my writing group and editor. So I already know that the book as written is deeply flawed. Of course, I can fix at least some of these flaws. That's where the exhilaration comes in: look how much better it is!! Look!!!! It may not be - what's the word - good - but wow, is it better!

But then the despair haunts me: is better good enough? For my current work-in-progress, the one I spent most of July revising, my editor sent me, two days ago, a four-word assessment over email: "It is much better." Then in the extensive editorial letter that followed, she added a fifth word: "It is much, much better." But when the book is published, readers will not have the opportunity to compare it to its earlier drafts and say, "Wow, can that woman revise!" They'll just read it and give it a three-out-of-five-star review on Goodreads: Ehh.

4) So with revision, a certain fatigue and weariness begin to overcome me. It takes so many drafts to make it "better."And then all you get is . . . "better." For me, first drafts are written in a pre-dawn dream, spurred by hope that THIS will be my best book yet. Revision takes place in the unforgiving light of day. Nope, probably not my best book. Just a better book than it was before. And then, as I send off yet another round of revisions to my wonderful, insightful, demanding, amazing editor, I think, "Well, maybe the NEXT book. . . ." And I begin to yearn to feel my fingers racing across the page again, clutching my beloved Pilot Razor Point fine-tipped black marker pen, making the hope-driven magic take place anew.

1 comment:

  1. "For me, first drafts are written in a pre-dawn dream, spurred by hope that THIS will be my best book yet. Revision takes place in the unforgiving light of day."

    This rings so true! If only we could revel in that pre-dawn dream a moment longer ... but I suppose it is the unforgiving light of day that allows our dreams to take shape and become even more than we could imagine on our own ... eventually leading us back full-circle to that place inside where another dream is dreamed.

    Ah, the joy of writing! It is a true gift.