Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Strangest Thing about Revising a Book

Here's, for me, the strangest thing about revising a book.

It always has to be done.

Or at least, I always have to do it. Whenever I'm the the one writing a book, I'm also going to be the one revising it, and revising it, and revising it yet again.

The reason this feels so strange to me is that I've written so many books now: 58 published ones, and at least a dozen that never got themelves revised into a form worthy of publication. I've been doing this professionally, as both a career and the work of my heart, for close to 40 years. Wouldn't you think that by this point I would have gotten somewhat good at it? Wouldn't I have learned a thing or two or three that would eliminate the need, if not for revsion altogether, at least for so MANY rounds of revision?

Apparently the answer here is: no.

My brilliant editor at my new publisher, Holiday House, just sent my chapter-book-in-progress back for a third rewrite. I thought I had done a bang-up job on the first rewrite, back in January, returning it to her with a confident "Ta-dah!" Then back it came to me again, with a letter thanking me for the revisions, but going on to say, "but I'm afraid I think this needs more work than you do." Ouch! WAHHH!! Because of course I wouldn't have sent it back to her if I had thought it needed one speck more of work at all.

Not only did it need more work, in her view, but the chief problem requiring further attention was one  I would have callled a "beginner's error." My protagonist needed more of a character arc: she does change and grow by the end of the book, but not until the very end; her development needed to be paced more gradually. In other words, my editor was telling me exactly the kind of thing I tell beginning writers whom I'm teaching, advising, or mentoring. Double ouch! Double WAHHH!

At first I was irritated by the comments. This time she was just plain wrong; the book was perfect as it was; hadn't Margaret herself pronounced it "darling" upon a first reading? But, as I sat down to rewrite, I had a total about-face. Margaret is an editorial genius and is truly never wrong. As I began to revise, at first with nothing more than grudging trust in Margaret's infallible judgment, I came to share her assessment so completely that I felt ashamed that I could ever have thought my book was fine the way it was. How could I - veteran author of so many books written and published over so many years - have written something so blatantly, egregiously flawed?

But this is just what it is to be a writer. A book can be darling AND flawed. And seldom can an author see these flaws herself. This is the whole reason editors - and critique groups and "beta readers" - exist: to see the flaws authors inevitably miss in our own work, however perceptive we may be at discerning these in the work of others. We never outgrow our need for editors. We just forget how lucky we are to have them.

My protagonist Nixie now has a lovely character arc. I'm thrilled with the changes I made in round two. Margaret told me the revisions were "great," and she was right. She now wants just a bit more tweaking in round three, and she's right about that, too.  So today I'm happily tweaking away, hugging myself with happiness over every small improvement made.

In the end, the strangest thing about revising a book is not that I still have to do it, even after all these years. The strangest thing is that I even found this strange in the first place.

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