Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Book Revisions: From "Impossible!" to "Done!" in a Week

A week ago I was sitting on my friend Leslie's deck, literally sobbing because I knew there was no way I could possibly salvage anything whatsoever from my beloved verse-novel-in-progress after reading the VERY long, VERY detailed, and VERY daunting list of comments from my VERY trustworthy editor. 

Given that the entire storyline was unmotivated, and central characters were too unlikable, and crucial scenes were implausible (plus several hundred other details were inconsistent, confusing, or downright annoying), if I were even to attempt revisions on this scale, there would truly be nothing left of the book as I had originally written it. Nothing at all. And this was the book I had written with the greatest joy and for which I had the highest hopes. Now joy had become misery! Now all hopes were cruelly dashed!

Well, after I sobbed for a while, I started to get some ideas for how I could make a few small-but-significant changes that would fix just about all of the problems my editor had identified. She and I talked on the phone the next day, and when I returned to my desk, I was not only encouraged, but exhilarated. 

I didn't quite LEAP into revision. My revision method is a very bad one, but it's the one that works for me. Ideally, one would fix the BIG things first, and then the middle-sized things, and then deal with the teensy-weensy things last. As I read somewhere, why would you spend a lot of time decorating a wall that is just going to be knocked down? It only makes sense to deal with major structural issues first, right?

My method, however, is the opposite. I have to do the easy things first just so that I can feel less hopeless about the whole project. For this book, my editor had flagged my overuse of several words: "back" (as in "back when we were still friends," "still" (as in, ditto), and "totally." To this I added "really." I did a global search for the overused words and eliminated a huge quantity. Progress was being made!

On I went, to more challenging queries, and then, once the work was 90 percent done, to the biggest story problems - which actually were fixed with just a few judicious cuts and additions. I typed up a four-page single-spaced memo explaining all the FABULOUSLY WONDERFUL changes I had made, and how I had fixed ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING! I attached manuscript, memo, and book calendar to my email, and then pressed SEND. 

From "Impossible!" to "Done!" in a week.

Oh, why do I make things so hard on myself? When this book (as yet untitled) is published, it will be my 62nd book for young readers. Wouldn't you think that by now I'd be used to the many rounds of revision that are necessary to produce a published book? Why can't I just skip over the dark night of the soul and trot straight to my computer and plop myself down to work? 

Well, maybe the dark night of the soul is just part of the process, too - maybe it's a necessary step that can't be omitted. When I write a book, the events in the story seem so real to me, as if this is "how it actually happened." Readjustment of this vision is bound to be . . . jarring. 

But still, here are some things I'm going to work harder at remembering:

1. When an editor (or journal reviewer) asks you to revise something, they really, truly want you to revise THIS, as opposed to ripping it up and starting all over again with something completely new. You are revising THIS book, or THIS article. If they wanted you to throw it away and start all over again, they would have said so. 

2. Editors (and journal reviewers) are on your side. You both want the exact same thing: the best possible book, or the best possible article. 

3. Just as books are written one page at a time, so revisions can be made one problem at a time. Just fix one thing, then another thing, and then another thing. And then twenty or thirty more. And you will be done! (Or at least, done for now.)

4. There is no one way to revise any more than there is one way to write. Find what works for YOU. Once in a while, it's permissible to rethink or refine, but for the most part, if you have a tried-and-true system, rely on it to work its miracle for you this time, too. 

5. Let yourself feel not only the joy, but the wonder, of watching small alterations produce huge effects. Savor the malleability of the clay of your words in your hands. Enjoy the kneading of the dough; marvel at its rising.

6. And when you finally press SEND, give yourself a treat. 

I see some peach pound cake in my future...


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