In skool, I once heard that Tim O’Brien, who wrote _The Things They Carried_ and _Going After Cacciato_, that he’s famous for revising, revising and revising some more. Supposedly, the guy gets up in the morning and looks over the day’s pages from yesterday, trashes 90% and takes up the pen to rewrite. I just don’t have it in me to do that kind of thing. I hate wasted effort.
My revision process works like this- I begin with a concept, a scene or a person who looks cool, and I imagine what that person might do. I write it up. But before I begin, I tend to think a bit about the scale of the piece. Is the thing going to be a novel, a short story, a haiku, a song or most likely, a novelette. The short novel is probably my favorite form. I like a piece of writing to be long enough to savor, but not so long that either I or a reader gets bored with the thing.
Anyhow, once I’ve picked a length, I like to just sort of follow this character around and jot down the things he or she might encounter. These items, scents, colors, symbols, other people and so on, at some point, and the pressure to find this point somewhere on my interior map, it grows and grows until I feel like I’m gonna blow, until, finally, a kind of seed crystal drops, and the rest of the story coalesces around the seed, and then I can see the whole thing. I call this event coalescence day. It happens with every piece of writing I do; suddenly, once enough pressure builds and I’ve put in enough time and effort, I can see everything.
Once I can see everything, I stop and begin to make structural decisions and decide what needs to go where, what scenes are missing to make the plot work (since after coalescence day, I know the plot), and I know all the details that I’ve been working thus far, perhaps 1/3 to 1/2 way through the process of creating the finished work. I can see the themes and know what the work is about in terms of motivations, message and argument, theme. And because I know what the book is about, I can select from the images I’ve already been working and trash those that dead end and add those that reinforce character and theme so that the work becomes layered (good work is always layered, that’s my rule). And once I have all these pieces, the process of mapping out the rest of the work becomes simple and all that remains to be done is to simply write it down. I actually make maps on paper, tension graphs, terrain maps, other visual aids.
Contrast this with another process where, someone puts up the whole story, like a house, and suddenly they realize, once the whole thing looks complete, that the bathroom needs to go where the kitchen is. Then they’re facing a shitload of work to tear out walls, reroute plumbing and throw away tons of effort, money and energy. I just can’t work like that. Instead, I take blank the page it, follow the characters around, and when I can’t stand it anymore, I figure out what else needs to go where to make a clear coherent unified piece. This way, my revision happens before I have to trash months of effort.
Editing on the other hand happens as a last step in which I clean up mistakes in parallelism, grammar, punctuation, sentence level clarity, individual word choices to reinforce tone and character and so on to make the work read more smoothly. This part is tedious sometimes, but it’s also really gratifying- it’s like taking a rough piece of jewelry and putting a high polish on it so that the finished product appears seamless. And man, I love that.
Here’s some examples of a few edits that I did today-
broke: The smells of greenery, a hint fresh garbage and dry chicken shit dust the air.
fixed: The the not unpleasant smell of dry chicken shit dusts the air along with good greenery and a hint of fresh garbage.
Above, there was too much separation between the subject and verb there leading to some itchy feeling about a subject verb number mismatch. Yuck.
broke: A white henhouse abuts the length of one side of the fencing.
fixed: A white henhouse abuts the length of fencing.
broke: I look up into a sky bluer than any I have ever seen and blink at the sun.
I wake on deck, blinking up into the clear blue,
fixed: I look up into a sky bluer than any I have ever seen and stare at the sun.
I wake on deck, blinking up into the clear blue,
broke: Each day we take the boat out and Scotty shows me a little more.
fixed: Each day we take the boat out, and Scotty shows me a little more.
Every time I track one of these or one of the myriad other minor mistakes that happen easily in drafting quickly, I’m like, yay! one less thing for somebody to stumble over. Polish, who doesn’t like a shiny thing, lovingly smoothed and rubbed to a fine patina where not even the smallest crack shows. That’s the kind of craftsmanship I strive for in editing.
Here’s the rules, as far as I’m concerned: Revise for unity and coherence and Edit for clarity and polish. And do it in that order, revise first, then edit.
Today, I find myself editing p.239 of 276 total. So close to locking this draft in, I can freaking taste it, and it tastes GOOD.