In the mind’s eye, our favorite writers roll up their sleeves and swan dive into the deep end of The Zone, swimming through chapters as fluently as Esther Williams in a MGM production. In reality, no one writes a first draft—a first chapter, a first paragraph, a first sentence—with the greatest of ease. Most writers sweat, scribble, delete, sweat, scribble, delete, ad infinitum. Few of us know what we’re doing. With self-doubt bolstered by a vision, we probe and flounder, trusting our intuitions, niggling our imaginations, questioning our skills, and hoping, praying, that when we’re done, we’ve accomplished something akin to what we set out to do.

At the same time, we keep alive a dual persona—The Confident Artist—without which we couldn’t muster the audacity to confront our keyboards. “Of course, yes, absolutely, I can do this.” For months on end we write, believing in our stories and our abilities to write them. And finally, one shiny magical day, we emerge from the depths. “Wow,” we think. “Praise God! It’s all that and more. It’s everything, it’s ours, it’s beautiful, impressive, captivating, spell-binding, magnificent… It’s every superlative we knew better than to use in our manuscripts.

And then comes the feedback. Maybe we gave the book to a handful of readers or queried our first batch of agents. The response wasn’t what our better halves had anticipated.

From The Corrections: A Novel by Jonathan Franzen—

    “Did you get to the end yet?” Chip asked.

“Oh, Chip,” she burst out miserably, “your script starts off with a six-page lecture about anxieties of the phallus in Tudor drama!”

He was aware of this. Indeed, for weeks now, he’d been awakening most nights before dawn, his stomach churning and his teeth clenched, and had wrestled with the nightmarish certainty that a long academic monologue on Tudor drama had no place in Act I of a commercial script. Often it took him hours—took getting out of bed, pacing around, drinking Merlot or Pinot Grigio—to regain his conviction that a theory-driven opening monologue was not only not a mistake but the script’s most powerful selling point; and now, with a single glance at Julia, he could see that he was wrong.

Nodding in heartfelt agreement with her criticism, he opened the door of his apartment and called to his parents, “One second, Mom, Dad. Just one second.” As he shut the door again, however, the old arguments came back to him. “You see, though,” he said, “the entire story is prefigured in that monologue. Every single theme is there in capsule form—gender, power, identity, authenticity—and the thing is . . . Wait. Wait. Julia?”

Bowing her head sheepishly, as though she’d somehow hoped he wouldn’t notice she was leaving, Julia turned away from the elevator and back toward him.

“The thing is,” he said, “the girl is sitting in the front row of the classroom listening to the lecture. It’s a crucial image. The fact that he is controlling the discourse—”

“And it’s a little creepy, though,” Julia said, “the way you keep talking about her breasts.”

This, too, was true. That it was true, however, seemed unfair and cruel to Chip, who would never have had the heart to write the script at all without the lure of imagining the breasts of his young female lead. “You’re probably right,” he said. “Although some of the physicality there is intentional. Because that’s the irony, see, that she’s attracted to his mind while he’s attracted to her—”

“But for a woman reading it,” Julia said obstinately, “it’s sort of like the poultry department. Breast, breast, breast, thigh, leg.”

“I can remove some of those references,” Chip said in a low voice. “I can also shorten the opening lecture. The thing is, though, I want there to be a ‘hump’—”

“Right, for the moviegoer to get over. That’s a neat idea.”

Revision is more than editing. When the idea of it comes late in the game via a word of advice, it cuts through rosy-cosy dreams as only an expletive can, and is usually followed by, on the writer’s part, a string of profanities.

If you are that writer, take a breath. Don’t do anything rash (like make your expletives heard in NY or wherever the agent’s office is). Sit with the news awhile, which is superfluous guidance, as you’ll likely be catatonic for a day or two depending on the extent to which you agree with the verdict.

Once you re-enter your body and put things in perspective, you might want to respond to the news. Whoever offered it did so as a kindness. Thank them. Tell them if you disagree. Definitely tell them if you agree, especially in the rare circumstances that an agent took time to give you feedback. Even if you don’t know how to address the problem, assure the agent that, in time, you will, as his or her interest is a door you want to keep open. Often the agent will return your “thank you” with a note reassuring you that the door is in fact open, and nothing re-inflates hope like another dose of the stuff.

But yeah, more than a spit and shine, revision can entail a back-to-the-drawing-board reckoning. It can be scary when you’re not sure what needs to be done (and when that other “R” word—revenue—is singing like a boiling teapot in your left ear). Revision, or rather what it implies, is disappointing. Detours and delays, though, are intrinsic to this path, to the creative life. Other roads might be easier, but you wouldn’t trade where you stand for one of them.

Revision means to re-vision, to re-imagine, to see again, to discover new ways to tell your story. That takes time, time spent away from your novel so you can get defamiliarized with it, so you can eventually return and read it objectively, so your mind has an opportunity to percolate with language and structural ingenuities.

Though eager to resolve your dilemma, it’s best to set the project aside for a period. It’s especially profitable to take a reading holiday. Presumably reading is as much a part of your work day as writing is, as nothing primes the creative pump like great literature. By making reading your priority, you’ll cleanse your palate and sharpen your ear. When you return to your manuscript, you’ll return equipped with a keener sense of economy, rhythm, pacing. In the best scenario, you might be able to pinpoint and resolve the elements in your story that aren’t working. In the least, you’ll have the ability to chisel away at dross that stubbornly (and surprisingly) remains.

As fiction draws from life, and Franzen’s protagonist Chip, by my account, is identifiable, revising your novel might involve deleting lengthy—even academic-y—monologues. It might entail cutting or rearranging chapters, changing the novel’s point of view or tense, restructuring the plot, extracting a character, or relocating the setting from mid-west U.S. of A. to a remote village in Indochina.

And most of us are more like Chip than we care to admit. Much thought went into what we created. We have solid, knowable reasons for everything we’ve written. The prospect of cutting, rearranging, extracting, and-or relocating will likely spur a lot of self-talk. Although a fresh look at our manuscripts hints at potential awkwardness and redundancy, our reasons interject with ready defenses. And so we hedge, we compromise. We try Chip’s approach.

…this monologue was so unreadable that every time he turned on his computer he had to go and tinker with it. Soon he was spending the bulk of each work session compulsively honing the monologue. And when he despaired of shortening it any further without sacrificing important thematic material, he started fussing with the margins and hyphenation to make the monologue end at the bottom of page 6 rather than the top of page 7. He replaced the word “continue” with “go on” to save three spaces, thus allowing the word “(trans)act(ion)s” to be hyphenated after the second t, which triggered a whole cascade of longer lines and more efficient hyphenations. Then he decided that “go on” had the wrong rhythm and that “(trans)act(ion)s” should not be hyphenated under any circumstances, and so he scoured the text for other longish words to replace with shorter synonyms, all the while struggling to believe that stars and producers in Prada jackets would enjoy reading six pages (but not seven!) of turgid academic theorizing.

We chip when that still, small voice suggests we should hack.

Chris Offutt talks about his pre-career days in the late ‘80s, saying, “A first draft was like a wonderful drug that made me feel good. Revision was the horrible crash.” Offutt couldn’t bring himself to revise his work. Having fastened his identity to each page, the thought of making a change was, as he put it, “like a surgeon performing a complex procedure on his own heart.”

Chris Offutt came up with a work-around to his issue. “I simply started a new story. Once I was emotionally involved with a fresh piece of writing, I could return to the first one with the necessary distance.” His work since recognized by the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Whiting Foundation, Chris discovered that he preferred the act of revision to writing. “I spent many joyful hours simply shifting material from one narrative to another, gauging the success of the integration, attempting greater risks on the page.”

His process now includes a number of drafts. He adds and cuts repeatedly, like “bellows expanding and contracting, forcing oxygen to the fire of narrative” as his mind jumps from personal interaction with the story to the emotional distance needed to see what he has. In the end, his stories are shorter and thicker.

Perhaps taking time to work on your next project will fatten your creative bank account and fuel your confidence to see this novel through to the end. When you’re ready, come back, save a version of what you have under a new name, and experiment with the second document. Act on that still, small voice and see where it leads, what it accomplishes. You can always harvest your previous version for deleted phrasing or passages. Nothing is lost. Do remember, though, that because something is good doesn’t mean it’s right for your novel. If you can’t use that genius metaphor now, you can use it in the future. When it is right.

But I don’t know what needs what. If that’s the cry of your predicament, if you’re unable to discern what’s good and what’s right, if you don’t know where to begin or when to stop, continue to Re-Vision, Part II. Even if you have doubts or simply want to double check your rewrite, the chain of detailed requirements of a well crafted story will give you a basis to examine your work, as well as the assurance needed to commit to action.

Revise & Edit