Monday, February 7, 2011

I dropped a stitch! the terror of the ginormous revision...

I want to write about revision.  No, wait.  Maybe I just want to hide from revision?  Yeah, same thing.

So anyway, I've spent the past year revising--I'm pretty sure, when you break it all down, (*breaks it down*), I have spent more time this past year revising than sleeping.  And a lot of the time, even when I'm sleeping, the better part of my brain (AKA the part not otherwise engaged in drooling over pretty pictures and unlikely scenarios (not like, literally drooling, of course, ew! *flips pillow*)) keeps right on revising.

I struggle sometimes with blogging about writing.  I enjoy reading and commenting on other writers' blogs, but I don't really feel like I can write about "the craft" with any kind of authority.  What do I even know about writing except how much I don't know?  Still, I keep thinking about the revision process, and I keep coming to one big conclusion.  Ready?  Okay.  Revision is...hard.


Brilliant.  So as a writing teacher, I spend a lot of time trying to teach people how to make their writing better.  We do things like peer critiques, where readers ask each other questions about things they want to know more about, or identify language they really think "works"...that kind of thing.  And we do the kind of revision that is more about refining language--identify your lazy words and get more specific.  Read it out loud and find the sentence breaks.  Check your outline and make sure your paragraphs are organized with transitions and a strong thesis...that kind of thing.

Nobody can ever really teach you how to REVISE, you know?  Like, even when a reader (critique partner, agent, editor, your mom--whatever) tells you what's wrong with your novel--that the voice is awesome but everything that happens in it is slightly wrong, or that the whole thing really needs to begin 20,000 words in, or that the stakes aren't high enough or that your central focus seems to want to shift over about three inches to one side and maybe happen in a different state--even then, they can't tell you what to DO about it.

So far I've revised all of those problems and then some, and I still can't sit here on this blog and tell you what to do when you take apart a key scene about three-quarters of the way through and realize that it's like you've just gone to dig out a dropped stitch and suddenly there are all these loops and strings and holes and you're scared to move and your needles are shaking and more loops are sliding off of them every second and you've spent an entire year on getting this far so the thought of ripping it all out and starting over is paralyzing, and...

...well, I'm not sure how else to put it.  It's terrifying.  But you can't sit there all day holding perfectly still with your needles in the air. start tugging at strings.  You pull a few loops.  Sometimes it works to cover the wall up above your desk with post-it notes, and sometimes it helps to make color-coded notes on dot matrix paper and spread it all over the floor, and sometimes it helps to cry and sometimes it helps to paint a deck with music stuffed in your ears and sometimes it helps to take a walk and sometimes it helps to take a bath and sometimes you have to write what's supposed to happen next ALL IN CAPS with things like "OMG THEY ARE FREAKED OUT" and "WHAT WE THOUGHT YOU WERE JUST A LITTLE MESSED UP BUT YOU ARE REALLY MESSED UP" and even "AND THEN HER PARENTS’ HEADS EXPLODE!" (All of these are either my own actual methods of revision or my own actual excerpts from my current document--I left out the somewhat controversial methods of snarling at my family and going on crazed cleaning rampages...)

Anyway, no matter how you cope with it, revising is freakin' HARD.  And what works for one person may not work for another.  What works for me today may not work tomorrow (assuming I eventually post this and get back to work), but the process of making serious, deep changes to a manuscript time and time again (I'm a slow learner) is daunting and difficult.

But.  Here's the good part.  As difficult as it is, and as many times as I feel like a big failure when I have to go back YET AGAIN and rework something I thought was as good as I could ever do in a million years, and as much as I despair with my huge pile of post-its and my fourteen open documents...every single time, something crazy happens.

The book gets better.

And that feels almost good enough to remember it all the way through until the next revision.  Almost.

*opens fifteenth document*


(for the record, because I'm afraid this post might be too short and might not contain enough parentheses, I can only knit in a straight line, like a never-ending scarf, and my options for dropped stitches are three: tear it all out and begin from the beginning (after I get someone to cast on for me because I always seem to forget how), live with a hole in the middle of my scarf, or bring it over to my mom's house and make her fix it...but so far, I have not yet made my mom do my revisions.)


Marisa Hopkins said...

Holy moly, reading this was pretty much amazing... I'm revising for the first time - have been for months, and I FEEL JUST LIKE HOW YOU DESCRIBED! So many of my writer friend find the revision process to be just so very FUN but I'm dropping stitches all over the place and too paralyzed to move.

Excellent post! I'm so glad I'm not alone!!

Elissa J. Hoole said...

Yay, I'm glad it struck a chord with you, Marisa! I find some parts of revision fun--the fine-tuning parts, even the hacking away superfluous words feels...I dunno, satisfying. But being in the thick of an unraveling manuscript...wondering if you will ever have anything resembling a complete book again? Yeah, that's just terrifying!

Yahong Chi said...

GREAT post. I'm still hiding from revision, though. :P

Kristan said...

"I struggle sometimes with blogging about writing. I enjoy reading and commenting on other writers' blogs, but I don't really feel like I can write about "the craft" with any kind of authority. What do I even know about writing except how much I don't know?"

Yep, I feel the same way. Sometimes it's crazy to think I blog at all -- why?! what do I know?! -- but then again, I love to write/talk, so ... I keep doing it!

Jill Hathaway said...



But, and I speak to you from the other side, you'll get through this.

Elissa J. Hoole said...

@Yahong Chi, you can do it! go get those revisions! It's funny because it's totally my favorite and my least favorite part of writing. I love having written most of all, I guess...

@Kristan, I'm so glad you blog, too! I don't know; mostly I've just had a difficult time figuring out what exactly is happening to this blog as my career changes. It used to be more firmly centered around my thoughts on being a mom, and then as writing began to take over my life, it has sort of morphed into more and more writing-based. I dunno!

@Jill--it's so awesome to hear how happy you've been lately! I do think it will be nice to work on something in the earlier stages soon! A whole different set of things to worry about, haha.

Zev said...

I feel like writing about writing is like using a mirror to look into a mirror.

Sharon Creech said...

Thanks for visiting my blog; nice to find yours, and lo, there's a post about revision! Also: I knit the way you do, except that my mother is no longer alive to fix things, so I only have two options: straight or pretend the hole was on purpose.

Anonymous said...


I'm terrified. The part about sitting there holding the needles, scared to move, that's gonna be me in the next few days as I start digging into this thing. Oh my gosh...okay, I think I'm having a heart attack!
Okay, I'm fine. Uh, did I mention I gave up knitting because of that whole concept of dropping a stitch. Call me if your mom starts doing your edits *holds out scarf with a hole in the middle* Maybe she'll be willing to do mine too.
Okay, *deep breath* I'm fine.