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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Revise, revise, revise!

In every creative pursuit there is always a bit of reviewing and changing of the work before presenting it to the public. But with writing the revising process takes on almost a mythical aspect in regard to the final work. Some writers revise little, what they set to paper is pretty darn close to what gets published. Others write ten drafts and even then cringe when they see their name on the dust jacket.

The revising process is as different for each writer as the writing process, or story ideas for that matter. No two writers are exactly the same, and I encourage those who are just getting started to try out different ideas and choose the one that works best for you. To help in that regard I've asked some published authors to give some insight into their revising process, as well as compiled some choice quotes from major names in the publishing industry.

For what it's worth my revising process has been heavily influenced by Stephen King's On Writing where he suggests writing the rough draft, setting it down for awhile, and then revisiting it. I follow that basic outline, though usually once I take another look at the original manuscript I find so much wrong with it that I completely rewrite the story. So, all in all, I usually have a rough draft, which I set aside as I work on another project, and then revisit. I then rewrite whole sections, solving for character or thematic issues, and only once I've rewritten will I consider showing it to anyone. After that I correct any spelling, grammar, or flow issues and send the manuscript off to as many publishers as I can to get the thing in print. This whole process can sometimes take anywhere from a few months to a few years, but I usually keep a pretty steady pipeline going since for every story that is in the rewriting stage, there are several waiting for responses from publishers, and even more that are in various stages of intitial production.

So, here are what some other authors have to say:


Daniel Davis is a short story writer from Eastern Illinois who's been published in The Absent Willow Review, Eastown Fiction, and Silverblade.net.

"I'm more or less a one-drafter. I'll do some revising while I write, and I'll go over a piece a couple times afterwards, but the bulk of the piece stays the same, and I tend to only make minor changes once I'm done."


John Gardner is the author of Grendel and various acclaimed short stories.

"What the honest writer does, when he’s finished a rough draft, is go over it and over it, time after time, refusing to let anything stay if it looks awkward, phony or forced."


David Foster Wallace is the author of Infinite Jest. This quote is from Steven Moore, managing editor of Review of Modern Fiction, on his thoughts upon first receiving the manuscript for Infinite Jest.

"It [was] a mess — a patchwork of different fonts and point sizes, with numerous handwritten corrections/additions on most pages, and paginated in a nesting pattern (e.g., p. 22 is followed by 22A-J before resuming with p. 23, which is followed by 23A-D, etc). Much of it is single-spaced, and what footnotes existed at this stage appear at the bottom of pages. (Most of those in the published book were added later.) Several states of revision are present: some pages are early versions, heavily overwritten with changes, while others are clean final drafts. Throughout there are notes in the margins, reminders to fix something or other, adjustments to chronology (which seems to have given Wallace quite a bit of trouble), even a few drawings and doodles."


Kate Christensen is the author of The Great Man and Trouble. This is quoted from the Wall Street Journal.

"Kate Christensen was two years and 150 pages into her first novel, In the Drink, about a boozy ghostwriter, before she discovered what the book was really about—so she dismantled the draft, threw out a bunch of pages and started over. The process repeated itself with her second, third and fourth novels, she says. With her 2009 novel Trouble, a story about two women who go on a Thelma and Louise-like adventure to Mexico, the opening finally stuck. Ms. Christensen, who works out of her home in Tribeca, says a lot of her writing time is spent 'not writing.' Most mornings, she does housework, writes emails and talks on the phone to avoid facing her work. In the past, she's played 30 games of solitaire before typing a first sentence.

"Last month, she started a new novel, titled The Astral, about a 57-year-old poet in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, who has been kicked out by his wife and is trying to get his son out of a mind control cult.

'At the beginning, which is where I am now, there is always a certain amount of trepidation because the thing doesn't have a life of its own yet,' says Ms. Christensen, who won the PEN/Faulkner Award last year."

Misopogon has been published in Pollution Engineering, and MGoBlue.

"I need to see it differently than how it was written. With Web stuff, I'll write it in Word, then copy and paste to Notebook then to the page. Before posting, I like to print it on real paper, staple it together, and read it like a manuscript at lunch, or on the pooper. I read it again in Preview on the page, and usually catch something there.

After publication, I'll still make a bunch of changes, including a rather large one about 24 hours after the initial posting, when I've had a night to think everything over, and a day of people making comments.

For print publication, it's a similar process, but instead of reading it on the website, I print out a pdf copy of the final version."

Don Delillo is the author of White Noise and Libra.


“I want those [draft] pages nearby because there’s always a chance I’ll have to refer to something that’s scrawled at the bottom of a sheet of paper somewhere. Discarded pages mark the physical dimensions of a writer’s labor—you know, how many shots it took to get a certain paragraph right. Or the awesome accumulation, the gross tonnage, of first draft pages. The first draft of Libra sits in ten manuscript boxes. I like knowing it’s in the house. I feel connected
to it. It’s the complete book, the full experience containable on paper. I find I’m more ready to discard pages than I used to be. I used to look for things to keep. I used to find ways to save a paragraph of sentence, maybe by relocating it. Now I look for ways to discard things. If I discard a sentence I like, it’s almost as satisfying as keeping a sentence I like. I don’t think I’ve become
ruthless or perverse—just a bit more willing to believe that nature will restore itself. The instinct to discard is finally a kind of faith. It tells me there’s a better way to do this page even though the evidence is not accessible at the present time.”


Stephen King is the author of about a billion bestsellers, like It and Misery and The Stand and The Shining and Carrie and Cujo, etc.


“How much and how many drafts? For me the answer has always been two drafts and a polish (with the advent of word processing technology, my polishes have become closer to a third draft).
“Let me urge you to take your story through at least two drafts; the one you do with the study door closed and the one you do with it open.
“With the door shut, downloading what’s in my head directly to the page, I write as fast as I can and still remain comfortable. Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt. If I write rapidly, putting down my story exactly as it comes into my mind, only looking back to check the names of my characters and the relevant parts of their back stories, I find that I can keep up with my original enthusiasm and at the same time outrun the self-doubt that’s always waiting to settle in.
“The first draft—the All-Story Draft—should be written with no help (or interference) from anyone else.
“You’ve finished your first draft. . . . If you have someone who has been impatiently waiting to read your novel . . . then this is the time to give up the goods.
“How long do you let the book rest [after the first draft]—sort of like bread dough between kneadings—is entirely up to you, but I think it should be a minimum of six weeks. . . . you’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience. . . . you’ll also be able to see any glaring holes in the plot or character development.
“During that reading, the top part of my mind is concentrating on story and toolbox concerns: knocking out pronouns with unclear antecedents . . . adding clarifying phrases where they seem necessary, and of course, deleting all the adverbs I can bear to part with. . . . Underneath, however, I’m asking myself the Big Questions. The biggest: Is this story coherent? And if it is, what will turn coherence into song?
“I want resonance. Most of all, I’m looking for what I meant, because in the second draft I’ll want to add scenes and incidents that reinforce that meaning. I’ll also want to delete stuff that goes in other directions. There’s apt to be a lot of that stuff, especially near the beginning of a story, when I have a tendency to flail. All that thrashing around has to go if I am to achieve anything like a unified effect.
“When I’ve finished reading and making all my little anal-retentive revisions, it’s time to open the door and show what I’ve written to four or five close friends who have indicated a willingness to look.
“In the spring of my senior year . . . I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. . . . ‘Not bad, but puffy. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good Luck.’ I wish I could remember who wrote that note—Algis Budrys, perhaps. Whoever it was did me a hell of a favor."

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