Wouldn’t it be awesome if everything we created was perfect and polished and important in its first draft? Then we could avoid the drudgery of revision. No matter how many quick tips or proven strategies you employ, in the end you simply have to do the work.
Last week, on a field trip to Colonial Dorchester, SC, with my daughter’s class we had the chance to excavate a long-buried home. We found brick, broken pottery, curved glass, animal teeth, and burned wood all of which were clues to identifying the kitchen.
The excavation got me thinking about my current work in progress, the one I’ve revised eight times and still can’t manage to get quite right. I’ve gone chapter by chapter and line by line. I’ve gone scene by scene and character by character. I’ve reorganized the order of events and re-written pages and pages of dialogue.
It’s a slow and arduous process, getting my main character to reveal his true intentions. Once, while revising my first novel, I sat down in a quiet place and asked the main character to tell me the truth.
“What happened?” I said aloud and waited for him to explain himself.
When I recounted this story to my husband he thought I ought to have known what happened. I invented the character, after all; the voice in my head is still mine. Yet, unlike creation, when I just type recklessly everything the voice is saying, revision requires precision. The voice must stop its mindless chattering. It must be honest and succinct so I can identify what really matters to the story.
My vampire narrator is anxious; he is pushing his hands through his hair and hissing under his breath at me to get on with it.
“Let’s just tell the damn story,” he says.
“You have to be honest with me,” I reply. “You’ve been saying you want a family. Is that really what you want?”
And he stares at me, glaring, unwilling to admit it’s not true. Unwilling to say that because it’s not true, the entire premise of the novel is at risk. All those things I thought I was doing must come undone because of this new revelation.
In revision, we’re excavating the real value of the story and excavations take time. Like archaeologists, we brush away the dirt to reveal the structure buried beneath.
I think the hardest part of revision is waiting for my characters to come clean. Experience has taught me that my main character will be honest when he’s ready. Until then, my revision efforts will all be cosmetic. As much as I hate the way this excavation process takes so much time and effort, I have to believe the real story is worth the dig.
I don’t plan my novels and I’m not sure that, even if I did, the real story wouldn’t emerge through excavation and force me to accept it. Patience with the process is the real work of revision.