Monday, August 9, 2010

Revision--How Do You See Your Own Writing from a Different Viewpoint?

Writers who lock onto one picture of their books, holding it fast, being unwilling to adjust as they receive new insights, rarely publish. Their books stay limited in the limited vision of early drafts.

Revising happens. It must, before publishing. So "re-visioning" requires looking anew, looking deeper, with a different viewpoint. The reader's viewpoint. What will the reader make of the words you've chosen, the images you're painting?


Even though you believe you have a good understanding of your book by the time all the scenes are written and assembled into a draft, to the reader it may still be an incomplete jigsaw puzzle and they don't hold the cover image in their hands, as you do in your mind. For the reader, a final picture is still waiting to be revealed. Will you allow that picture to come forward? Will you attempt revision?

Feedback Mirrors What's Needed Next
How ironic that in many artistic processes that viewers can often see our truest expression way before we can. I've had this happen so many times, I can't even remember all of the embarrassments. I rarely have the detached view I need when I come into revising a story, a poem, an article, a book manuscript. So I use my sources for trusted feedback, to allow me to consider, then possibly adopt, a new vision.

Ever have this happen? It's a wonderful thing when it does: You're talking with one of those trusted folks about your new piece and you mention your confusion as to what it's really about. Or you say what you think it's about, and the friend says, "To me, it's about this." And she goes on to give you an overview that you would've killed for months ago when you were in the midst of struggle. So simple, you couldn't see it. You were looking too close.

That's what revision is about. Standing back, getting a different view, a better look at what you've created. Know that it's not about your skill as a writer or lack thereof. Many well-published writers can’t see their books clearly when going into revision.

It's still a bit annoying, a bit shame-producing, a bit unpleasant at that first moment when you see what isn't yet right. So it helps me to have this attitude: I look at revision as a process of chipping away what is not really my book’s true story. I recall that very likable main character in the movie Karate Kid, who kept polishing the car and painting the fence because his teacher said he'd learn something from it. Usually in revision I'm blind to what I'm learning from reworking my writing. But I know if I plod along, changing what I can see, listening to my good feedback partner, I'll come up with a much better book.

In the Fall 2003 issue of the Amherst Writers and Artists Newsletter, writer Bridget Bufford compares the early stages of a writing project, when the draft is there but not yet revised, to quilting squares, cut to shape but not yet assembled in a refined pattern. “Pretty, but not functional,” she says. It is only during revision, Bufford writes, that the writer can begin assembling the squares into a continuous piece.

It’s not until revision that “the writings become a narrative; my ‘squares’ begin to look like a quilt,” as Bufford says.

Revision and the Inner Critic
Why does revision make so many writers so uneasy? It's not just the embarrassment of not being perfect the first time around, I believe. I think it's because we sometimes have this false belief that the tale is intact, from God's mouth to our pen, and revision will only mess it up. Something vital could be lost.

But this is wording from the Inner Critic, that self-censoring part of ourselves that keeps the gate and tries to prevent us from risking more depth. Revision causes the Inner Critic to really sharpen its tools. Again, I've adopted a useful attitude that helps me keep the Inner Critic from stopping my revision process. I remind myself that as I brought my story through the narrow funnel of the creative brain, the Inner Critic was already active, filtering out some of the most colorful bits. I have the complete picture still in my own mind, but it hasn't actually appeared in my book yet.

Revision is where I notice what the Inner Critic omitted. I can return these missing pieces to their rightful place on the page.

And this is as it should be. The planning and initial draft are not where we get the writing perfect. These stages are designed to help us capture the golden idea, to sketch it out via "islands" of writing that are not yet continents. Now you’ll ask your story, “What else do I remember about that experience? What else might that character believe?”

Revision also creates a manageable way to let the beautiful shadows emerge, the filtered-out images and memories we (or the Critic) deemed too much for the writing. Most readers want to hear about the struggle as well as the goal achieved. Through polishing your writing, you shine light into dark places, make them visible. Writing with conscious revision becomes a way of healing ourselves as well as telling the whole story.

I've grown to love revision. It's actually my favorite part of writing now, after so many years of making friends with it. Polishing lets the shine come out, brings the music in.

In a well-revised piece, there’s a sense of multiple parts in an orchestra finally playing together. They create a sound larger than any individual part ever could.

This Week's Writing Exercise
1. Choose a short piece of writing that's ready for revising.

2. Before you begin, write a short note to the Inner Critic. Ask it what it's protecting you from, as you begin to re-vision a draft of your chapter, an "island," a scene from your book.

2. Listen to what it says. Do you get a sense of what might need working on? What's being held back?

3. Now read the writing out loud to yourself, yellow highlighter in hand. Make a small mark in the margin whenever you sense something is missing, too much is being said, or a new viewpoint is needed.

4. When you're finished, make a list of these places. Begin with questions. Ask yourself what might be needed in each of these sections. Let yourself muse over it, rather than be intense or focused. This helps to relax the Inner Critic and let the truth emerge.