Friday, September 22, 2017

How Do You Know When to Stop Expanding and Start Revising?

The relationship of writer to book-in-progress reminds me of a marriage.  As opposed to a date. 

Poems, articles, columns, and short stories are all creative commitments, sure.  But  even if they linger unfinished for a while, they are short relationships compared to 350 pages of manuscript. 

With a book, you regularly re-evaluate your progress, your purpose, and your plans.  You recommit again and again.  Not unlike the work it takes to make a marriage work.

Many of my students weary of this.  Is it ever done? they ask.  When is enough, enough? 

Some writers ask this when stuck or bored.  Revising seems like more fun than continuing to draft chapters.   But there is a real moment when the book has expanded as much as it needs to, and only in the more microscopic work of revision can the writer discover the next levels of truth in the story.
A writer from New York, working on his nonfiction book for several years, once sent me a very good question about this:   "At what point does one realize what they are trying to write is the final 'version'?  My subject/point of view has changed several times.  When do I stop?"

As You Evolve, So Does the Book
For me, a book evolves in stages.  There's the initial concept for the story or the method or the idea you want to write about.  You know a limited amount about the characters or the dilemma or the subject, or maybe you know a lot--from research or notes or pieces you've written.  But there's much more to understand, which will only be revealed to you as you build your book.  Unfortunately, there's no predicting exactly how long this will take. 
One of the factors is time.  The more time, the sooner your book will reveal itself.  Back to that analogy about marriage:  If you spend time with your spouse, you get to know each other better.  It's a no brainer in relationships, but writers are often impatient.  Ask yourself truthfully:  How much time have you really put in?  Two hours a week? Less? 

After two years at two faithful hours a week, it would be possible to have a good rough draft.  But unless you have a lot of writing experience already, you may only have that--a rough draft. Why?  A writing colleague put it this way:  "After three days of not writing, it takes a while to get back into my story."  The book disappears from your consciousness after three days, so you may not be able to spend the next writing session actually moving forward.  Rather, you may be spending half or more of it reacquainting yourself with the book.  That's OK--as long as you're aware of it and don't expect miracles.
When I began writing books in the 1980s, I expected miracles.  But I was lucky back then--I worked with editors at the publisher's office.  They helped me evaluate where I was in the journey.  I learned from them, wise souls that they were, about the re-acquainting time that's required after not writing.  I learned that more time goes in to building the first draft than new writers prepare for.  They told me not to be surprised if my books took two to three years before a solid first draft was formed, one that could stand up to revision. 

I learned with each book I published that most need at least a year or two of attentive planning and writing, discovery and exploration of both voice and topic, before I had enough of a manuscript to begin revision.
Which presents the dilemma from my student, above:  Obviously, if two years goes by, you won't stay the same.  Why expect your book to?  If you're prepared for that too--and I wasn't, for my first books, but editors wised me up--you won't be frustrated with the changes that naturally occur. 

Because during this planning and writing stage, books are supposed to change.  They evolve as we get to know them better, as our skills grow, as we get clearer about what is the book and what is not.
Each time I felt my book was ready, each time I got to that point when I thought to myself, Enough! Get the thing out the door, I had an editor to check in with.  Most of the time, he or she pointed out the blind spots that I'd overlooked in my inexperience.  Agents sometimes fill this role.  Coaches and paid editors definitely do. 
So how do you find out, without a publisher's editor, whether your planning and writing stage is indeed over and you're ready to move on to revision?
Revision Is Not Just Editing
This is another lesson I learned the hard way, working with a publisher's editor:  Revision is not simply substantive or copy editing:  cleaning up sentences, fixing typos, and massaging the passages a little.  My editors taught me that copy editing is like the final touch.  It comes just before publishing, only after a manuscript is strong and complete in its content, structure, and language.
Before the editing, comes the revision.  Although it's very important to create clean copy, if a writer tackles  technical work before the book is solid, it's like embroidering curtains on a barely framed house.  Not at all a useful exercise. 
I learned that revision literally means "re-seeing," and this all-important stage is about taking what you've created and seeing it anew, from a new viewpoint.  Whose viewpoint?  The reader's.  Revision is where writer invites reader into the room where the book lives. Then, once the book and the reader get acquainted, the writer leaves.
Robert Olen Butler, who wrote the well-loved writing book From Where You Dream, talks about how hard it is for most writers to actually leave the reader alone with their stories.  Most writers feel the strong need to interpret and tour guide their work to the reader.  You can just feel the presence of a hovering person, wanting to make sure you really understand what this or that passage means.  In revision, this has to go.  You as the writer must let your work live and breathe on its own.   
It's very hard for most writers to tell when they are hovering, interpreting, and otherwise annoying their potential readers.  For this, most of us need feedback.  When I am questioning if my manuscript is ready for revision, I will find three kind readers and formulate three questions for each reader to answer.  I don't need to know if the writing is good or bad--that's irrelevant at this point.  I need to know where the reader stumbles, senses too much of a hovering presence of the writer, loses interest.  These passages exist in all early drafts and readers, if asked, will help you find them.
Then you look at these passages and try to "re-see" them.  What were you intending just there, in the manuscript?  Why didn't your intention reach the reader?  Did you get scared, omit something important, bluster your way through to try to hide it?  This is very common.  Finding these unconscious places is the first step to revision. 
These places are where you lost heart.  You need to go back and put it in, before you go any further. 
Early Drafts Come from the Heart, Revision Comes from the Head
One of my favorite scenes of writing instruction comes from the movie, Finding Forrester.  Forrester, the famous recluse writer, played by Sean Connery, puts a typewriter in front of the young writer Jamal.  Forrester begins to type.  The young writer doesn't.  So Forrester asks, "What are you waiting for?"
"I'm thinking," says the young writer.
Forrester shakes his head.  "No, no.  No thinking.  That comes later."
As they start to type in unison, Forrester slips in these simple instructions.  They explain so clearly the difference between drafting and revision:
"You write your first draft with your heart," Forrester says.  "You revise with your head."
So many of us get this backwards.  We think so much about our early drafts that the pages don't actually contain any heart.  We get down plenty of words, often good words, but unless the writing has meaning, unless it reveals the heart of the writer, we're not going to reach our readers. 
Feedback prior to revision lets me know if there is more heart needed, more revealing that can be done.   It's only after I have given everything I have to the manuscript, that it's ready for the head part, the thinking.
This Week's Writing Exercise
1.  Rent the movie, Finding Forrester.  It's an old one, but it's still around on Netflix and other places (our library has it).  Watch it again, from a writer's point of view.  What can you learn from this fictional character about the process of writing?

2.  If you have a completed draft and you wonder if you're ready for revision, take a deep breath and find three readers to help you.  Avoid choosing immediate family and close friends, especially those who know your book pretty well.  Look for people who can give you an overview. You're going to ask them to read the manuscript and mark in the margins any place where they (1) stumble or (2) want more.  Tell them you aren't looking for fixes, you just want to see where you've lost heart, lost the reader's perspective.  You're asking them just to respond as readers. 

3.  From this review, you'll learn a lot about your book and where it is in the continuum.