Second Chances

I’m writing this as the Olympics end and the athletes go home victorious or defeated, no in-between.  Much as I complain about how hard writing is, I’m thinking lordie lordie, at least nobody watches me do it. No audience cheers or groans as I walk the beam or leap hurdles or execute somersalts from insanely high platforms, all while wearing little more than my own thin skin.  No cameras record and replay ad infinitum my failure to achieve sufficient altitude or my clumsy flip turns.

Of course, writers stumble, fall and land on their own butts all the time, but we get to do it in private, no witnesses.  Happily, the desk doesn’t record how many times we knocked our heads against it, and the keyboard has no comment on how compulsively we dust it while trying to come up with the ending to a scene. Only the coffee mug witnesses the grinding of the teeth, the biting of the nails.

Even better. Writers get to revise.  For us, there’s always more than one chance. Even after something is published, even when we’re reading it in public, we’re apt to slip in one more little edit. No tenth of a point deduction!

I recently read “Splendors and Glooms” by stellar MG author Laura Amy Schlitz. This new novel has a complicated plot told from multiple points of view. A writer could envy how easy Schlitz makes it look—the book features a master pupeteer, and that’s what she seems, pulling all those strings, never getting them tangled. But here is what she has to say about the actual writing and revising:

“This book took me six and a half years to write, and I almost never knew what I was doing…I’d kill off a character in chapter 11, write nine more chapters, and realize I needed the dead man alive again. So I’d throw out the nine chapters—not one of which had been easy to write—and go back to the beginning…It’s hard to keep going back to work that makes you feel profoundly stupid. I kept hoping the book would get easier, but it never did…People who wanted to help me would ask me questions about the plot, and I would glare at them and shriek, ‘I don’t know! I don’t know! It doesn’t make sense!’”

Yikes. I’ve been there (though I tend to shriek behind closed doors).  Getting lost, getting stuck—it’s a maddening, disheartening state.  Yet we’ve always got that second, third, fourth chance to work through it. Revising, as any author will swear, is where the real writing happens.

Lots of writing blogs and books offer revision tips. One I’ve found particularly helpful not just on revising but many aspects of writing and publishing is Scholastic editor Cheryl Klein’s “Second Sight”.  Her chapter Twenty Five Revision Techniques offers tried and true advice like taking time off from the project so you can see it with fresh eyes and compressing the story to one sentence, but also some original and fun exercises to help you judge the success of character, plot and pacing. I especially appreciate the encouragement of Tip # 25: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  We may fudge the take-off or wobble on the landing, but we can work on that. In the end, the main goal is to take our work as far as we can.

Kate Messner is a teacher and a writer who maintains a terrific website, www.katemessner.com I love this quote from her: “I’m an okay writer but I’m a really good reviser.” Kate’s book “Real Revision: Authors’ Strategies to Share with Student Writers” is aimed at teachers taking kids through the writing cycle, but with insights from thirty-five writers including Jane Yolen and Kathi Appelt, it’s a treasure trove for anyone who writes or wants to.

Paul Theroux said, “Fiction gives us a second chance that life denies us.” I think he was talking about reading, but the words apply as well or even more to writing. Got some of your own revision strategies, or a book or site to share?

Tricia is the author of the award winning middle grade novel “What Happened on Fox Street” and its sequel “Mo Wren, Lost and Found”.  She’s currently deep into revising her new middle grade novel, “Pinch”, but you can find her at www.triciaspringstubb.com    

11 Responses to Second Chances

  1. I love revising and editing my manuscripts. I am a skinny writer, – one that writes sparse and add calories during revision. I love sparking more life into my work.

  2. Tricia, a million thanks for this post and that quote from Laura Amy Schlitz! She perfectly describes the scary frustration of wandering around lost in the story until it starts to reveal itself. I’m deep into a first draft of my next book, and here’s something that is working for me. I set a goal of writing 1000 new words a day. I specifically tell myself that they don’t have to be good words — they can be hideous — they just have to add up to 1000 before I can quit. If I get stuck staring at a blank page, I make myself start typing and just go where my fingers take me. This is concrete, doable, and now I’ve got about 25000 words that are starting to turn into a novel. I love hearing others’ strategies — thank you!

  3. Oh drafting is torture for me! I’m always wanting to go back and fiddle with what I have rather than forge forward. Another writer I know describes it as wading through the known waters, every day going out a little farther. Hoping, hoping, hoping you’ll be able to swim when you can no longer touch.

  4. I loved this post, Tricia! It’s funny, too. And boy, you are right – we do not have the whole world watching.Thank goodness!!! That’s a great metaphor with the Olympics. I love drafting much more than revising, but I know it’s the revising that brings out the best in the story. I can re-envision and re-plot and tweak every single line ad naseum if needed!

  5. I’m always learning from other writers–consciously and by osmosis (by the way–love the hat!)

  6. Linda Andersen

    Tricia,

    Your comparison of writers to Olympians made me laugh! I’d give you a Perfect 10 for this post. I don’t even want to be seen in a bathing suit by my own family, much less millions of viewers.

    I don’t have a revision source to recommend although many crowd my shelves. Presently, I am reading Mermaid by Carolyn Turgeon to get some idea of what makes a novel worthy of movie rights. I’ve only read a few chapters so far, but answers are forming. Maybe well-written books should be our best resources.

  7. Re-vision: ideally, the more you look at a thing, the more you see!

  8. Revision is key. When I was publishing my collection of short stories, I spent almost half a year on revision and editing alone. Great advice for writers of all levels and ages. As part of a digital publishing team who has worked on manuscripts with authors I think this advice is great and I will be sure to pass it on.
    Thanks
    christy[at]premierdigitalpublishing[dot]com

  9. I think it was Stephen King who said, “I can revise a bad draft, but not a blank sheet of paper.” Thanks for the book suggestion, Diane, and happy fallow period, Ali!

  10. I am currently taking some time off from my project. No writing. No editing. Phew! I never realized I needed a break. It’s nice to know this is tried and true advice for writers. Gearing back up soon – I miss my characters.

  11. Great post, Tricia!
    I decided years ago that I love revising far more than writing a first draft. Sometimes, getting that first draft down on paper, or screen, is like pulling teeth. It can be agoninzingly slow and seem that there’s no end in sight. But revision . . . well, that’s a whole different ball game. I love forming and shaping, cutting and adding, and watching my story grow stronger and stronger. The temptation to continue endlessly tweaking is so strong that it can be really tough to make myself stop and send the manuscript off to my agent. As far as books on the subject, one of my favorites is “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers,” by Renni Browne and Dave king.