by Marcus Sakey
I have a novelist friend who loves doing revisions. The way she sees it, the first time around the book is ragged, rough, and when revising you get to draw out the soul. Revising is her favorite part.
My friend is insane.
As you may have guessed, I’m in the midst of revisions myself. I turned in the draft of my second novel about two month back, and three weeks ago I got my editorial letter. It was full of nice things, kind and friendly comments about how much my editor liked the book, how he thought it was really good.
Then came twelve pages on how to make it better.
Let me get this part out of the way first—he’s right. I don’t agree with everything he said, but damn close. Which makes sense. First, he’s a pro. Second, and this is the kicker, he’s pointing out things that I didn’t see because I was too close.
For this book, I had the standard sophomore-novel worries, which truly are a bitch. Of course, I know it doesn’t really get all that much easier—I was talking to Tess Gerritsen after ThrillerFest, and she was telling me that starting her new book, her twentieth, most of them bestsellers and award-winners, that starting this one has her absolutely terrified.
Which is at once creepy and comforting.
But besides the usual writerly worries, with this novel I was trying for a broader story than in my first book. I wanted a more complicated plot, filled with twists and reversals, and some elements of mystery. Creating these things, I have discovered, is hard.
Feel free to quote me on that.
But for me, revising these things is harder. Some writers, like my friend, race through a draft. To them, finishing the first is the equivalent of a sculptress choosing her marble. A draft provides limits and boundaries, but the real work is yet to come. They go through the book over and over, chiseling out plot lines, polishing up characters, chipping away to find the form of the thing as a whole.
That’s not the way I write. For me it’s more like weaving a tapestry. I have an outline, and I write steady and methodical, a thousand words a day. I polish the hell out of things as I go, and when I type the last page, knot the last string, the book is close to submission-ready.
Which means that when my editor points out a weakness in a plot line, or suggests combining three characters, I stagger and stutter and say “Ummm” a lot. Not because he’s wrong, but because that’s the equivalent of cutting a thread and yanking it. And in tapestries and novels both, that results in a snarled mess.
I’ve spent the last three weeks banging head-shaped holes in my walls. And though it took a while—and my forehead connecting with more than one stud—I now know what I need to do. I’m combining three characters, and dramatically shifting one. I’m adding more warmth to one guy and making another colder. And the tug of each of these changes has altered the pattern of the piece as a whole.
Which is, of course, the point.
It’s not a fun process for me. A crucial one, one that will result in a better book. And at the end of the day, writing a good book is our only true responsibility. But fun?
On par with repeatedly poking myself in the eye.
What about you? Do you enjoy the revision process? Have you found any ways to make it easier?
Or is this pretty much just the way it goes?