Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Writing Advice I’d Give My Younger Self 3 — Revision

Let’s assume my younger self has prepared according to the suggestions of current me and completed a rough draft of the epic work of his dreams. Well, it’s probably more like a nightmare. It’s so bad, he probably hates me and wants to give up writing forever. Or go back to pushing words around aimlessly.

Now is the time to sit my youthful doppelgänger down and tell him the truth. All first drafts suck. The real work is rewriting. Put the work away for a time (six weeks would be good) and get to work on something else. Maybe a short story or a novella. Don’t despair. Things are on track. Even if this work turns out to be unfixable.

You don’t become a writer if you aren’t committed to learning. What is gained by finishing a work — even if it ends up being tossed — is invaluable. Painful, yes, but part of becoming really good at this job and writing things worth reading.

I know. It feels unfair. In a make-believe world, the muse shows up, whispers achingly beautiful prose in your ear, and frames out a classic story. And maybe that happens sometime. You become the Mozart of Amadeus, filling pages with no corrections needed. Celebrate when that happens (or even if it just feels like it has happened). Don’t count on it. Because, sooner or later, the editor in your head you shut the door on during drafting has to be let in. And here’s his advice.
  • Your draft is not good. It might be okay. But it probably sucks. In any case, it can be a lot better. Good enough is not good enough. Think of it like a job application. Your work has to be near perfect, not abandoned.
  • Break up the revision work, especially rewriting, into tasks. It is amazingly inefficient to cut chapters, fill holes, connect to theme, sharpen dialogue, trim beginnings, fashion hooks, and correct typos in a single pass. Expect to return to the work repeatedly, each time with a different focus. Have the task list at hand as you begin. Be eager to make it a better list.
  • Imbue even light projects with emotional authenticity. The bar to reach or exceed is set by your own, real-life emotional experiences, so dare to write out a few each year for private use.
  • Your words aren’t precious. Lots of good stuff belongs on the cutting room floor.
  • Learn how to invite, accept, and judiciously use criticism.
If you can, learn to love revision. Change up your approach to keep it fresh. Listen to your characters. Write new scenes, even if you won’t use them. Find a new level for the story. Review your reasons why this work MUST be done. Or just take pride in creating the best story you can.

[Note: I know the younger me hates revision. The older me only hates it a little less. If you love revision, some of the advice here is not for you. Enjoy your superpower.]

This was to be the last of this series (which all came out of me in one weekend), but I came to realize how much my younger self needs to handle opportunities well. So I’ll add one more post in this series next week.

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