Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Dangers of Revision

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

--Bilbo Baggins

Alert readers of this blog may be aware that I recently finished another draft of my novel Doleful Creatures. I realized, as I was revising, that this quote from Bilbo Baggins is quite appropriate to the revision process – once you start, you never quite know where you’re going to end up. You might end up with a draft that is, in many ways, stronger than the one you started with. It’s also entirely possible to end up with a draft that is worse. I think what most often happens is something in the middle: Parts of it get better, and parts of it – mostly the new stuff – makes it worse. And by worse, I mean a lot of the new stuff is still technically first-draft material, and it sometimes doesn’t mesh with what was written previously. So, where’s the sweet spot? I made this wonderful illustrative chart to help me find it.
All writers have been on every bit of this chart. Some charts may start out in the red, with a writer coming back to a manuscript thinking it total crap. But I don’t buy that. You wouldn’t come back to a manuscript if it was total yuck. There’s always going to be some green there to attract your attention.

I noticed on Draft Three of Doleful Creatures that I was, at first, careful with revisions and new material, always keeping in mind the big picture: Continuity and improvement. That works incrementally. Then that wonderful spot comes when you think you’ve got it and get back to the freewheeling days of writing that first draft. You’ve fallen in love with the story and the characters all over again. Then comes the sweet spot. The “Danger Will Robinson!” spot.

Go beyond that first sign of caution. This is where you go out your door. Just keep your feet and you might end up somewhere great. Your story might go in an interesting direction. You might fix that critical bit at the end, stretching yourself beyond the spot where you’re comfortable tinkering. How far you get swept off will determine how long your next revision will take. Hit that sweet spot. Go a little further. Just don’t fall off. And when you do fall off – and we all fall off – just plan the next revision.

Should we be afraid of falling off? Not at all. I fell off at Revision 3 – and it’s got me pumped to do Revision 4. And I think Revision 4 will be a shorter one, with less of a chance of falling.

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