And the word for the week is . . .

September 22, 2008

How could it not be, when I’ve spent most of the past week a) sympathizing with writers struggling with it b) waiting for writers to show me the fruits of it, and c) cudgelling my brains to produce notes that will enable writers to embark upon it.

Yes, Revision is a big, dark, scary word. It is the Voldemort of writing. It is the mountain range that stands between the author and an agent. Between the author and a deal. Between the author and the nirvana that awaits beyond the magical ‘delivery and acceptance’ clause in their contract – when finally, finally the manuscript passes from being the author’s responsibility and into the hands of the copy-editor, the production department. Revision – once, twice, three times? Whose counting? – is what comes before the final immense, incredible sigh of relief.

Everyone is frightened of revision, deep down. Because it means pulling up everything you’ve carefully put together thus far and opening it up once again to the cold and dispassionate light of analysis, rigour and logic. When any carefully ignored omissions, obfuscations, self-delusions, denials, wobbly bits and messes are forced to meet their nemesis. Who wants that, when it’s so much easier to keep a few dark corners where the light never shines? Yes, revision is painful, frustrating and scary, because like a knitted sweater, when you pull out one thread the whole careful ‘knit one, pearl one’ of your beautiful creation can come unravelled in ways you never imagined. You thought the requisite revision was small, tightly contained, manageable – the sort of hole that might be covered by an orderly little patch, like a puncture in a bicycle tyre. But when you take your gloves off and start getting your hands dirty – changing things, digging deeper – lo and behold, you find not only has the tyre collapsed, but the entire bicycle has folded up and died under you.

This, my friends, is the process and the life to which you have signed up. It is the way of the professional author, and it is the path of any writer who aspires to be good. Or great. However tough it is, the more you can open yourself to looking rigorously and honestly at your work and being prepared to rethink, the better the end result is likely to be. And the less likely you are to be overly ‘precious’ about your writing and creativity. Publishers (and agents) love to deal with authors who will look objectively and exactingly at their work, and who are prepared to be guided in ways to make it even better.

Who do you know who can help you to revise? Many of you belong to critique groups and that’s a great way to go, enlisting the frank comments and sympathetic support (both being vital) of tried and trusted writer friends whom you respect. But if you don’t know a group like this which you could join, cast about for people you know (probably not family) whose judgement you believe in, and who preferably have some level of knowledge of the market. People often write to me saying they tried out their story on their children, or on a class at school. Listen to what those children say, but don’t necessarily believe that they will be the best or only arbiters. All children love to be read to, and the extra dimension of an adult investing time and ‘live performance’ can transform any work of fiction into something superlative. What you really need, ultimately, are the opinions of those who spend their lives working in the contemporary book scene in whatever capacity – who are used to dissecting plot, who understand the difference between characters that leap off the page and ones that remain two-dimensional, and who are attuned to hearing the cadence of language. If you come upon such a person, make them your best friend!

There are great rewards for those who revise, revise and revise again. With the right kind of advice and a willingness to learn and rethink, your grasp of your craft will develop and mature, and before too long you’ll be looking back with a hand clapped to your forehead as you yell, ‘That thing I wrote six months ago? How on earth could I ever have written such embarrassing tosh?!’

It’s a bit like my Canon Rebel xti camera. When I first got this beauteous piece of technology I hardly dared to touch it. I studied the book for hours, gingerly prodding buttons every now and then. Six months on I was swaggering around talking about ISO and aperture and shutter speeds (much to everyone’s irritation). I’m still no expert, and I still take some extremely wonky pictures at times, but I’m a million times better than I was. And if I wanted to be a professional photographer? Well, I’d do a lot of research and get myself on to the best possible course I could find and pay for, with all speed. Is writing so much different? It is craft. It is art. It is music. It is philosophy and psychology. It is structure, It is all things creative and analytical, all rolled into one form. It is well worth learning in any way you possibly can – whether from good teachers on simply ‘on the job’.

REVISION. It is a writer’s best friend. Don’t be afraid of it. No author ever got there without it. Be of good courage.