Revision: A Miserable Experience or A Grand Adventure?

I haven’t always been fond of rewriting. I used to approach it as the last thing to do, a quick proofread to catch errors and inconsistencies and then be done with things. What I enjoyed most was the new stories, thinking of scenarios and exploring new adventures with my characters, not going back over the same old story lines.

But over the course of writing novels, I’ve discovered that revision can be an adventure, if I don’t limit myself to following the exact same course each time. It becomes a kind of choose-your-own-adventure where I examine different routes, different choices, and different outcomes. Each segment of the story can be like a puzzle piece, and the mixing-and-matching process of changing the order, the characters, and the overall outcomes can be quite fun.

David Michael Kaplan takes a similar approach in his book, Revision: A Creative Approach to writing and Rewriting Fiction. He firmly believes that revision is the chance to see the story again, to get a new vision of what it could or should be, and as such, is the biggest opportunity of the creative process. He believes in re-vising, or re-seeing, before you write, while you write, and after you are finished, over and over until the story is as good as it can be. This is more than just proofreading, though. Revision, according to Mr. Kaplan, is an active reworking, a re-imagining, of the components and focus and characters.

He writes, “You might think you should have nailed down what the story’s about before writing it, but no, not necessarily, not necessarily at all. It may have needed more thinking out before writing that first draft…[o]r it may be that only through the act of writing the first draft, then seeing it again, mulling different possibilities for action and character, that we begin to understand what the story’s really about.” Since Mr. Kaplan primarily writes short stories, focus is very important in his writing, as he is generally telling one kind of story about an aspect of one kind of character, but the principles can be applied to any writing.

First, there is the revision before you write. He admits that not everyone does a great deal of planning. “It’s as if there are two kinds of travelers,” he writes, “those who prefer to land in a foreign country having done some planning and research beforehand, and those who don’t. The latter just strike off somewhere, hippity-serendipity, trusting to fate and fortune. They may have some find adventures. But they may also run into bandits, beriberi and fully booked hotels.”

He also urges writers to just write, never mind what, for the first draft, overlooking changes in character appearances, or gender, or point of view. He says to make the changes as you go, continually moving forward, rather than letting yourself get bogged down by going back and correcting things. (I don’t think I could ever write that way, though. Once something in the storyline is off, it completely messes up my forward-momentum, but that’s just me).

Throughout most of the book, he deals with what to do once you have a messy first draft, examining the kinds of problems writers typically fall into and how to fix them: problems with plot, and why moving story points around can be helpful, and how to revise endings and beginnings to make sure they actually work.

I particularly enjoyed his discussion of all the endings to be avoided, like trick endings and message endings and vague endings where nothing makes sense. He writes that “Bad endings may be imperfect resolutions of good conflicts, or perfect resolutions of badly developed conflicts. Getting to the good ending means getting to the one that most fully, faithfully and surprisingly resolves the story’s conflict. All other endings are the writer trying to impose something on what’s not there, trying to resolve things artificially rather than organically.”

In general, I think his approach to writing, and revising, is very freeing. It fights against the idea that once you’ve written something, that is how that something must be, and it injects the power of adventure into the revision process. Sure, you may have gone through the same general plot seven or eight times, but each time, it can be different. You could introduce a whole new character, you could change the point of view, or you could move whole scenes around to a new location. You aren’t married to the first draft, or any particular passage or sentence, even, because you are committed to the story, as it could and should be, rather than any particular manifestation of it.

Having so much freedom each time you approach your work is almost daunting, but he encourages writers to not be overly critical. He even offers his own rough drafts for our perusal, to see what he changed and why, showing us just how bad his first drafts could be. He writes, “Remember: The important thing on the first draft is not to say it well, but just to say it. To make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, you first need the sow’s ear.” Everything else can be systematically fixed through the adventure of revision.

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