Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

The Dangers of
Permanent Revision Syndrome

By Alex Roddie
2003,
Alex Roddie

 

hen I first started writing about four years ago, I didn't really know what I was doing.  I had what I thought to be a brilliant idea, so I just sat down and wrote it out.  I automatically expected it to be of publishable standard; in fact, I suppose I was pretty arrogant about the whole thing.

Two years ago, I decided that it might be a good idea to do some research into the craft and business of writing.  At first, I only looked up some literary agents and publishers in the Writer's Handbook, but then I started looking for articles on the Internet.  After two or three weeks, most of my illusions about writing had crumbled.  In particular, the articles on Holly Lisle's site made me think hard about what I was doing.  I didn't know about agents and publishers, and I never even guessed about the odds of having a profitable career.  I had expected to be on the bestseller list in no time at all, mostly because I had the illogical belief that my manuscript was the best ever to be written.  Before long I lost faith in my work, and decided to move on.  However, a problem arose.  I had developed Permanent Revision Syndrome, and that is a very hard condition to cure.

I was on my sixth revision when I did this research, and had planned no less than seventeen.  After doing some calculations, I realised that it would take me nearly another decade before I finished!  So how did I get stuck in this endless cycle of rewriting?  The main problem was this:  I had convinced myself that the novel was an undisputed masterpiece, and that I would never write a better one.  I knew that it had to be absolutely perfect, so when I read what I had done, I planned some revisions.  Well, the first lot of revision wasn't so bad.  Nor was the second.  But with the third revision, realising that I still had a huge amount of work to do, I started to get impatient.

There were two things that kept me going.  Firstly, I had an insane desire to see it finished, at any cost.  Secondly, I had become completely immersed in the fantasy world I had devised. The big problem with that, however, was that I never actually saw through the world to the story. 

To begin with, I hadn't planned the novel before I wrote it.  I had a (very) vague idea of what would happen at the beginning, and no idea of the middle or end.  So the tale grew, and grew, and grew ... with every rewrite, more story elements came cropping up.  This became a major problem, because I was too obsessed with the world, and uninterested in the characters or the plot.  In fact, the plot was often confusing and the characterisation totally non-existent.  I would put in pages upon pages of pointless description and exposition because I 'knew' the readers would be as thrilled by it as me.  Looking back, most this writing was completely incomprehensible to anyone who didn't know the country of Nordost inside out.

The first real blow came when I asked a friend to go over Revision Two.  Now, he wasn't totally incompetent as far as writing went; he'd written a few rather long short stories, and got good grades for his pieces of English coursework.  Better than me, in fact, which I kind of resented.  Anyway, he returned my manuscript about a week later, and he had graded it at U+ (for anyone who isn't from the UK, that's the equivalent of about 12%).  I thought it was a joke at the time, and I got really angry at some of his comments.  I chucked the manuscript out for a while, and became very hostile towards this friend who had taken the time to thoughtfully revise my work.

After a while, I had another look at the edited manuscript.  I grudgingly admitted that he had made some valid points, and I embarked on Revision Three.  Graeme read it, and found more glaring errors.  I corrected them; he revised it; I corrected the new errors; he revised them.  I guess I should be thankful that the poor fellow was so patient!  This became a long standing joke at school; the novel that wouldn't quit.  As for Graeme himself, I think he liked the entertainment of editing my God-awful work.

I started writing SF short stories for a while, and I abandoned my novel for better times.  Then I came back to it, and a feeling of dread settled in my stomach as I saw the glaring discrepancies and examples of inconsistent style.  Three years of revisions had left my manuscript in a very sorry state, so I started the complete rewrite. 

To cut a long story short, each rewrite created more problems, and it became a snowball effect.  These problems became bigger and more difficult to solve, until I just couldn't face it any more.  By this time, I realised that my novel had some really serious problems, and unless I got out of the cycle they would never be improved.  Life of a Falcon was permanently suspended this February, and with a sigh of relief I started my next novel.  This time, I learnt from my mistakes; I actually planned the thing beforehand and I didn't let myself become obsessed with the world at the expense of the story.

 And hey!  It worked!  I'm halfway through, and I like what I've written; I've got some very encouraging crits from the Forward Motion boards.  Perhaps more importantly, I believe I've got a story worth telling.  Also, I realise now that nothing I ever write will be perfect, so I just do what I can, hoping to improve it later on. 

However, knowing the symptoms of P.R.S, I know when to stop.  I have planned an absolute total of three revisions for this one, full stop.  And I will avoid total rewrites unless they are absolutely necessary.

So ... how can you avoid this disastrous Permanent Revision Syndrome?  Well, to begin with, you must come to accept that nothing you write will ever be perfect.  Most things can be improved, but there comes a point at which you should just leave them for a while.  Complete rewrites of manuscripts can create such unholy problems that I would not recommend them unless you really know what you're doing (and it's really necessary).  Revision is always essential, but I now find it best to try and sort out most of the problems in one or two passes.  I would also recommend that, even if you don't go in for full-scale outlining like I usually do, you at least have a good idea of the plot structure of your novel before starting.  And stick to it.  If you start to deviate too much whilst writing, before you know it you will have a dirty great monster on your hands.  Variation in plot is a healthy thing, but try to stay within the parameters of the original design.

What is the most important lesson of all?  Never, ever, lose perspective of what you're doing.  It is a novel, not the entire history of a fantasy world.  Keep to the story, and don't get bogged down in the worldbuilding; after all, the world in which your story unfolds is meant to support the characters and plot, not the other way around.  This is usually only a major problem with beginning Fantasy and Science Fiction writers (especially fantasy); sometimes they spend ages doing the worldbuilding and get totally obsessed with it, and forget about the story.  In my case, the worldbuilding was an end in itself, and I only wrote the novel because I liked the idea of writing a story set in the world I had created.  This is something I would seriously discourage, for in my experience it is the road to disaster.  I nearly followed my dream off the edge of a cliff, and wasted years in doing it.

Were it not for these events, however, perhaps I wouldn't have learned so quickly.  I don't pretend to be an expert at any form of writing, but I do know that my sorry experience with Life of a Falcon has forced me to think differently.  I understand the necessity of forward planning, and I relentlessly hunted down whatever knowledge on characterisation and plotting that I needed.  And I practiced.  If I hadn't been under such pressure, it probably would never have happened that way.

And so the moral of this article is:  write the story because you want to write the story, not because you've invented a world and you don't know what to do with it, and also be careful not to get caught by the permanent revision syndrome.