Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Life After Chaotic Writing:
The Dreaded Revision

By Jon Chaisson
2003, Jon Chaisson


othing humbles writers more than reading their own work after distancing themselves from it for a spell.  I should know -- every time I come back to a novel I'd just finished, for about ten minutes I am tempted to hang up the old word processor and continue my lonely existence in the shipping department where I work.

Seriously, it's not all that bad.  Most writers view their first draft in two ways:  first as the wonderful piece of literature that it should be, then as the misshapen jigsaw puzzle that it actually is.  Let's face it -- it's nearly impossible to have the entirety of a plot, complete with subplots, distractions, and other ephemera in one's head while writing the book.  A subplot will be forgotten and left hanging, and sometimes a character will ultimately be of no use in the finished product.  As a writer, it's easy to shrug, do a little cut-and-paste, and hope it will work.

The problem is that your readers are going to see right through an easy fix.  They'll know that you've just committed a grave error:  the "gee, I hope they don't notice" act, which is a sure sign that the author doesn't really care how the story works, as long as it's done and it's published.  Guaranteed, this action is like shooting yourself in the foot.  Publishers and agents will shake their heads at you.  Writer's group members will howl at you.  Friends and family, of course, will just humor you and say "good job."

Okay, maybe it won't be that serious!  But if you think that once the novel is finished and you've run it through the spell check and given it the right format that it's good to go, I hate to be the bearer of bad news...

Behold, here cometh the dreaded rewrite.

As a practitioner of Chaotic Writing, this can be somewhat nerve wracking.  My wonderfully warped writing style has to be put on the shelf for the next few months.  I've managed to get my "unwieldy" plot tied up nicely in novel form, taken out extra passages that weren't needed, changed a few names and words, and even gone so far as to find the word count.  Then I print it out and get it ready for my red pen. 

Where do I go from there?  Well, the best thing to do, and something I suggest to anyone at this stage, is to put it aside for a week or so.  Forget about it.  Do some reading (not your own work), go on a trip, write some bad poetry... Do anything but work on this novel.  Distance yourself to the point where you're not thinking about it every waking moment of your life.  I like to call this "unplugging."  My escape plan includes working on side projects, writing articles like this, and playing a lot of Free Cell.  Doing this frees your mind from its rapid-fire concentration on the world you've created.  It also lets you momentarily forget some of the passages you've written that you love or hate too much to edit.

Okay, say you've distanced yourself, and you're ready to jump back in and let the Editor brain take over.  Now it's time to be brutally honest.  Find every little thing that went wrong -- dangling plotlines.  Pointless characters.  Spelling and grammar mistakes.  In short, it's time to make order out of this chaos that you've created.  There will be some semblance of that order in there somewhere, and it's up to you to figure out what it is.  Start right at page one and, using a steno notebook, write every little thing that needs to be changed. 

Also make a note of these changes right on the manuscript; that's what it's been printed out for.  The working first draft of my last novel had pen scratches everywhere, but it certainly helped when it came time for rewrite time.  There were countless revisions, a few surgeries, even a few deletions, but thanks my notes, I was able to get the rewrite done in the amazingly short time span of three months -- quick for a novel of 150k+ words, in my experience.  I once met an author who said that revision, once he got into the mindset of it, ended up being the most enjoyable and rewarding part of the writing experience.  I must agree with him.  Not only did I find it a lot of fun, but I also learned more about my writing style and the problems I must overcome.  Added to that, I found myself finding more layers to the story than I'd intended, which inspired me as I began writing the sequel!

I bet you're asking: How did I face down the fear of revision?  Admittedly, part of it was knowing full well that some passages were so sub-par that even I wouldn't read the book if I'd gotten away with them.  Rereading passages I was proud of didn't hurt, either.  The other part was just being more of a perfectionist than I really should be.  The latter is something that all writers should watch out for during revision; there is such a thing as overdoing it.  The writer has to admit to himself that his novel is not going to be completely perfect, devoid of all problems.  There will be a point where you've gone past revision and gone straight into obsessive perfection, a point you must avoid.  As soon as I knew I'd gotten to a point in the revision where any more changes would mean rewriting the whole thing from scratch again, I knew that was the point to call it a day and admit it was done.  A flawed work of art, but done.  But then again, what work of art is ever flawless?  So, a compromise:  a work of art I'm proud of.

Of course, the next step is even worse:  submitting your manuscript to an agent or an editor.  Compared to that, revision is a cakewalk.  But I won't bother you with yet another stressful moment in the writer's life right now...once an article is enough!  Good luck in revision, and remember -- it's not nearly as painful as it sounds.