Working one-on-one with first- time memoirists and novelists at various summer writing work- shops over the past many years, I often find myself needing to de- liver the hard news. Perhaps the most difficult lesson I have to pass along is this:
Once you are done writing your book, you aren’t really done writing your book. When I say this, foreheads inevitably furrow. Faces fall.
Being reminded of just how much effort is required even after you’ve put a period on the final sentence of the final chapter of a multi-year project can be deeply discouraging.
Because yes, revision does take effort and time. It needn’t, however, be painful.
The blank page is a frightening void. An early draft, however, filled with words — all pointing in the right direction, but in need of some tender loving care — can be exhilarating. Words are like clay: You can push them around and make all manner of shapes with them. And clay reminds us of childhood. And childhood re- minds us of the time when we were the most playful, most creative, and least haunted by voices telling us we can’t do things well enough.
In other words, you can approach revision with your head low and your shoulders tensed, thinking, “Boy my sentences are so sloppy and wordy, and everything seems slow. All in all, I’m a pathetic failure.”
Or you can approach revision thinking, “Hey, here’s my chance to get it right. Let’s play around.”
Too many areas of life don’t afford you a second chance, but writing does, and you should see that as a good thing. So, here’s my advice:
FIRST: GO BACK TO THE BEGINNING
Once you’ve found an ending to your novel or memoir, look back at your opening impulse. These two moments should be connected, either by a direct line of action and reaction running through the entire book, or through the cur- rent of emotion. Sometimes these two moments may also be linked by setting, by imagery, or through a recurrent metaphor. There is no steadfast rule, except that if the be- ginning and ending don’t feel coupled in any significant way, you need to rethink plot and structure.
Remind yourself that a book begins with a question: “How will she overcome this unforeseen challenge?” or “Will this experience change him in some significant way?” The ending doesn’t always answer the question fully, but it should connect, and though the beginning doesn’t ask the question explicitly, it should plant the seed.
THEN: EVERYTHING IN THE MIDDLE
Locate the emotional undercurrent of your book — what I like to call the Invisible Magnetic River — and review every word, image, metaphor, scene, character, and chapter. Look for scenes, even those you labored over for days that may no longer have any utility to the story, or images and metaphors that — though not poorly shaped — don’t fit the overall flow. Though it is heartbreaking to delete twenty pages of honest effort, this momentary agony is far more desirable than settling for a book that limps or sputters somewhere midway.
FINALLY: THE SENTENCE LEVEL
This part is the most fun for me, honestly, though perhaps I have an odd sense of what is enjoy- able. I love reading the manuscript through from beginning to end, every sentence, one at a time, OUT LOUD.
Listening to each sentence, feeling it inside of my mouth as I speak it, identifying words I use too often, finding phrases that fall flat, is an opportunity I don’t have in every- day life, in spoken conversation. Getting it right just feels good.
Often I improve a sentence by speaking it out loud, then trying another pattern, substituting an- other word, and then speaking the revised sentence out loud. My ear is frequently more helpful than my brain in identifying simple awkwardness and in recognizing the more vexing problem of sentences that sound good but say little.
Of course, there are days that re- writing can be a slog, just as writ- ing can be. There are moments in revision that I think I’ll never find the solution, moments of despair and discouragement.
But overall the process is invigorating, and when working well, invigorating for both my prose and my story.
The difference, in my mind, be- tween writers who are successful in finding an audience and those who struggle, is when and where in the revision process a writer throws in the towel and settles for “good enough.”
Learn to be just a bit tougher on your own work than the toughest editor you can imagine, and you just might find that agents and editors suddenly love your book.