on reluctant revision
I’ve never been good at revision. In fact, it’s always been a mystery to me, and I never saw how a writer took something apart and then put it back together, still cohesive, maybe even more so. One writing teacher told me that in revision is power, maybe the only power a writer could ever have, because here is where she gets to be deliberate. But for me, I had no access to that power, because I could never get the energy – the courage? -- to break a piece’s spine and then re-assemble. In workshops, I’d fix a few words and phrases, and then turn in the same story, nothing substantial altered, no material work of revision done.
All of this changed when I submitted my novel to my agent (and then again, later, when I went through my publisher’s edits). There were things she loved about it – the atmosphere, maybe, the promise of one character’s arc – but there were some serious problems. One of the things we know in this field is that there’s not a ton of focus on the novel in MFA programs, and many of us who want to write them find ourselves doing so in the dark, with little of the feedback or training that we receive for our short pieces. Before I showed my agent the manuscript, I was the only one who had ever even read it all the way through. This inexperience showed itself in so many of the book’s beats, but especially in the way the action built and built but never truly broke, never folded over like a wave, culminating in something more than the sum of its parts.
But I wanted this book to be better than it was, and what’s more, I wanted it to actually be a book. So when my agent mentioned some things over the phone, I listened intently and took notes. When she sent me a detailed revision plan, I knew that I had no choice, that I needed to overcome whatever resistance to revision that I had, in order to make the leap from amateur to professional.
Also, nothing quite prepares you for how those pages of revision instructions feel. I experienced this emotion a second time, when I got my editor’s notes from Bloomsbury. The notes are so detailed and extensive that you wonder how you got anybody to pay attention to the manuscript at all. You read back through the manuscript and cringe, thinking that you can’t possibly put this piece of work out there for the world, that you certainly can’t attach your name to it. I remember one line edit especially: I’d used both “prostrate” and “supine” to describe the position of a character’s body. My editor asked me how that could possibly be, given that these words are antonyms. It hurt, that realization that there were substantial issues in the work, and it took a day or two just to let that feeling dissipate.
But then, I got down to work. I made a list of what to do, and I set out to do it. I’d start, and it would feel so uncomfortable, and I’d stop without realizing it. I would just find myself on Twitter and realize that I’d lost whatever thread I’d been working on. So I tried to make each task smaller, breaking it down and breaking it down and breaking it down, until I would bump my head up against that discomfort and then I’d say okay, what’s the next small thing? Some time ago, I realized something about myself in general – that too big of a job overwhelmed me – and so, since then, I’ve tried to think of the next small thing to do, and in the case of revision, this compartmental thinking saved me.
I also fell back on an old habit, and that's the morning pages I learned long ago from Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way. Whenever I had a particularly thorny problem -- why a character acted a certain way, for example, when there was really no other reason than that I needed him to for another action to happen -- I turned to those morning pages, and I tried to figure out the motivation. Slowly, with this technique, the author scaffolding came off, and the action seemed more organic on the page.
Now, I’m finishing publisher’s edits, assembling all of these small changes into a substantial change – an actual revision. One where characters do different things than they had done in the original version; one where different things happen, and different emotions are felt. The spine broken and knit back together, deliberately, with an eye toward shape and movement and wanting the sum to be greater. It is hard, and I still find myself on Twitter, not knowing how I got there. But for the first time in my entire writing career, I get excited about how these changes actually change the book. How they make me feel as a writer, and how I hope they will make readers feel. I hope that the breaking of the book is undetectable, and that the only thing the reader will feel is the accumulated weight of all of the book’s moments cresting over them, the wave cohesive and full, enough.
Nancy Wayson Dinan is a managing editor at Iron Horse Literary Review, and her debut novel, THINGS YOU WOULD KNOW IF YOU GREW UP AROUND HERE, is forthcoming from Bloomsbury in 2020. Her work has appeared in The Cincinnati Review, The Texas Observer, Arts & Letters, and elsewhere.