Revising: A part of life

At a conference last year, an author spoke about revising her manuscripts with a look of rapture usually reserved for the sacred or the sensual. My first thought? Are you kidding me?! What about revising and editing could possibly evoke this level of euphoria? Personally, my goal is to write THE END on the last page of a publish-ready manuscript, query one agent who falls so deeply in love with it that her pitch compels an acquisition editor at a big five house to weep openly for his good fortune, release my bestseller, and bask in the glory of literary acclaim (and then repeat that about one hundred times). There is, in the mythology of the writing community, just such a writer, debut no less, who took up their keyboard and sent out a masterpiece. Word is, they never even plotted (gasp!). So rare is this breed of bestselling authors that it is said they share a common ancestor with mermaids, unicorns, and yeti. The rest of us, with human DNA, get to revise—and not just on paper, but throughout our lives. Isn’t that great? Now, that is a euphoric thought. As long as I am alive, I can revise my life. I can revise my being. I am my own work in progress.

re·vise (/rəˈvīz/) verb
1. re-examine and make alterations to;
2. reconsider and amend (something),
especially in the light of further evidence
or to reflect a changed situation.
Oxford Languages (online dictionary)

According to the Oxford Languages online dictionary, one definition for revise is to “reconsider and amend (something), especially in light of further evidence or to reflect a changed situation.” As a writer, my first inclination is to bat away advice that endangers the lovely words I have crafted into profound sentences, which will surely withstand the vagaries of critical analysis. However, I will only grow as a writer, throughout my career, if I open myself to “the light of further evidence” and I apply what I learn. I know that there is always room to improve. Recently, I sent a synopsis, 1367 meticulously chosen words, to an editor. Regrettably, it had to be cut to one page, or roughly in half. IN HALF! I had to give up half of my words! How on earth would anyone fully grasp the depth of my novel in less than those 1367 words? The experienced editor cut it down, practically overnight. In the margins, she wrote “You don’t really need this.” Was she saying in my story? No. She was saying, ‘in this synopsis, where you only get about 660 words, this is not critical’. She was absolutely correct. My synopsis is tighter. More importantly, I learned a critical skill from her: how to carve away the extraneous and get right to the truth of the story when writing a synopsis.

Like the words I write, an idea or belief about myself or the world can become cemented in my head as true, essential, and immutable. Those ideas and beliefs are not always lovely or well-crafted. They are often riddled with self-doubt and self-criticism. Guess what? I don’t really need that. It’s extraneous and clouds the truth. I can cut that part out of my life. The stories we tell ourselves that serve only to diminish. Delete. The words that lack self-compassion. Ctrl+X. Edit the adverbs and adjectives that weaken your story—poorly, carelessly, lackluster, or failed. Imagine your story revised. Are you telling yourself that you failed, or are you telling yourself that you learned something new for your next attempt?

As I read through my library of books on writing, editing, and revising, parallels to living leaped off the pages. This is certainly not an exhaustive list of revision elements or strategies. However, these struck me as ways to polish not only my novel but my life.

“Get the words out.”
Allison K. Williams

You don’t have to do something perfectly the first time. You don’t even have to be successful the first time. More importantly, an imperfect first attempt is not evidence that you should quit.  Isn’t that freeing? How many times has my belief that there are some things I cannot do well kept me from trying or caused me to abandon that ugly first attempt? I could be playing the banjo by now. I might be singing in a choir or dancing. In Allison K. Williams’ book, Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like A Pro From Blank Page To Book, her first piece of advice is “Get the words out.” Knowing that it will take seven drafts is somehow freeing. Step one: just get the words out. Play a chord, sing a note, shuffle your feet. Take every chance you have to play the song, sing the chorus, or do the two-step. Accept that you can and should be polishing it, probably seven more times. Do it boldly in the light of day. Know that your ugly first draft and willingness to do it six more times is an inspiration. It will reverberate in your heart and mind, drowning out the negative voices the next time you learn to do something difficult.

“Look at the big picture.”
Paige Terlip

I had the good fortune of hearing Paige Terlip speak about her process for revising. This simple line stuck in my head: “Look at the big picture.” In writing, I want to start revising with a magnifying glass and an exhaustive list of all the things I need to analyze. There are so many! If you start with a magnifying glass, you might change something that sends ripples through your whole manuscript. You have to step back to let both the polished parts and the dents emerge. I find that’s true in life. A challenge comes along, and I want to dissect it until I know the root of the problem. I believe that the microscopic view is showing me the truth. Like manuscripts, life is complex, and the elements are interdependent. A microscopic view that leads to a surgical solution often only creates a greater problem somewhere else. Step back. Take it all in. Look at it from every angle before you whip out the eraser or scalpel. Appreciate all that is going well before you turn your laser like attention to what is not working. Don’t ignore the challenge, but do remember that it is only a part of your work or your life. The challenge is not your work. It is not your life.

“If you want your reader to invest,
the character must want or be in danger of
losing something he or she cares enormously about.”
Tiffany Yates Martin Intuitive Editing

As a writer, I am always trying to ramp up the stakes for my characters. Admittedly, I am quite mercenary. I give my characters something that they value and put them in constant danger of losing it. I show them something they need to survive and then I construct a mountain range of obstacles in front of it. It sounds devious, but who wants to read a story about a character who securely has what they need and could live without it if they lost it? Who wants to live a life without stakes? Of course, no one wants to spend a lifetime struggling to achieve or fearing loss, but what would life be like if we did not care? Life would exist in sepia tones if we did not love fiercely and grieve deeply. The stakes in life make it worth living. The stakes in a novel engage us as readers. The stakes in life compel us to participate and be present.

“…your job as a fiction writer is to focus attention
not on words, which are inert, not on the thoughts
these words produce, but through these felt experiences,
where the vitality of understanding lies.”
Janet Burroway Writing Fiction

One of the hallmark admonishments of writing is “show don’t tell”. The truth about a character, the deeper meaning of a scene, the emotion behind an interaction—these are felt and understood through actions and interaction more than words.

What can you imagine and relate to more?

“He was not paying attention.”

“Rooted to his chair, he never glanced my way. Rather, his head was tipped toward the phone he made no attempt to conceal. Desperate to end the charade, I found the pace of my words matching the tattoo of his fingers across the tiny keyboard. When I finished, his chin never left his chest as he mumbled the compulsory thank you, lifted a single slender finger, and waved me away.”

When words and actions are incongruous, it is not the words that we believe. It is the actions, and they will stay with us long after the words have faded from our memory. While merely boring and disengaging to be told on paper, words and action that do not match result in issues of integrity and trust. Words without action lead to disappointment and betrayal. Actions devoid of explanation lead to confusion and doubt. As on paper, in life ‘show don’t tell’ ” reveals the truth about a character, the deeper meaning of an experience, and the emotion behind an interaction. Are you actually present or are you pretending to listen? Are you mentoring someone or punishing them? Do your actions and words demonstrate what you value, or are you living the most recent trend? What you show will speak volumes about that.

I have more revising to do. I am not ecstatic about that. I wish I were. The truth is that I still want my work, and my life, to be polished and complete with little effort. That is not how writing, or life, work. As I have human DNA, I get to revise—and not just on paper, but throughout my life. As long as I am alive, I can revise my life. I can revise my being. I am my own work in progress. I am euphoric about that. As with my writing, I hope I’m not done learning about how to live as my best self.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2023

2 thoughts on “Revising: A part of life

  1. Dang! Mic drop!

    What a terrific newsletter. Your words leap off the page. And I love the analogy of revising life and novels. We are our own works in progress. I totally love this.

    Although I disagree. =)

    I just started revising my fourth draft. Tiffany is my editor. She’s doing three rounds with me. I have one more left. She told me to forget all the rules and trust my intuition. It scared the shit out of me. I couldn’t sleep. I like a plan. I like to know where I’m going. I’m a plotter who combined five craft books to creat a 134 question chapter worksheet (that I abandoned at the midpoint of my first draft!) But you know what I mean.

    I’m having a blast and I’m kicking ass. I started in earnest on Tuesday (2/28), with the goal of revising one chapter a day. In the last three days, I’ve revised the first 10 chapters.

    I know my story. I haven’t read it for two months. On this round, Tiffany wanted me to improve momentum and pace. I read that section in her book, prettied what I learned on my critique partners (no one said they hated me afterwards!), then studied it in Camille Pagán’s new novel Good for You (a masterclass) and went for it.

    I’ve decided that I want to have fun with every aspect of writing, including revision, even though writing well can be hard. I love a challenge!

    Anyway, look what your newsletter inspired.

    Xoxo ______________________________ Marta Lane, Author Sign up for my newsletter, it’s ideal for dreamers, readers, and eaters.


    Liked by 1 person

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