Stop me before I revise again

[August 2005] I think I understand why some writers only produce a book every two or three years. Or, in some cases, once every decade. Rather than signifying a failure of inspiration or writer’s block, these long gaps between publication may indicate that the author is mired in revisions and rewrites.

If I spent proportionately as long revising a novel as I do a 2500-word short story (a difference of about a factor of 40 in length) after it’s “finished,” I’d spend forever on the book. Sometimes it feels like I already do. The novel I am revising now was completed in first draft over a year ago.

What has me thinking about this topic? I wrote a short story last week. 2500 words, as it happens. I composed about 80% of it on Thursday night, dreamed the conclusion (not just the details—my overactive brain actually wrote the ending and revised it in the hour or so before I woke up), and arose at 4:30 am on Friday to finish what I affectionately call Draft 0.

It’s not the first draft until I’ve revised something at least once. I know that’s unconventional, but I rarely waste a tree limb or a drop of ink on Draft 0. It’s never printed unless I’m stuck and need to reread what I’ve written to kick start a story. If I print an unrevised draft, the hardcopy almost always ends up in the recycle bin. Draft 0s will never appear in my archives.

After I finished Draft 0 of the abovementioned short story, I went over it from beginning to end in a single sitting and was quite happy with what I’d produced. It’s probably the most descriptive story I’ve written to date. I paid far more attention to mood-setting character and locale details than in other stories over twice as long.

I e-mailed it to my first reader and got back a single typographical comment and otherwise positive feedback. I felt good enough about the story that on Friday I printed out the mailing labels, prepared the SASE and drafted a cover letter. This little story was going to market!

Time to print the working draft for proofing. I always print out a story to proof it, even after minor alterations, because I have a habit of accidentally deleting one word too many or too few when I excise a phrase or invert a sentence to get rid of passive construction. Something about the way Word’s highlight selection works, I think. I am more likely to catch this type of error on paper than on the screen. Anyhow, I went over the story carefully and made a few changes to tighten up the language. Nothing major.

On Saturday morning, I took the hardcopy to the dining room table, where I was autographing 800 signature pages for “Looking Glass.” I planned to go over the text one last time between signing sessions. Hmmm. Maybe these paragraphs work better there. And shouldn’t I mention this? Does that sentence mean anything? Slash, cut, draw arrows, write in the margins, and suddenly I have a new draft.

By Sunday evening, I must have printed the bugger out six times, on each occasion certain that this was the final proofing run. The story was solid. It was ready to go in the envelope. But shouldn’t there be a comma there to avoid ambiguity? And if I move these two paragraphs up front, won’t they hold a reader’s interest better before I delve into the setting?

Dang it. I had to key in the new changes and print it out again.

In revising, we strive for perfection, an ideal we know we’ll never achieve. Typos will always elude us, no matter how scrupulously we proofread. Sentences that once sounded fluid and literary will clank in our ears upon subsequent rereads. I’ve often modified a sentence to something that I thought at the time was an improvement, only to re-revise it later and end up with exactly what I had originally. We could drive ourselves crazy obsessing over perfection. At some point the story has to be declared finished and submitted for publication.

When are revisions done if there’s no eureka moment when you decide that you can’t possibly improve something? To break out of the vicious circle of revisions, I set time limits. In the case of this story, I made plans to go to the post office on Monday morning and the story had to be ready by then. Once it’s sealed in the envelope, I’m done with revisions for now. To make more changes would be pointless. If the story is accepted, those modifications are unlikely to propagate to the printed version unless I get a chance to run the proofs, and even then I’m loath to make significant changes at that stage.

However, what if it’s rejected? I could—if consumed with editing another project—simply print out a fresh copy and submit it somewhere else unread. Chances are, though, that I’ll take a look at it. What was I thinking? That’s not the right word. What about that transition? And, geez, does that sound awkward or what?

I wrote (Draft 0 of) this essay on Sunday evening. The story is sitting atop its mailer, one step away from being sealed up like Fortunato. Frozen, for now, in time. I’m ready to make the commitment, the leap of faith.

Is the story better than it was on Friday morning? Absolutely. Better than on Saturday afternoon? Without a doubt. Better than the previous revision, when I pushed words around and found more accurate nouns or verbs? Probably so.

Is it perfect? Hell, no. But it’s time to say goodbye for the time being. We’ll meet again, I’m sure. Besides, I need to free up some time for the next few days, because I think this essay could use more revision . . .

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