Revision: Journeying through the dark wood

In Craft, Musings, Publishing on June 15, 2010 at 4:00 pm

I’m trying to figure out who to blame: Stephen King? J.K. Rowling? Jodi Picoult? Somewhere along the way in the last decade, some writer who made it big set off a chain reaction in many an unpublished writer. This ever-expanding idea evolved into the notion that all one has to do to become a Big Name, Rich and Famous Author, is to sit down for a couple months, churn out a book, throw it at an agent, and voila: instant success.

What’s missing from that equation are the long, intensive, necessary hours of revision that make a book sing (Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hours, or as an artist I interviewed once said: “miles of canvas”).  Today I’m thinking about revision both from the writer’s perspective–I’m on my third and a half draft of my own novel (don’t ask where the half came from); and as a teacher–I’m in the second week of a class I adore teaching called Revise for Publication (next session starts in August).

It’s a difficult proposition teaching some writers to LOVE revision. I think sometimes once the first draft is written it feels fragile–like a glass sculpture that will shatter if we so much as touch it. But revision has taught me that a first draft is, most of the time, a collage of ideas and character sketches that needs to be teased apart like a tangled drawer full of necklaces and jewelry, then buffed to a high polish to reveal its true form. And why hurry that process? You discover so much about yourself and the world when you revise.  Yes, at times it is a dark and scary place, the not knowing, the wanting so much to tell a story that reaches people and even, possibly, brings you fame and riches. But hopefully you are writing because you’re on a journey, and journeys are notoriously long and twisty–over craggy mountains and through dark woods. Even the yellow brick road–as straight a shot as one gets in the way of epic journeys–was fraught with danger.

As William Vogler says in his wonderful book The Writer’s Journey: “I think we’re all…finding ourselves through the journey of our writing lives. Looking for our Selves in the dark wood.”

  1. Revision would be a lot easier if these people just realized I wrote it perfectly the first time around . . .

  2. Wonderful write, Jordan!
    I’ve been pondering this very thing of late. Revision is a nasty beast that feasts on every writer, no matter how successful. I’ve heard (and believed) writers say their revision process is minimal, even nonexistent. As I’ve walked the path of publication, I’ve come to realize these writers must be doing one of two things. Either they are lying outright because they fear appearing weak or less capable in the eyes of their audience, or they are revising at such a shallow level they really do take an afternoon to scan their work before sending it out.
    Not me. I spend hours upon hours revising. The last short story I revised took me three hours a day over a period of 8 days.
    When I revise, I do look for myself in the dark draft–my imperfect self. The self that must be molded and shaped to preform at its best. Most of the time it hurts like heck and I feel like giving up, but there’s that part of me that wants to be able to revisit my story once its in print and never feel shame that I could have done better.


  3. Laurel, I love this: “When I revise, I do look for myself in the dark draft–my imperfect self.”

    I agree with all you have to say here! I suppose there are genius writers out there, prodigies, like in any art who can do it so effortlessly. But they are RARE!

    Revision does hurt at first–I think it’s sort of that pulling off the bandaid kind of pain. Or maybe the breaking of the nose pain before its set…but for me, I’m finding that the more I do it, the more I WANT to do it.

  4. I hear your frustration, Jordan.

    You can blame Good Morning America and Oprah for these notions that novelist are writing books in 6 months, and then BAM! they’re cashing their big, fat checks at the bank.

    I think what happens is that through interviews that are condenced to save time on TV, and are shortened to save space in print media, people like Stephen King and J.K. Rowling have to get to the point. And somehow what gets published or aired is that they only worked on the book for 6 months – or a year.

    Many of these books, surely, were years in the making (outlining, researching, sketching things out, character building).

    But I agree with you, the editing process is about as difficult as turning a block of wood into a priceless Stradavarius – not impossible, it just takes time.

  5. Dwayne, you made me laugh and nod knowingly at the same time. I WILL blame Oprah–she has a big enough ego to handle it. And frankly, I think you gave me my new mantra for novel writing: “Not impossible, it just takes time.”


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