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William Lashner's PI-Writing Blog

Revising Crapstown

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Right now I'm in the middle of revising a manuscript that was originally called CRAPSTOWN but will probably end up being called AS LOVE ORDAINS or something so cloying just to read it will cause a diabetic to faint away. It's appropriate, I think, that I start on revising because rewriting is a crucial, maybe the crucial step in the writing process. If you don't know how the revising will go then you're more apt to get stuck in the first draft.

Revising is a heroic, almost alchemical act, where you take something that's lousy and turn it into something less lousy. It's also the most fun part, where everything you touch turns better. The key, I've always found, is to be ruthless. It's not enough just to go sentence by sentence and tighten things up. You also have to look at the big picture. Sometimes I print a chapter outline, tack it to the door, and try to figure where I went wrong.

I took a seminar with Marilyn Robinson. A story would come in, a complete piece of crap, and we would all be ready to rip it to shreds. And then Marilyn, with that calm lovely voice of hers, would start talking about what she saw in the piece. And the thing she described was just fabulous. Of course, it was buried in the piece of crap story, maybe just a phrase that Marilyn spun into gold. And the question always was: would the author have the guts to tear the story to shreds and write what Marilyn suggested, or would the author instead just move some sentences around because that was easier?

Usually it was the latter.

What I try to do, when I revise, is to see the thing as it would have come out if I knew, when I started, everything that I know about it now. That can create some big problems and require major revision, but the thing will end up working in a way it didn't before.

Sometimes the first draft is just a way to figure out what we should have written in the first place.


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