Revise and resent

People in the publishing and writing world have a weird, Eskimo-sounding acronym for the month of November: NaNoWriMo.

That stands for National Novel Writing Month. Back in 1999, a group of 21 San Francisco writers decided to goad themselves into productivity by each writing a novel in a month. It has since evolved into an international event encouraging would-be authors to produce 50,000 words of fiction between Nov. 1 and Nov. 30. It has its own web site and fairly minimal rules that include “Write more than one word repeated 50,000 times.”

Meanwhile, various clever persons decided that NaNoReMo wasn’t enough Eskimo-talk and came up with ideas for a NaNoReMo (National Novel Revision Month) or NaNoEdMo (National Novel Editing Month).

That’s where I’m living these days. It’s not a happy place. And I’m living there not just for a month, but for what feels like a geologic era.

By now, you may be wondering, where’s the Bat Mitzvah angle in all of this? I’m not sure there is one. So consider this a “midlife” post rather than a “Bat Mitzvah” post. I’ll have a bunch of these. Get used to it! (Or just skip these posts. I’ll be back to Bat Mitzvah news soon enough.)

In any event, I have drafts of two novels that are in various stages of the revision process. One has been in the works for a long time and has been through about a dozen versions. The other is a sprightly first draft that I completed last spring.

For the past few months, I’ve focused on my older (mature? ripe? aged-to perfection-like-a-lovely-Bordeaux?) novel, trying to get it into publishable shape. My agent had given me some broad suggestions, with which I pretty much agreed once I got through gnashing my teeth and rending my garments.

 But boy…

 Revising. Is. Hard.

 (Caution: Whining writer ahead.)

One thing that’s hard about it is managing to see your work as a whole. When writing a first draft, I just barrel along and try not to lose momentum. But revision requires stepping back and seeing which scenes work and which don’t, both in themselves and as part of a whole. When you’re talking about a 350-page manuscript, it is really hard to hold the whole thing in your head and get a sense of how different sections work together and the overall flow and rhythm of the work.

Another thing that’s hard – and this was a big surprise to me – is simply how tough it is to make my writing budge.

 It’s like pushing a refrigerator. You throw all your weight at it, and maybe it moves an inch. I sit down, all prepared to tear a section apart – blow it up! I tell myself, blow it up! – and I get all prepared to make MAJOR CHANGES. And I sit there and work and work and work, making those MAJOR CHANGES, blowing it up, and then  I stop and look at what I’ve done and I’ve maybe changed six words. It’s like wanting an entire hair-style makeover, and going into the hairdresser demanding radical change, but then getting queasy when you see the scissors and ending up with a trim around the edges.

You’d think that word processing would make this easier. You can totally revamp a manuscript and not lose anything. You don’t even have to retype it, if you decide you prefer the original version. So what’s there to fear in making changes? It’s just playing with words. But no. Once the writing is down on the page, it takes on this black-hole-like infinite weight and becomes very hard to move.

So that’s why revising is awful. Much less fun than writing.

Yes, I know, every writer has to do it. It’s what separates real writers from dabblers. It’s what separates good writing from bad. Etc. etc.

This is from an interview that George Plimpton did with Ernest Hemingway in a 1958 Paris Review:

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.

I was spoiled by newspaper writing all these years. Revising a 1200-word story is nothing like revising a 100,000-word novel. And honestly, I never had to revise all that much as a reporter. Rewrite the lede, tighten things up, sure. But not this blow-it-up wholesale kind of revising.

So today I figured I had done as much as I could on this latest round with my ripe-Bordeaux novel. So I gave it a hug and a kiss and emailed it off to my agent.

There is, of course, one thing possibly worse than rewriting.

That’s waiting for your agent to read and respond.

Time to inaugurate NaNoWaBeReMo?*

*(National Novel Waiting to Be Read Month).

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8 Responses to “Revise and resent”

  1. Cassandra Jade Says:

    Thanks for an excelltent post. I liked the description of changing your writing being similar to changing your hair. The only problem I had with this is I’m perfectly willing to do ridiculous things to my hair but am frequently unable to move on my writing. I think I need to simply snip my MS up into tiny paragraphs and read each one as an individual bit of work before trying to mould it back together if I actually want to change anything.

  2. Susie Miller Says:

    I enjoyed this post. I’m relating to it in a “life” way…feels like spring cleaning, which though not the right season, I am needing desperately in a psychic way right now. I sit and look at my schedule and my messy house and my chaotic office and wish I had some idea how to cut and paste and delete all the “material” that isn’t necessary, isn’t intrinsic to our being healthy and productive. And then I either just sit there incapacitated by the enormity of the job OR get to work only to find later that the few piles I moved from here to there didn’t make any difference and everything is still just as out of control as before! Argh!

  3. Judith Barish Says:

    My 11-year-old daughter is doing her second NaNoWriMo. She gets up every morning and writes 500 words before breakfast, and her story just rips along. Not an iota of writers’ block. Still, even she sighs deeply when she discusses editing! (She enjoyed this post, too.)

  4. Kathleen Adams Says:

    Great post! I’m in the refrigerator-pushing stage right now and was so happy to momentarily escape the scribbled-all-over pages atop my desk by reading “revise and resent”! Thanks!

  5. Kaveh Says:

    Ilana, I don’t know much about the reasons you are trying to ‘explode’ and totally revise, perhaps they are all valid, but just a thought that if you are finding it so hard to do that, maybe you are not really convinced it’s necessary? Maybe you like most of what you see?

    Good luck with this painful process anyway. I trust you will get through it.

  6. Ellis Shuman Says:

    At least you already have an agent to whom to send the manuscript! I personally enjoy the revision process, but it seems to never end.

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