I just got the following email.
“I’m really curious, because you’re making the revision process sound like pure unmitigated hell in a blender. Why is it so rough?”
COME SIT BY ME AND I’LL TELL YOU ALL ABOUT IT
It’s hard for a few reasons. I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing, that I’m not doing enough, that somehow I should have managed to emit a completely coherent novel on the first draft because I should be that good, and if I am not that good I am nothing.
That’s the most hellish reason. It is also the most inaccurate, and I’m trying to be harsh with it and gentle with myself on that basis. I have never revised a novel before, of course it’s going to take a while. Of course I am not good at it yet, I’m just starting!
The second reason is that progress feels slow. It’s hard to budget time when this is the part of the process where I stare into space, occasionally reaching out, groping blindly for a pen, to scribble something like the following:
“mash chs 11+12”
“Cater the hell out of this catastrophe?”
“ch 18 ends with that string of texts from E to C”
“ch 5 PARIS (remember to write this)”
Art isn’t easy.
Identifying problems and plot holes and ways the story needs to be made better is hard! Chapters 21, 23, and 28 have nothing in them! Literal nothing! They are blank voids, potholes in the land of plot! I made no notes to myself about what goes there, but I know something has to! Past Miranda had so much confidence in Future Miranda. It’s very sweet, the amount of faith she had in me. I kind of want to kick her now.
I’m not beating myself up for not writing a perfect novel in one go. Besides, the first draft is perfect. It got the story and the characters out of my head and onto the page, and that was exactly what it was supposed to do. Finding the gaps in my own writing is in its better moments really interesting. I am terrible at describing people. You could read the whole book and not know what hair color anybody has. And I swear to GOD if any more characters look any more heatedly at any other characters the sprinkler system in Buckingham Palace is going to go off. Does Buckingham Palace even have a sprinkler system? Do I need to know that? I don’t actually need to know that, but that’s twenty minutes of googling I didn’t know I had to do…
For those more mechanical problems I just put a flag on that page. I know I’ll come back to it and make the writing work. I know how to do that.
Fixing the bigger problems–the inconsistencies in how people behave, the places where I jumped the gun, chapters that only have 228 words in them–there are two of those, a second act that is introduced and resolved in basically three pages–is daunting. And, to use my friend’s delightfully descriptive phrase, it’s hell in a blender to understand that I can’t fix all the problems instantly, and that I don’t even know how to fix some of them yet. I know I will, but it takes time. I just finished disassembling the plot, making a catalog of everything that happens in the book, and now it’s time to go ahead and figure out how to put all the pieces back together again. Then it’ll be time to add in new pieces, and smooth out the whole thing.
And the thing is, when it isn’t making me scream internally, revising is about the most fun I think I know how to have. The sharp-eyed focused marathon of making it better is just as exciting as the sheer breathless sprint of creating it in the first place. There is a lot of satisfaction in making this book match the picture in my head, which itself has changed so much from the initial “The Plot So Far” document I wrote in an hour in Argo Tea back in August.
But it’s effort. It’s hard to quantify, or communicate about. It’s effort that feels like I’m an idiot, when in fact I’m thinking really hard and coming up with solutions and cackling madly. Maybe I should tweet those parts more often so you don’t worry I’m going to throw myself in the river or something.
It just seems less triumphant to tweet “OMG I lay on my back on the floor with my eyes closed for 45 minutes and now I totally know what to do about that longing look on the bridge in Paris in Chapter 5!#amrevising”*
Writing a book is like building a rope bridge across a chasm. The first draft is when you throw the guide ropes across to the other side and tie them off, and get all your cross-pieces in roughly the write order. Revising is when you inch out along the ropes to fit the cross-pieces, and discover that you don’t have enough pieces of wood, or that they’re the wrong size entirely, and realize that you don’t know how to build a bridge at all, and are probably a mollusk. But you have to do it anyway, so off you go.