Monday, October 4, 2010

Falling In Love Again

If you’re a writer, you probably know that point where you’ve worked on a story for so long that if you read the manuscript one more time your brain will melt like a clock painted by Salvador Dali. As each revision and layer of polishing progresses, your love for your story dies a little more, until finally you reach the point where you loathe it. The person who said 'Familiarity breeds contempt' was probably a writer on his/her twentieth revision.

Sticking it out all the way to the point of hate isn’t easy. If you’re like me, you have a bunch of stories waiting to be told, and the next one up in the queue is a saucy little minx who whispers delightful promises in your ear about how easy she is compared to the awful one you’re slogging through. She’s really a siren luring you toward a bruising dash on the rocks, but you won’t find that out until you’re drowning in revisions of her.

As many times as I’ve grown to hate a story I’m working on, I have yet to scrap everything and go back to the beginning. Characters change as you write them. They come into focus. The grumpy jerk in chapter one turns out to have a reluctant soft spot in chapter five. The problem with starting over is that you’ll never envision that character in their original first chapter state because in your mind, they’ve already become the chapter five version. You can’t unknow what you’ve revealed and discovered about them. Or, at least, I can’t.

There was a point with the novel I’m currently working on where I seriously considered retyping the entire 60,000 word manuscript. I’d moved scenes, cut some, inserted new ones, and tweaked the rest so many times that I was afraid that the entire flow of the story was compromised. Thankfully, before I started re-typing it, I took a three-month break, then sat down with the manuscript and got a fresh look at it as a whole. If I had retyped it from scratch, I probably would have abandoned the story by the second chapter, because the only thing worse than reading the same damn sentence a hundred times is typing and reading it the hundred and first time.


  1. I get every single thing you mentioned in this post, Kathleen. Every single thing.

    Right now I'm elbow deep in revision-number-I-don't-know-which of a novella. I haven't gotten to that "damn, will this ever end" point yet, but I will, more than once.

    It's just how things work.

    I have gone back to square one before, but it was something I wrote years before and came back to, and my perspective had changed so much that starting over was the only reasonable course.

    Great post. Near and dear to my heart.

  2. My short-story writing follows a predictable pattern in this area. As I polish and improve a piece, I love it more and more—up through and including the penultimate revision.

    Then comes the final revision, where I scour the text for overused words and make changes accordingly. This is the part of the process that makes me feel like I never want to look at the story again. Oh, deep down I still love it just as much, and I know I'll enjoy reading it again in six months, and I know I'm making it even better by taking it through this final revision... but scrutinizing this word and that word, deciding where to keep 'em and where to send in substitutes, is grubby, smelly work. (Though it does have rewarding moments, when I come up with a particularly pleasing alternative way to say something.)

  3. Craig - Maybe revision hell is the suffering people always talk about artists going through.

  4. Jeremy - True. I hate my short stories slightly less than the novels. At least I know that when I reach that point, it's time to submit the damn thing.

  5. Kathleen,

    If you ever visit the UK I think you should come and talk to one of my classes, so that they can understand the hard work involved in re-writing.

    Great post.


  6. Ash - I'd love to! (Except that they'll probably spend the entire time whispering 'what did she say?' to each other as they try to cut through my accent)

  7. I'm a great believer in re-writing, because I often write really awful first drafts. Re-writing gives us the freedom to write bady, knowing we'll find out what the story is really about later.


  8. Garce -Amen! I embrace sucky first drafts!

  9. My solution is to rewrite as little as, actually that's not quite right. I rewrite as I write. But I've never been very good at taking a story that's reached its conclusion and then warping it in a new direction. It takes a serious crit from someone I really respect to force me to do that.



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