Drinking with Dante and Wilde: The Nightmare of Revision


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Writer Oscar Wilde summed up the final stages of revisions
aptly when he said, “This morning I took out a comma and this afternoon I put
it back in again.”  What he didn’t
explain to non-writers is that in the hours in between those decisions he had obssessed over whether such a minute change would drastically alter the
effectiveness of his sentence, which could determine the outcome of a scene,
which would ultimately make or break the entire plot.  Yup, the final stages of revision suck.  They suck the joy you once had in your
characters, your plot, your style. They suck your confidence in your ability to
write anything more interesting than the back of a cereal box.  Actually cereal boxes seem quite
entertaining compared to some of the scenes I’ve revised recently.

In the early stages of a draft, the solitude of writing is
joyful.  It’s just the writer with
their characters and ideas.  It’s a
happy little secret that no one can spoil.  The ideas as well as the writing might be rough, but they’re
also virginal, untainted by the harsh voices of critics, editors, and readers,
which will eventually all creep in–long before a critic, editor, or reader ever
gets his hands on it.  Whoever
originally dubbed these pieces “shitty first drafts” had obviously
left the Neverland of writing and had fallen hard on their rump in the land of
revision.

That’s not to say that my first drafts aren’t indeed
craptastic.  When my pudgy smudgy
hand pens the final line of my handwritten draft, there is dire need for
revision.  I’ve even grown to like
these early stages.  I love how my
brain works differently going from paper to screen than it does when I
initially scratch out my ideas.  I
love fixing an awkward line, only to reread it and think, damn, I’m good.  I’ve
even gotten to the point where I can cut major scenes without mourning over the
loss of a great, but unnecessary, one-liner or superfluous character
development.  Revision in the early
stages is rewarding.  You know
what’s wrong, so you fix it.

Revision in the later stages is a lonely, maddening head
game.  You’re driven crazy by the
feeling there is more to be fixed, but you no longer know what that is, or
worse, you do, but haven’t a clue how to fix it.  Those imaginary voices that crept in and taunted you during
your initial revisions have all gone mute.  Instead of enjoying the silence, you desperately hope
they’ll return.  Because no critic,
real or imaginary, can be more severe, more crushing to your self-esteem as a
writer than your own voice at this stage. 
You second-guess every decision, wondering if it’s possible that you’re
actually making the draft worse. 
You spend more time with your finger lingering over the delete button
than you do actually rewriting. 
You become Oscar Wilde, pondering punctuation for hours, truly believing
the placement of a comma could make or break not just this one book, but your
entire writing career.

This is where I’ve spent the last week and a half.  Writer’s hell, the final stages of
revision.  I’m beginning to see why
so many of the great writers took to drinking.  Fortunately, I have managed, so far, to get by on lesser
vices, the caffeine in my mid-morning iced-coffees and the sun of my
mid-afternoon walks.  Sometime
midweek, I turned off my inner-critic and slipped back into writer mode.  Problems suddenly had solutions.  Cut scenes found a home in a separate
saved document where I feel less sad and guilty about leaving them. Back-story
finally fit in polite unobtrusive places later in the story.  And character development learned to
play nicely with plot.

My sanity is mostly in tact.  My draft on book two, Unveiled, I hope, is starting to resemble something
publishable.  When I can manage to
make it through breakfast without worrying that my opening pages aren’t worthy
of the back of the Fiber One box, I’ll know it’s time to move onto to my next
favorite stage of writing: submission, otherwise known as Purgatory.  I wonder who drank more, Wilde or
Dante?

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2 Comments

Filed under Writing

2 responses to “Drinking with Dante and Wilde: The Nightmare of Revision

  1. Once again I marvel at the ability of those of you who can create book length works. I feel the pain of editing, but pain only lasts as long as an essay or review- not 200+ pages!By the way, have you always handwritten first drafts. I have not hand written anything for years. I don’t think I can think off of a screen anymore- which may be a problem.

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  2. Lauren's Blog

    Oddly enough in this day, yes, I always write the rough by hand.  To me, curling up with my notebook as the ideas are coming for that first time is such a different experience than sitting at the computer and typing. Hand-writting is fast and messy with little thought of craft and all the focus on character and plot. When I type is when I actually think about word choice and sentence structure. Revising is when I try to reconcile the two. I’m nearing the end, at least until an editor gets his hands on it!

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