Friday, March 28, 2008

Drowning your kittens

Ever since I can remember I've had a fear of revising my own writing. I can't seem to rid my mind of the image of the artist who keeps working and working until the painting is ruined.

While I've been working on my novel I've been apprehensive about the revision process that lay in wait for me at the end of the first draft. Lately I've avoided confronting this by focusing on completing the last few chapters.

The other day my excellent avoidance strategy broke down. I was trying to resolve a compatibility issue between MS Word and Open Office Writer that had arisen when I replaced a dead computer. During this process I was opening, saving, and closing various documents.

I found myself rereading a chapter of my novel I had not yet incorporated into the main manuscript. Hmm, I thought. Let me just fix this sentence here. Soon a few minor revisions escalated into a major rewrite of the chapter.

Gee, this revision stuff didn't seem so bad after all. I was pretty happy with this new piece. I decided to incorporate the newly rewritten chapter into the manuscript.

One thing led to another. By the the wee hours of the next morning I'd rewritten the book's prologue and the first two chapters, revised several others, written a whole new one, and composed the first draft of the cover flap notes.

As a result of this experience I've gained a new appreciation of how I've grown as a writer. After three years of reviewing others' work and having my own work reviewed in Joni Cole's workshops, I understand a lot about the process of refining a piece of writing that I didn't know before.

Under Joni's guidance I've learned about getting rid of all sorts of flab, like adverbs, introductory clauses ("As she slid around the corner she..."), and words like "then", "it", "things" and "there are" which weaken the text.

I've learned to make actions more direct ("the phone rang" rather than "she heard the phone ring") and to cut excessive stage direction ("she glanced at her", "she picked up the glass and said").

I've realized you have to "drown your kittens". You look for words that seem out of place or the turn of phrase that doesn't quite fit, bits which stand out, perhaps because they're a bit too vivid, a little too clever.

These are often the parts to which we're most attached, which is why cutting them out is a little like drowning kittens.

Editing my own work was a revelation. I discovered I didn't have to be afraid of destroying its freshness and vitality during the revision process. Instead, the essence of a good scene would be brought into sharper relief as I pruned.

This was an exciting moment. It was as if previously I'd been flailing in the dark; now the light had come on and made plain the sharpness of the instruments I was wielding: the power of words to not just entertain but to reveal and illuminate fundamental aspects of the human psyche.

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