Revising a work of fiction is pure agony. This is one of the main tenets of the writer credo (or maybe just a huge meme among writers.) And yeah, it definitely sucks a lot of the time.
But I'm in the middle of revising my next adult novel, which I've vowed to deliver in June -- wish me luck! -- and I found that revision can actually be kind of exhilarating at times. Because instead of thinking of the revision process as fixing my garbage draft, I've started to think of it as unwrapping a series of presents that I wrapped for myself before.
Part of what makes something a garbage draft is that everything feels a little bit provisional. The characters are a little unformed, the plot doesn't exactly flow smoothly, and there's a lot of stuff missing. It's easy to think of a first draft as a series of IOUs that you wrote to the story.
But this is where I've been finding it helpful to think of it as a set of presents to unwrap, instead. Take those scenes that feel so half-baked or sketchy, for example: there's a really good scene in there somewhere, and you just have to find it. Usually -- definitely not always -- the weak version of the scene contains plenty of seeds, or clues to help you find the better version.
So in the case of my new adult novel, it's about a young woman teaching her mother to do magic, and the mother-daughter relationship is central. In my first draft, a lot of those mother-daughter scenes kind of fizzle. And I'm trying to do something kind of challenging: capturing the feeling of getting to know your parent as an adult, and seeing them as a person, rather than as a mythological figure from your childhood. So I need to find the version of these scenes that is tender, spiky and vulnerable and gets to the emotional truth of what's going on between these two characters. That, in turn, requires me to see both of these characters clearly, and understand the baggage they're bringing to each moment.
So to some extent, yeah, I have to just rip up the scenes I wrote before and replace them with brand new ones. But when I go back over the scenes I wrote before, I find lots of hints that intrigue me: things that I intuited back then but didn't have the bandwidth or the certainty to go into with any depth. Finding the intense, heartfelt, and in some cases heartbreaking version of the scene buried underneath the superficial version feels like the biggest thrill.
The same goes for plots: the first draft probably has a lot of holes, and lapses in logic. But I'm learning to reach inside those holes and pull out the stuff that some part of me knew needed to happen, but didn't know how to make it happen.
And then there's the more literal way in which revising is about unwrapping presents from your past self. I'm always amazed at how often the perfect scene, or the perfect moment, is already there -- it's just 50 pages too early, or too late. Likewise, sometimes there are two separate scenes that feel as though they cover the same ground, and I've been finding that I can pull the best bits out of one scene and use them to strengthen the other, resulting in something better than if I had just started over from scratch.
One of my biggest revision challenges is finding the shape of the story, because my first drafts tend to meander and repeat themselves and go in circles in a way that doesn't feel clever or intentional. Part of finding the shape of the story is just outlining over and over again -- but another part is finding the moments in that garbage draft that resonate really well together, if you can arrange them so that they feel like one of them happens as a result of the other. Or if they can show how things have changed after some big event. A moment might not actually seem that cool until you put it into the right context, where it suddenly turns out to say something really profound, because instead of the characters just nattering endlessly, they're now revealing some truth that came out of the things that have already happened in the story. And maybe now this scene points towards all the things that are going to happen next.
And finally, my first drafts, at least, tend to pull their punches. In so many ways. I often resist having my characters behave too unsympathetically, or act out too much, or really go for the jugular when they're hashing something up between themselves. A lot of my revision process is just taking the gloves off and letting my characters throw hands in a more believable fashion. But even there, I find that I've often left little hints and clues as to how mean -- and how generous -- my characters would be if I let them.
I don't want to be pollyanna about this: many days, revision is the worst. But sometimes, it's actually fun. And when I think of all the missing pieces, botched moments, and narrative lapses as gifts that I left myself (albeit gifts that require some assembly), I give myself permission to enjoy the process a bit more.
This is a quick newsletter because I'm about to get on a plane to Madison for Wiscon, the world's first feminist science fiction convention. I hope to see some of y'all there.
Tomorrow at 6 PM ET, I'm on a panel Julie Kagawa, Elizabeth Lim and Vincent Tirado at Books of Magic Bookstore. I'm going to be talking about Promises Stronger Than Darkness, the third book in my epic YA trilogy about starships, kissing and identity crises. You can buy our books and RSVP here.
Next week, on June 8, I'll be at WORD Bookstore in Brooklyn along with Mark Oshiro and Terry J. Benton-Walker, for a celebration of twenty years of Tor Teen. Come hang out!
That weekend, from June 9-11, I'm going to be at the Bronx Book Festival at Fordham Plaza and Fordham University. It's going to be so much fun!
The third issue of New Mutants: Lethal Legion, the miniseries I'm writing for Marvel, is out TODAY. Find out what's in Count Nefaria's secret vault, but also what ridiculous decor he has in his bedroom.