Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

What do you do on your fiftieth revision?

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A page from my rough draft

Recently, I’ve found myself in a peculiar position: I’ve been working on a novel without a deadline. As regular readers of this blog know, City of Exiles and Eternal Empire were both written under considerable time constraints—about nine months from signing to delivery—and I try to turn out each of my short stories in about two or three weeks, both because I have other projects in the pipeline and because the financial argument for this kind of work is already borderline as it is. For the last few months, however, I’ve been revising a manuscript without a contract in hand and no particular timeframe. Every few weeks, I’ll send a new version to my agent for comments, and so far, we’ve gone back and forth five or six times, with the story getting stronger with every pass. Even when I don’t have a new set of notes in hand, I’m generally polishing and reworking the novel on my own. And when you look back at the version numbers of the drafts I’ve saved—not to mention the countless iterations this book went through when I first began working on it more than seven years ago—it’s clear that I’ve read and revised some of these chapters close to fifty times.

So what does the fiftieth revision of a manuscript even look like? Rationally speaking, there should come a point at which further change is impossible: even if the draft could use some additional work, I’ve lived with these scenes for so long that it’s hard to see them with anything approaching an objective eye. I’ve been curious about this myself, so I’ve been scrutinizing my own process with more than usual attention. What I’ve found, not surprisingly, is that my changes these days tend to focus on technical matters, particularly length, clarity, and pacing, and I’m past the point where I can make major changes to the plot or characters on my own. This is as much the result of caution as anything else. When you’ve read these scenes as many times as I have, there’s a natural tendency to get a little tired of what you’ve written, and with it comes the temptation to make changes just so you can look at something new. And that’s dangerous. I’m often reminded of what the legendary showrunner David Mirkin said of his time on The Simpsons: when you’ve rewritten a joke thirty times, you stop laughing, and it’s important to remember how funny it was when you first heard it. Otherwise, you’ll end up changing it at the last minute, and the new version is rarely as good as it was on the twenty-ninth or thirtieth read.

A page from my rough draft

As a result, I’ve been treading carefully when it comes to major revisions. What I’ve been doing, instead, is rendering, in both senses of the word: I’m focusing on highly granular levels of detail, making sure that each sentence sustains the larger structure that I’m trying to preserve, while also boiling the story down to its essence. Even after several dozen passes, I’m always amazed at how much I can still cut: I’ve continued to add new material where necessary, but I’ll cut the rest of it down elsewhere, so the draft has hovered more or less consistently at around 95,000 words. (The fact that the longest version of this story once weighed in at 225,000 words, and intermediate incarnations at 120,000, may give you a sense of how intense this process has been.) The result is highly compressed while covering the same amount of ground as before, and one of the great challenges of this draft has been keeping the reader oriented in a very complicated plot while putting them through the same paces more quickly. Fortunately, this kind of endless recalibration is exactly where the rendering process shines, and I’ve spent hours tuning a few crucial paragraphs until the result hums right along, which is a luxury I haven’t always had for my most recent projects.

More than anything else, though, I’ve begun to appreciate the importance of good notes. As I’ve said before, I no longer entirely trust my own instincts to tell me whether or not a scene is working: it’s like trying to objectively evaluate your own face, which can lead to choices you’ll later regret if you indulge in impulsive cosmetic surgery. The notes I’ve been getting serve as a sort of map to guide me through territory that has become so familiar that I no longer really see it: I may not agree with every critique, but they invariably allow me to view the same pages from a new angle, and they free me to tackle substantive changes that I’d be wary of making on my own. They also serve as a necessary check on my own intuitions, which remain sound—or so I’d like to think—on the sentence level, but feel a little less reliable these days when it comes to the big picture. Whether or not the result will be worth the effort is something I can’t predict, although I’m hopeful it will see print in some form. If nothing else, though, it’s taught me things about process that I know I’ll put to use in the future. I may never revise a novel this many times again, but if all goes well, and I can distill what I’ve learned here into the books I write later, it won’t be necessary.

Written by nevalalee

June 18, 2013 at 8:55 am

Posted in Writing

Tagged with ,

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