At least once a week, I make a point to visit Arts and Letters Daily. A&L is an aggregator site, gathering the most thought-provoking editorials on a variety of subjects. Recently, A&L linked to a piece entitled Revising Your Writing Again? Blame the Modernists. Revising Your Writing explores the Modernist origins of the revision philosophy, where works are torn down to be put back together with a goal of enhancing style. Prior to the Lost Generation, revisions were minor. Paper was a luxury, and without typewriters, revising an entire novel would mean rewriting the entire thing longhand. Then came Hemingway and T.S. Eliot, who took the philosophy of revision and raised it to an art. Their results were incredible, and wholly new – and wholly encouraged thenceforth as The Way to Write.
We’ve long since moved past paper as the medium for creative writing. Electrons for revision are ubiquitous, endless. This leads to its own dilemma: how does a writer know when to stop editing?
I’m a fan of revision. I love the psychological freedom of the first draft, and the covenant of editing that “first” implies. The problem is that writing a novel isn’t like building a house. There isn’t a blueprint or a city code or safety ordinances. The author alone is the arbiter of DONE, FINISHED, THE END. The general revision manifesto goes something like this:
- Three self-revisions
- Beta read revisions
- Line-edit revision
- Proofread revision
- Final WOW, I’m sick of this! revision
This process works well for a given novel, over a finite span of time. If it takes a year for an author to get through the full revision cycle, there has only been a year for the writer to improve her craft, and what she can do now is only somewhat better than what she could do a year ago. If the author has a hopeless case of “being a writer,” she’ll keep writing. Five years, ten. And one day, she looks at that book that made it through the revision process years ago, and realize that she could do it better now. What was her best, is now only an intimation of her current skill.
Reading old works shows us how much, and in what ways, we have improved. It is encouraging. It also triggers the desire to revise.
As I bring forth my backlog of unpublished works, I’m dwelling in the hinterlands of the modernist: a revision is a revision is a revision. These works were deemed DONE at the time I wrote them; most are very far from what I would considered polished now, years later. I am putting them through the editing cycle as if they are brand new. The self-edits are rather extensive, which is both encouraging because I’ve improved and discouraging because the stories aren’t as DONE as I thought. Still, I believe this is a valid and appropriate application of revision. I believe a writer should make every piece she publishes the very best she can — at the time of publication.
In the age of author-publishing, it is possible to edit published works. I know I get the craving to take a red pen to STOLEN CLIMATES. In a technical sense, the novel would be better if I wrote it now. Of course, I’m not writing it now. It is published. It has been read and enjoyed, spawned conversations. It is no longer just mine, but something I have shared with many people. I’ve recently changed the licensing to creative commons, so anyone could edit it, including me.
And yet, I’ve decided not to edit STOLEN CLIMATES.
If I revise STOLEN CLIMATES now, I’ll have to go back and edit it again in some number of years. Taken to a logical extreme, there would come a point where all I would do is rewrite already published works. I would not have the time to create that which is not yet created. My forward progress in technique, style, mood, and dialog would falter. I would become a parody of a Modernist, hacking away at pieces until they are less than what they were. A clean room is perfectly perfect, sterile, nothing extra or unexpected. That’s great for building microprocessors. It sounds kind of horrible for a novel, though, doesn’t it?
We cannot revise our personal history, nor should we revise our literary history. We grow and change, and it is right that our work grows and changes, too. To me, a successful literary life is one where each book surpasses the previous one.
Ksenia Anske is a great example of bravery in revision and seeking early feedback. She posts the major drafts of each of her works as she completes them. She’s thrown open the door on the Modernist’s writing room, showing the world how stories are crafted in the age of the easy electron. I hope that more writers follow Ksenia’s lead. Storage is cheap, websites trivial to construct, and electronic PDFs shareable between people and across devices. There is no reason to produce and share only a final draft, other than to keep the writer’s process in a vault separate from the reader. Ksenia’s idea is inspiring, and I’ll be sharing a few drafts of MIXED MEDIA when I publish it. There is joy and learning to be had from looking at how a work changes throughout revision. If we each share what it means to us to be DONE, perhaps we will stop struggling with the question of DONE alone, and face it together, our own post-post-Modernist movement.
Does this mean you should wait to publish everything until you are at the peak of mastery? Setting aside the problem of knowing when you’ve peaked, does this feel like a right solution? I don’t think so. Neither we nor our writing will ever be perfect, but there is efficacy in feedback. Readers will teach you your strengths, but also point out your stylistic ticks and authorial failings. My suggestion is to do the best you can do now. Hire a great editor. Solicit beta readers. Slog through that march of revisions. And then – then! LET GO. Accept praise and criticism, but only insofar as either improves your writing. Hone your craft, and start all over with a new story. You are a storyteller: go forth and share your stories!
PS – If you haven’t already done so, please VOTE for the cover you’d like to see on my upcoming surreal short, MIXED MEDIA.