Revision is Writing II: It’s also required and relentless (and that’s writing, too)

Recently Beth Kanell posted an excellent piece here about how revision IS writing. It’s a great lesson for starting writers and, as I realized last week, a necessary reminder for old hands at it, too.

Those of us who have been at it any length of time know that writing is hard work.

Everyone has a different process, but no one can avoid going back and tweaking, correcting, redoing.

I read a biography of Harper Lee that recounted how she would labor over one page for hours, sometimes days, and not move on until it was perfect. No wonder, after more than 50 years, we’ve never seen that second book.

My process is that I throw the story down on the page as it comes to me, not wanting to slow down and find the perfect word or phrase, knowing that will get in the way of what’s happening with the story. Then I go back and tweak, correct, redo until it’s “perfect.”

It turns out, that can take a while.

I recently found a Microsoft Works file from 2007 — yes, Works! — with the first chapter of my “now completed” mystery novel. I bought the laptop that year with a promise to myself that it would be used to write the mystery novel(s) I always declared I was going to write.

I’ve written here before that I thought the book was done in 2010, but it wasn’t. I reworked it after some valuable agent feedback a year or so later. Then I reworked it for a hook that I wrote, but didn’t develop or recognize in the first iteration, then was too chicken to include for a year once I did recognize it.

I reworked again when I moved to central Maine and knew I had to change my setting, happily blathering about that epiphany in January for the Maine Crime Writers blog.

I reworked it when I cut it from 96,000 words to 90,000 for a contest.

I reworked again months later when I realized that with all the cutting, I’d lost the voice. That revelation didn’t come until I got a major poke from reading a Carl Hiaasen novel, followed by a Dennis Lehane one, both so fearless when it comes to voice.

I blogged enthusiastically a couple times about how I thought my novel was done, but it wasn’t, but now it was. For instance in December, Revision: The Story Continues. Yeah, I  was done. Then there was last September, Time for Revision: This Means YOU! Who? Me? Ha ha. Not me. I’m done.

Since that first “done” manuscript in 2010, I’ve been sending it out to agents, that soulless confidence-destroying process that many of us know so well. There’d been breaks in the process — focus on other projects, all the revisions — but last week I  counted up how many queries I’d sent out and it was 77. Is it me or them?

I’ve been going through this long enough to know some of it is the process, not a condemnation of my manuscript. On the other hand, what can I do better?

I’d already realized I needed yet another revision because my second book had suddenly changed to a prequel, which required some minor rewrites in the first one. But it dawned on me as I mulled all those queries over in the shower one afternoon that the REAL problem was my first chapter. If they didn’t like it, they weren’t going to read more. I’d heard that a zillion times over the years and it finally sank in.

I’d felt uncomfortable with the first chapter for a long time. Part of me told myself that it was because it was the oldest part of my book and I was just over-familiar with it.  That Microsoft Works document from 2007? That was it. First thing I wrote on this clunky old laptop. But you know what? Something else just wasn’t right with it. Because if it was great, familiarity would not be breeding such uncomfortableness. I’d reworked it many times, but it essentially remained the same. Time for an overhaul.

I thought I knew what was wrong and whipped up a new chapter. Excited, I emailed it to my one-person writing group, fellow Sister in Crime Brenda Buchanan. When we sat down to go over it, Brenda looked grave. Not nearly as excited as I was. Then she gave me the bad news. It sucked. Since Brenda’s a very nice person, she didn’t say that. But that was the message. She was right.

Those who know me may not believe this, but I was happy to hear it. Thrilled, even. If the chapter (or book) is a problem, I want to fix it. I want my book to be good. If I want my feelings stroked, I’ll have my mom read it (a blog for a different day).

Brenda and I spent 90 minutes going over my stuff. Not only my chapter, but a fundamental issue with the book that needed to change that I’d been hanging onto.

So, I’m revising again. Not only fixed the chapter (I hope, Brenda hasn’t weighed in yet), but fixing the book. Tweaking some character things. Taking out the gimmick that was dragging it down. Tightening up the words, fixing phrasing, examining some small plot elements that can use some examining.

I may be a good writer — the jury is out until the most important one, made up of agent and publisher, weigh in. One thing I’m sure of is I am stubborn, tenacious and hard-working. I’ll bang my head against a concrete wall over and over if I think there’ll be some benefit. Literally. So rewrite? That’s easy. I’ll do it until the cows come home.

How many revisions has this been? I don’t really know. It’s a lot of work, but it’s fun. I love it. It’s exhilarating, even.

It’s writing.

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About Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at maureenmilliken.com. She hosts the podcast Notes from a Cranky Editor all by herself, as well Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.
This entry was posted in Beth Kanell, Blog Summary, Craft, Maureen Milliken, Writers, Writing, Writing lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Revision is Writing II: It’s also required and relentless (and that’s writing, too)

  1. This is so good to read, Maureen — and it reminds me of two other “sister” authors who revised, queried, revised more … and did indeed get published, with work they both liked much better than what they started with. We’re deepening our writing, strengthening our voices, and tightening our plots. Readers are going to love the results! I’m looking forward to hearing about the “acceptance letter” you’ll be getting, one fine day.

  2. Thanks, Beth. Your post was a great reminder, too. Success is always sweeter when it’s something you’ve worked hard for. Especially when the work is a big part of the enjoyment.

  3. dlattanzi says:

    Reblogged this on Living Ethnography and commented:
    Wonderful post about the essential art of revision.

  4. Pingback: Revision, Writin’ and Crime Bake: What More Could We Want? | Pen, Ink, and Crimes

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