Revision Incisions: Editing Your Novel Without Bleeding

Posted on December 6, 2010

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Before the breakthrough, and a bit before I flipped my novel the bird for being, you know, a fuckass

November: the month my head was full of dull gray noise. The inevitable result of soaking up too many sights and sounds in London and not having the time to process and put them into proper containers. In which I attended the National Book Awards and watched a personal hero, Patti Smith, take home the honor of best nonfiction work. The beginning of a new round of grueling revisions to The Nowhere in the Middle, and to top it all off, an important lesson learned just as December rolled around.

My stealth photo of Patti at the 2010 National Book Awards, a highlight of a lowish month

Now that the intensity of those events has dissipated, I am fit to blog again. Under no circumstances was I going to be That Writer and subject you to a whole lotta Woe Is I, I’m Confused About My Path, and I Hate Publishing. Been there and stupidly carried out that formula for creative disaster many times. In fact, I just did it again when I knew better, but with a difference: I finally got sick of myself and decided to change my response to one of the hardest parts of the writing life.

“Revision incisions” came to mind as I was trying, and failing, to employ intelligent feedback about the novel’s beginning and end. Some trusted friends, a very generous agent, and I all agreed that those parts just don’t come out with fists flying. Energy abounds, but it’s trapped under a lingering indecision and negating itself.

To start, I went back into Chapter 1 with the aim of creating a strong melody—the Hook you hear agents, writing teachers, journalists, and maybe even your mother crap on about. Somehow, I would come up with the right words and communicate them in a way that will render irresistible the scene of Jilly, Niles, and Yardley taking in Strummer live for the first time. Flashback or not, this shit would be forget-your-life immediate because it had to be to shut out Glee and Internet crack.

Pre-damn-dictably, my first few attempts at hacking, tweaking, and scrapping words and organizational structures I’d labored over for seven years felt akin to inflicting myself with a million paper cuts, bleeding a slow and painful death by in the cold. Who sucked the goddamn oxygen out of the room? Since when did depicting three kids at a Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros concert in Minneapolis become an undecipherable equation? A simple enough idea, something I’ve been myself, and yet, no hook, no rhythm, no music.

I’ve edited professionally for twelve years (newsletters, newspapers, and magazines), but reworking my own fiction has always been the greatest test of my sanity, intellect, and patience. The level of confrontation is so much, too much for most aspiring novelists. It’s not just a matter of addressing technical problems—errant commas and transpositions. Try chasing down like Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter the ideas that make you feel human and giving voice to them in quasi-people, with nuance, control, and feeling. Rewriting one, two, ten, twenty-four times separates the lightweights from the hard-core maniacs who want not just to be “published,” but connect with total strangers who have just as much invested in the same ideas.

Writing, although a solitary exercise by necessity, is the most social act I’ll ever attempt. It’s not literally calling for attention the way a song does, but make no mistake—a story wants to be heard and adored. Herein lies the key to stopping the blood that accompanies revision. Your story isn’t about or for you. You didn’t spend $20,000 on that MFA and five years’ worth of weekends in a bunker pounding on a keyboard so you could talk to yourself. If you don’t have a Hook, accept it not as a personal failing but as a practical problem you must fix because it will increase the chances of attaining what you’re after.

Granted, your grail borders on the intangible. Yet, if you’re like me, then the chase is part of the appeal. The struggle is the adventure. If writing were easy, you’d be a corporate lawyer. But you want to build tribes, so quit now and forever the self-indulgent brooding and study every important message that’s ever stopped you in your tracks, from albums to adverts, tweets to texts (see also literary agent Nathan Bransford’s wonderful revision check-list).

Strummer honed his storytelling chops by studying Woody Guthrie and, I'd argue, by watching people live their lives

Good storytelling is universal; you know how it should play if you’re trying to do it yourself. Making the jump to practitioner will be difficult in a business that’s flawed and in flux, but, hell, even rock ‘n’ roll was a con in Joe Strummer’s day. Relish every bit of slog and bullshit. What a gift to be alive and learning your craft.

Writing soundtrack:

  • “Shelter from the Storm” by Bob Dylan
  • “1 Happy Land” by Nick Cave
  • “When My Love Comes to Town” by Grinderman
  • “Sweet Jane” by The Velvet Underground