Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The Art of Revision

My MFA advisor and I have had a mini-debate about revision. Nothing serious. It's been intriguing.

As roughly the midpoint of the book I'm working on as a master's thesis made its way down my fingertips, some epiphanies about the main character occurred that meant some changes would be required earlier in the narrative.

He's in the midst of solving a mystery while trying to pick himself up from a failure and cope with what prove to be strange surroundings, secrets and ghosts.

My advisor and I have agreed a slightly different approach in how he goes about things will strengthen the narrative. It's not drastic, but it means some manuscript surgery, and all surgery is major isn't it?

For the defense
My thought was that I should push to the end of the manuscript, solve the mystery, then work on the changes. Both practical and philosophical considerations led my advisor to disagree.

My advisor promised to fight whatever prevailing opinions might arise in faculty meetings on my behalf, but urged that I think about reworking now. The program I'm in requires a change of advisor after two semesters in order to get a fresh set of eyes on a work.

The rebuttal
Practically, the change in advisor without change in manuscript would mean a reader coming to the material cold without a full understanding about how it was "gonna" change, save with a lot of talking to him or her.

On the philosophical front, my advisor felt the final stretch of the work whether sprint, hike or long haul, would benefit from adjustments made earlier in the tale.

I resisted because I've always written first and revised later. A first draft for me is like a minutely detailed outline. (I heard Joe Lansdale say something like that once, but I agree with it.)

After a while, I relented, though. From a pragmatic standpoint, it makes sense to hone now so that over the next several months as I approach a finish, if the universe is willing, the manuscript will be closer to complete and ready for the second reading to really fine tune.

My advisor was right, in part about the benefit.

It's a bit exhilarating, I must admit, to be making some of the surgery now. It's not as easy as having the whole piece to hammer and carve, but, as always with revision, I'm finding small tidbits in the narrative that I can utilize in later chapters. A wink here, a twist there.

In a way, it's like creating an alternate reality or a parallel timeline to the original vision, but that's not so bad. Eventually I should be able to pick and choose the recast scenes, hopefully crafting a stronger and more meaningful work.

It's also a little terrifying. A work of fiction is after all a house of cards. A millimeter change at one point could throw something off at another. To mix in another meataphor, the flapping of a butterfly wing....

Happily that only means more revision, and since "more meaningful" has been a key goal for me in this endeavor, the experimentation is worthwhile. It also demands a little more devotion from me, and challenges additional commitment.

That's a little angst inducing, but, as Christine notes, good things, and creative growth, don't come easy, so a little more commitment from me, meh, couldn't hurt.


Charles Gramlich said...

Generally as I work through a book and realize things need to be changed somewhat, I'll go back and make strictly cosmetic changes and indicate it by leaving the print in red so that when I read through the whole thing later I can see specifically what needs to be buffed and polished.

It's always difficult to change your basic way of working but, as you say, it's probably good to stretch the writing muscles that way.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Don't change it now. If worse comes to worse, you can stick an addendum on the manuscript explaining the process, or even direct the reader to this posting. I say finish it and go back, as long as you are making notes and know where and how to accomplish this.

Sidney said...

Thanks for the thoughts guys. I appreciate the ideas.

Steve Malley said...

Keep us posted on how this works out!

Erik Donald France said...

fascinating, the process and the give and take.

Anne Lamott is one of the propoents for quick and dirty first drafts, certainly.

Twin Peaks is an excellent example of refinement from conception to first season.

Good luck, man! Damn the torpedoes!

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