by Jenny Martin
I have a confession to make. I hate to admit this, but I’m a recovering, repentant reviser. I’ve always loved the clean start of a first draft, the fever joy laying down the bones of a novel. But until recently, I wasn’t so good a taking things apart and stitching them back together, and very often, I was in too in love with my own mistakes to recognize them on the page. And for far too long, I let that hurt my work and hold me back. I was pretty much blind to the true nature of revision.
Sure, I’d listen to criticism and think about it and nod my head. I’d even internalize the feedback, admitting the truth in my heart. I just didn’t have the courage or the insight to take that feedback and run with it. Instead, I’d take the path of least resistance, trying to preserve as much of my old words as I could. Mostly, I cut a few things out and made other scenes longer. I tinkered. I asked the wrong questions. How can I minimize the changes? How can I do what they’re asking, but still keep this thread? I turned my books into Franken-drafts, and the crude scars and quick fixes were all too evident on every page. I was just too immature a writer to see them.
It may seem hard to believe, but all that changed in a moment. I was at TLA in Houston, and I heard Maggie Stiefvater speak on a panel about writing. When asked about revision, she said, “I’m not afraid to cut 15,000 words.” And then she told the story of her first published novel, and how much she completely rewrote, more than once, to make Lament a much stronger book. And then she talked about meandering drafts, and about finding the core of your story and how nothing else matters. Nothing.
It sounds really corny, but I actually got a little choked up. I didn’t cry, but I felt the lump in my throat and I’m surprised no heard the sound of the scales falling from my eyes and shattering on the floor. How much time had I wasted and how many chances had I thrown away because I was clinging to previous drafts like they were life rafts? How long had I been pretending to revise, asking all the wrong questions?
As crazy as it seems, that panel changed my writing life. After it, I was able to look back and see many of the mistakes I’d made. I was finally able to hear and appreciate some of the best advice I’d gotten in the past, but had subconsciously ignored. At the time, I was chest-deep into a draft of TRACKED, and at long last, I started asking myself the right questions:
What is the core of my book? What do I want my novel to say?
I faltered at first. It was hard to break old habits, but I kept at it, risking bigger changes and rewrites. TRACKED began to evolve. It’s still evolving, but now I welcome the shift. I know that the next time I type ‘The End,’ I’ll be that much closer to making the book the best it can be. One that isn’t a Franken-draft, but something that truly, honestly, finally speaks for me.