I was talking to a friend the other day about revising. She’s finished several first drafts, but she’s never managed to get to the querying stage because she just can’t seem to get herself through the revisions process. She’s been slogging through the latest round of revisions for a while now and she was getting really discouraged and thinking about just giving it up as a lost cause.
I suggested she start writing something new. Not abandon the current revisions and start writing something new, mind you. I told her she should start writing something new while continuing the revisions on the current project.
Revising, at least for me, is really boring work. I mean, it’s intellectually stimulating and ultimately yields a very nice sense of accomplishment. But compared to the frenzied act of creation that comes before it, revision looks a little drab.
There’s a reason most people worship their Muses and chain up their Inner Editors. It’s hard to win a popularity contest when your main job is pointing out the things someone did wrong and suggesting improvements. I’ve never known of a nitpicky mother-in-law being in the running for Miss America.
I got the idea for writing while revising almost by accident. A few years back I was a member of this great critique group. It was the first time I’d ever worked with a critique group and, while I know some of them can be toxic, the one I fell into turned out to be fantastic. I think I grew more as a writer during that year than at any other point before or since.
At the time I was working on my epic high fantasy trilogy of doom and I was so excited to be learning so much that I wanted to bring pages every single week. (I didn’t know about the doom part until later, you see.) I pushed myself and managed to get together at least 5 pages almost every time. It was great.
But it was also kind of awful. I started writing seriously during NaNoWriMo and the chaos and wonder of that event had reminded me what I’d forgotten in the years since I’d first gotten the idea about being a novelist: writing was fun. Revising, on the other hand, sucked. It was all highlighting action lines and chopping extraneous exposition, keeping tabs on adverbs and cutting out unnecessary thats and justs, and waging an endless, bitter war against passive voice. I kept at it, because I really wanted to keep bringing those pages to critique, but I was starting to think I just didn’t have what it took to be a serious writer.
And then over one holiday weekend that we’d arranged into a slumber party/pseudo writing retreat, I got this flash of an idea for a new story. I woke up one morning and it was just there, completely consuming my brain. I tossed the trilogy of doom aside and dove into the shiny new idea, pounding out over 10,000 words in less than two days. I wrote until my fingers cramped up and the cooling fans in my laptop threatened to go on strike.
And then the weekend ended and I was faced with a dilemma. I didn’t want to stop working with the critique group. I mean, I could have gone into a kind of inactive status, not bringing new pages but still showing up to help everyone else, but I didn’t want to. The learning and improving was something I’d never done like that before and it was fun.
Plus, I lived out in the sticks over an hour away at the time. If I was going to spend half my Sunday in the car, I was damn well going to come home with something to show for it.
But at the same time, I needed to write this new story. (If you’re wondering how strongly that idea took root in my brain, it was what eventually morphed into Familiar. Yeah, that Familiar. The story I’m giving one last go around to now, years later.) I couldn’t just file it away while I finished revising and querying out my current project. I mean, that was an epic high fantasy trilogy. I could have been looking at several years of working and waiting.
So I did what all crazy stubborn people do. I refused to decide one way or the other and instead decided to just do both. I divided my time right down the middle. I’d spend half the week writing the new story and half the week revising the trilogy. I’d have to work a little harder than I had been doing if I still wanted to keep up my pace of turning in 5 pages for critique every week, but I vowed I could do it.
And it turned out I could. In fact, I got such a charge from writing the new story that I didn’t end up having to work that much longer on the revision days after all. Strangely, things like organizing my spice rack and rearranging the books on my bookshelves weren’t as tempting as they had been starting to seem when I was revising full time.
Eventually there came the point when the trilogy had moved on to that big library in the sky and what was then Familiar was due to be revised. And, having apparently learned nothing the last time, I tried to just work on that full time. And once again reached that point where it was awful all the time and I found myself wanting to do anything but work on revising.
NaNoWriMo rolled around again and saved me from myself before I gave it all up and decided to take up underwater basket-weaving. I spent that November dividing my time between revisions and writing another new story, this time a truly awful paranormal romance of which we shall never again speak. It was so bad I couldn’t even bring myself to finish it and in no corner of my brain have I ever once been remotely tempted to toy with it again.
But while the story turned out to be a bad one, I was still writing, toying with silly characters and following plot bunnies hither and tither and yon. Sure enough, the revisions picked up again.
And then it clicked for me: This is my process.
Some writers need to lock themselves in absolute silence and others have to form a specific playlist of alternative rock or Italian opera in order to bring a rough draft to heel. Some have to chug endless cups of green tea mocha swirl cappuccinos before rolling up their sleeves and diving into the fray. Or maybe they have to turn three times counterclockwise while standing naked under the full moon and burning an offering of a box of No. 2 pencils in order to be granted an exclusive audience with their Inner Editors. Some just have to be able to clear their desk and devote all their brain power to one world and focus on one story at a time.
Thankfully I don’t have to do any of those things. Over the years I’ve found I can revise under any conditions. Ten minutes at a time or hours on end, with the children screaming in the background or while singing along to the Disney Princess radio or in the whisper quiet darkness before the dawn when everyone else is asleep, fueled by coffee and doughnuts or just plain old water. Which is lucky since I’m not all that wild about green tea and I’m fresh out of pencils.
But I have to have something else to be writing at the same time. If I don’t have that kick of euphoric energy I get from the creative side of the process, procrastination becomes all too easy. After all, I never did get around to reorganizing my spice rack. It’s just sitting there on the kitchen counter, half full of spices I never use, waiting for the day when I don’t have a new writing project lined up in the queue.