by Sandra Parshall
Ernest Hemingway once told an interviewer that he rewrote the last page of A Farewell to Arms 39 times before he was satisfied. The interviewer asked what it was that stumped him for so long. Hemingway replied, “Getting the words right.” He did not, of course, add: Duh.
That’s all revision involves: getting the words right. So simple.
But every writer goes about it in a slightly different way, and I find those variations endlessly fascinating. Recently, when I did a library program with several writer friends I’ve known for years, I was thunderstruck by Ellen Crosby’s revelation that she literally starts over with each new draft. As in blank screen. As in not reworking what was in the previous draft. No cutting and pasting, made so easy by the use of a computer. Each draft is a fresh version of the story. “It’s like writing three books a year,” she said.
Now that’s a really different approach.
But why? Why would any author engage in such exquisite self-torture? Because it works for her. I can’t argue with the results. Her Virginia Wine Country Mysteries (The Sauvignon Secret is next, in August) certainly don’t read as if they were produced under torturous conditions. The very thought of working that way makes me feel faint, but that’s Ellen’s approach to revision, and who am I to question it?
Some writers revise as they go, and when they leave a chapter it is finished. To do this, you have to be sure of the story’s direction, positive you have the characters just right. For a lot of mystery writers that wouldn’t work, because our plots have a tendency to grow tentacles that reach into previously unsuspected places, and if we tie ourselves too rigidly to a preconceived outline we’ll miss the good stuff that makes a story special. So we may do a certain amount of planning and outlining, then turn our imaginations loose on the characters and story and go back to clean it up – revise it – after we have a complete draft.
Some mystery writers are truly brave souls and leave essential research for the second draft. That can wreak havoc when they discover a fatal, so to speak, flaw in their choice of murder weapon or location and have to come up with something totally different.And if they change their minds about who the killer is, they have to comb the manuscript for references and clues that must be altered.
Personally, I enjoy revision. It’s the first draft that I hate. The single most terrifying time in writing a book is the moment when I sit at the computer and tell myself that I must begin. I have to write something, anything. One sentence. GET STARTED. I type out a sentence and sit there in despair, certain this is the only sentence I will be able to produce. But I keep going. I refuse to worry about typos, about unfinished thoughts, about paragraphs that don’t make sense. I will fix all that later, and I will enjoy doing it. Out of this mess I will carve a novel. But first I have to create the mess.
P.D. James once made a statement that I find more than a little spooky because it puts into words a feeling I’ve always had about my own writing: “It's as if the characters exist already, their story, everything about them is in some limbo of my imagination and I'm getting in touch with them and getting the story down in black and white, rather than inventing any of it. So it does feel as if it's a process of revelation rather than creation and one which is not really within my own volition.”
But one thing is within my own volition: revising until I get the words right. Making sure I tell the story and portray the characters in a way that does justice to them. No book will ever be perfect, and sooner or later I have to simply stop and turn the manuscript in so it can go to the printer. But I can’t think of anything more satisfying than reworking a sentence or paragraph until I suddenly realize: Yeah, that’s it. That’s what I want to say.
Are you a writer? What’s your revision method?
My next book is Under the Dog Star, out in September, and I was revising right up to the second I sent the file to my editor.