Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying.
— John Updike
I’m up to my eyes in query letters. I’ve had a few requests for the manuscript, so it’s out there with some peepers on it as well. It’s very exciting when I get those requests, and every time it happens I spend 24 mostly happily frenzied hours combing through the manuscript and making tweaks. The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures, which weighed in at 84,000 words when I sent it to my first round of readers back in October, is just 78,000 now. Fighting weight I hope. Scrappy and trim.
This means some agents have seen earlier versions of the work. I worry sometimes, whether I should have revised and revised for another six months or a year before sending it out at all, but even back in October every essay in the collection had been through an average nine or ten revisions. It took almost four years to write the book. It felt like high time to send it into the world.
I have loved working with editors on the essays I’ve had published. I love the challenge of a reader saying, this isn’t working for me. I love figuring out the best way to say what I want to say. I love choosing words, chopping sentences and moving things around. In this last round, I worried I was going too far with the pruning. The maxim is murder your darlings. But sometimes it gets tricky to know when to leave things alone. Nick Hornby poked fun at overzealous austerity when it comes to revision:
Why does it always stop when the work in question has been reduced to sixty or seventy thousand words—I’m sure you could get it down to twenty or thirty if you tried hard enough. In fact, why stop at twenty or thirty? Why write at all? Why not just jot the plot and a couple of themes down on the back of an envelope and leave it at that?…Go on, young writers—treat yourself to a joke, or an adverb! Spoil yourself! Readers won’t mind.
So I’m trying to find the balance. Putting aside the pressure of wanting to sell this book, the revision process is engaging—even exhilarating at times.
Neil Gaiman said this smart thing: “If there are things you aren’t satisfied with as a reader, go in and fix them as a writer.” That’s how I work: I read, sometimes out loud. I mark up the manuscript. Then I go back and try to figure out how to fix what isn’t working. There’s one essay in The Saltwater Twin, “Meteors,” which every reader has felt was the least satisfying in the collection. That’s not a one-off—that’s like six or seven people. But when I read the piece to myself, I love it. So I know there must be connections I’m making that my readers don’t have access to because those connections are still in my brain. They haven’t appeared in text. I need to identify what they are—what’s making the writing richer for me—so I can bring them into being—those images, anecdotes, reflections—so other readers’ experience will be more in line with mine.
At an art gallery recently, I stood in front of a grandly poetic piece made of meticulously cut out paper and I had the thought that I could never make work like that because it was so intricate and delicate and it looked horribly tedious. But on the heels of that thought was the realization that I will change a word twenty-five times until it’s the right word in the right spot and I won’t be bored at all. I like the rigor of revision. I like the internal click I feel when a piece is done to my satisfaction. I love it when I at last I find what I am saying.
How about you? What is your revision process like? In writing? Art? Life?