In one of my intro classes last year, my writing instructor had us hold up the first drafts of our stories and crumple them into paper balls. She’d told us it was representative of the power of revision, and the necessity of our willingness to recognize that the first draft is never the last. I don’t agree with the crumbling analogy, though — I feel like I would have gone with something less destructive. Because, really, beginning revision can be one of two things:
- Surface-level line edits, in which a few commas are placed and some sentences rearranged
- Total, annihilating, apocalyptic destruction of the original story
I’ve been guilty of #2 for a while. I’d bring a story into workshop, gather notes, and decide I needed to totally switch the story because I’d suddenly realized that this should be told from the supporting character’s point of view, you guys, obviously. Fitzgerald did it, why can’t I? Or I’d completely alter the character; same name, but now this guy is like, super tough and angry, when before he was too much of a pushover, you know? Or, a little more commonly, I’d dump the idea altogether because “I just lost interest in it,” moving onto another story idea and waiting until the last moment to write it for a class deadline.
I realized something, though. With some of those stories I’d written and forgotten, I hadn’t “lost interest” in the story — I was just afraid of revising it, endlessly, forever, never quite knowing when it was finally done.
It’s one thing to write a story and feel like it’s so utterly full of promise. It’s a false success; you feel like you’ve accomplished something and can set it aside. And yes, you can, and should, but the hardest thing to accept about creative writing is this: the first draft is only the beginning. It’s easy to look at something and say that it’s just rough right now, but in a few drafts, it’ll really shine.
The hurdle, of course, is actually getting revising the damn thing. And the biggest thing that has been holding me back is fear.
I experienced my first truly successful revision a few days ago. I had written the first two chapters of a novel in third-person narration, set in a place like my hometown, involving a big cast of characters reacting to a robbery. My protagonist is male, and I had decided to stick to omniscience because, as I realize now, I was afraid of writing a character whose gender is not my own. In my workshop, my classmates had told me that the narration was too distanced; it felt counterproductive, and like we were spending too much time seeing what was happening in the landscape instead of getting to know the characters.
So, on a Sunday, twenty-four hours before its deadline, I rewrote the thing. I allowed myself to enter the mind of my character and wrote it from his point of view, constantly asking myself if I was writing lines that felt like his, or just writing them because they sounded pretty. I wanted to avoid being authorial; I wanted to let my character dictate the actions, movements, and focal points of the story. And, by the time I handed it to my professor, I felt proud — I’d actually revised the story, and hadn’t demolished it entirely. I’d listened to my classmates and my gut, and had cut out the flowery prose that had initially come from my own heavy hand. I’d taken my time with the characters and world, and condensed two chapters into one introduction.
And it’s still so rough. But that’s okay.
With my earlier failures at revision, I was always drawn to scrapping my initial attempt entirely, which is absolutely a form of avoidance. I wanted to avoid the slog of having to go back into my story and really look at my weaknesses, and where I’d failed. And, really, I’d also wanted to avoid the realization that I wasn’t going to receive instant gratification with whatever project I was working on; writing, as I’ve come to understand, is a long-term thing. And to do it successfully, you have to stick with it for the long haul. You have to look at your rough drafts and maintain the willingness to polish them.
It may take twenty more drafts until I feel legitimately solid about this story I’m trying to tell. One of my professors told me that she revises projects at least one hundred times, which is terrifying, but also something that a part of me understands. After my first successful revision, I’m closer to the story I want to tell, but I’m still along way from really understanding many of the characters and what makes them tick. And really, it’s kind of like getting to know someone for the first time. Rarely do you know everything about them after you first meet; you have a first impression, but to really know someone, you have to spend time with them. Each revision is my attempt to spend time with my characters, world, and story, and right now it feels like it’s going to take forever.
But this time around, I’m not afraid.
Well, okay, I’m still terrified. But I’m writing.