On Revising: Embrace Tedium, Embrace Chaos

Note: Now that Bitterblue has been out for over a year, I’ve (finally!) updated my Awards and Reviews page to reflect it. Possibly my mother is the only person who will find this interesting, but after all, that’s reason enough for me to link to it 🙂

On to the matter at hand.

Tedium is (unfortunately) a big part of the writing process, at various moments and in various forms. Today (and yesterday and the day before, and tomorrow and the day after, and on and on in both directions), I’m beginning the process of planning a revision. As part of this process, I have about 15 singlespaced pages of notes, responses, questions, and suggestions from my editor, from one of my sisters (codename: Apocalyptica the Flimflammer), and from a consultant on a particular relevant matter. Every morning, I start my planning by rereading every word of these 15 pages (and also reading the ever-growing notes I’ve written into the margins). As I’ve read these pages many times now, this can be a bit tedious, and I sit down to the job with gritted teeth. But every time I reread them, I understand things I didn’t understand before; I see links among and between them; I come up with new ideas; my understanding of this major project I’m about to undertake becomes richer and deeper. Sometimes I feel like the pages must have changed during the night, because I’ll come across a line someone has written and it’ll be the first time those words truly sink in. I’ll wonder, “Were those words there yesterday? Have I ever read them before?”

A revision of a novel can be an enormous project, a chaotic project, and as the writer, you need to hold on to many facets and levels and visions, revisions, dreams, manifestations at once – or maybe it’s more accurate to say that you need to find the (constantly wobbly!) balancing point at which all of those things are holding onto you. Your understanding of your characters, and all the things you don’t understand yet about your characters. Your current plot and all the ways in which it’s not working; your (possibly panicky) worries about how to make the plot work. Your conceptions of the ways in which your tensions and meanings are failing to flow, and your questions about how to combine a gazillion things (like, for example, the personalities, personal identities, hopes, relationships, insecurities, strengths, and fears of characters; numerous intertwining plots and subplots; a setting that may or may not be believable; themes that don’t always sit well together and sometimes contradict each other; existing scenes that capture the spirit of the book but don’t advance the plot; research information that you need to learn but haven’t learned yet, and haven’t figured out how/where to access) into a cohesive whole. It’s completely normal to get overwhelmed and it’s completely normal to have the nagging feeling that you might not be up for this task. That you’ve bitten off more than you can chew; that you’re going to fail.

(You’re not going to fail.)

Every day’s planning work eventually leads to the point where I realize I’ve become overwhelmed, and need to stop for the day. (It’s important to learn to recognize the moment when you need to stop!) I start the workday with tedium; I end the workday with overwhelm. Both of these things are fine; both get me a little bit further with the project every day. It’s hard to embrace overwhelm, because our arms aren’t big enough to fit around it :). It’s hard to embrace tedium, because, well, it’s tedious. But at the end of each workday, I know that tomorrow I’ll start again, I’ll ground myself again by rereading those 15 pages full of questions, suggestions and notes – and because of today’s overwhelm, tomorrow they’ll mean what they’ve always meant AND they’ll also mean lots of new things they haven’t meant before. Over time, I will no doubt add more of my own thoughts, and probably excerpts from other people’s thoughts, to the 15 pages, and my morning reread will get even longer (and more tedious!). The overwhelm will never go away — in fact, it may even grow — but it will start to clarify itself in my vision. As it increases, my capacity to hold it (or let it hold me) will increase.

The tedium is like watering the garden so that it can grown into something wild and barely contained — but still stay rooted.

This is how it all makes me feel.

(Marie Rutkoski took this picture of me and That Thoughtful Guy
at the Musée Rodin today ^_^)