Revising: Two Steps Up, One Step Back

There’s a certain aspect to revising that I love. It takes place on the micro-level, not the macro-level; it’s more about words and sentences, less about chapters or books. It happens when there’s something tiny I want to express, some little thing I want to insert into the bigger picture: For example, let’s say that while revising, I decide that I need to plant a small hint to the reader that Mr. Glockenspiel is actually none other than Ms. Bratwurst in disguise. But the problem is, there’s no obvious graceful place or method for planting such a hint. So I struggle and agonize and finick and rearrange and contrive, and finally find a way to plant my hint that maybe works. I plant the damn thing. I move on to to the next problem, perhaps the need to insert some backstory about the time Mr. Lederhosen crashed his airplane into the white cliffs of Dover. I get completely wound up in the question of whether Mr. Lederhosen was intoxicated at the time, or had perhaps been drugged by his arch-nemesis, Ms. Knackwurst. I forget all about the true-identity-of-Mr.-Glockenspiel hint.

But then, the next day rolls around, and I’m doing a quick review of the changes I made the day before. I get to the place where I planted the true-identity hint. And even though yesterday I thought I’d found the solution, today I see that I did it all wrong: It’s obvious that I should have planted the hint 5 lines down from where I actually planted it. I move the hint to the appropriate place. I read it over. I decide it works. I move on to the next problem in the revision: Should I change Ms. Knackwurst’s name to Ms. Wiener-Schnitzel so that readers do not confuse her with Ms. Bratwurst? Knackwurst… Bratwurst… Liverwurst… the creation of art surely can be an agony… and I’m getting hungry…

Then the next day rolls around, and as I’m looking for the place where I left off yesterday (a question about whether it is perhaps too convenient for me to have dressed Mr. Lederhosen in lederhosen), my eye happens to catch the true-identity hint again. I see that it is definitely in the right place now, and I congratulate myself. But — wait. Something about it feels clumsy; I don’t like the phrasing as much as I did before; I reword it slightly, trying about 9 different variations; I settle on the one that sounds best; I decide that now it finally works. I move on.

A few days later, while thumbing through the manuscript, the true-identity hint accidentally catches my eye again. I realize that it still doesn’t feel quite right. I adjust a word or two. I move on. But I probably don’t have to tell you that a few days later, when it catches my eye again, I see immediately that it’s still wrong. I adjust it yet again.

BUT. Here’s the thing: One day, the true-identity hint accidentally catches my eye, and I read it, and THIS TIME IT WORKS PERFECTLY. And the next time I read it, a few days later, IT STILL WORKS PERFECTLY. Because through the process of all that fine-tuning and putting it away and bringing it out again and working it and reworking it, finally, I got it to the right place. And now, every time I look at it, it works. IT WORKS!
This is what revising is for me. Writing; deciding it works; putting it away; taking it out again; realizing it doesn’t actually work; rewriting; deciding it works; putting it away; taking it out again; realizing it doesn’t actually work; rewriting… you get the idea. And it can get a little mind-boggling when you’re revising a 400-page book, and there’s one of these half-finished revisions on every page. But every time I rewrite one of them, I get closer. And the day does come when it all works, and I can see that it works. And that feeling, when something, be it large or small, works, and I know that it works? It is the best feeling I ever have as a writer. It is the reason for everything.

I finished my revision of Fire today. It’s got problems: ones I see and ones I still can’t see. But for now, to the best of my humble abilities, when I look at it, it works.

Coming soon, by popular demand: I tackle a few FAQs.
(Also, if you happen to be a native German-speaker, forgive me. I like the words that English has borrowed from you. They’re fun to say. Especially Wiener schnitzel. And schadenfreude. And doppelganger. And streuselkuchen. And schnauzer.)