Virginity and Potential: A Case for Revision

I should confess that I have never been a fan of revision. I preach to my students about its importance, but I am loath to embark on it myself. I want what I write to be right the first time.
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I should confess that I have never been a fan of revision. I preach to my students about its importance, but I am loath to embark on it myself. I want what I write to be right the first time.

A creative writing professor once suggested I'd finally written a decent short story, but he thought it needed a few more drafts. I told him I didn't like to revise. I said, in defense of my stance: "I like first drafts; there's a virginal quality to them." I actually used that word virginal. I was that dumb.

This professor, Alan Weisman, who is now a famous writer (The World Without Us and Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth) was kind enough not to guffaw. I think he smiled, and then told me when to have the next draft in his faculty mailbox. A year later, just before graduation from Prescott College, Weisman said: "Melanie, don't sit back on your potential." I knew I had potential; he thought so, too. I thought potential was enough; he knew otherwise. Many times in the 28 years since that conversation, I've had to remind myself of his advice.

Not revising an essay, story, memoir or novel is the equivalent of letting it sit back on its potential. Quick way not to get published: market all your work in its virginal state.

Sometimes, these days, I would rather revise than go through the turmoil of generating new material-of inventing something. Revision, once you have a solid first draft, can be so much easier than creating virgins. But my resistance still shows up. Outpost19, accepted a memoir, Some Glad Morning, on the condition I do some major revisions, generating several new chapters. During a residency at Playa, in August of 2012, I did develop a couple new chapters that I like, concluding that maybe I needed to start over with these new chapters, letting their tone and voice guide the book's reincarnation. I tell students to think of revision as re-seeing. I tell them sometimes it means starting over and seeing the whole thing anew. They never like that advice; I watch their faces fall. Now, faced myself with re-seeing the memoir, I've been stymied and mute for two years.

But I'm proud to realize how many drafts I've tackled in my writing life -- three drafts of one screenplay (Hurricane Season), five drafts of another (The Makeover), and three of an adaptation (Antlers). I have written between three and ten drafts of every story in my cycle, Home for Wayward Girls. Two novellas (Eklepsi and Friday Night in America) each underwent multiple revisions, and one still appears on my laptop as FNIA, Ending One, and FNIA, Ending Two. By the time it gets published, I hope to know which ending is right.

A young adult novel, My So-Called Ruined Life, (Jan. 2014, Torrey House Press) had an unusual revision trajectory. I wrote the book, revised a couple of times, and submitted some chapters to Milkweed Press. An editor there asked to see the rest. Milkweed has a 200 page limit for YA submissions, so I pruned my book down before sending. Several months later, that editor was laid off and the person above him ended up saying no thanks. Then Torrey House accepted it, with the condition that I amp up the role of the natural world, to better address the press' environmental mission. I was eager to reenter the world of Tate McCoy without the page restriction. I planned to add a chapter right after the climax, and that chapter quadrupled -- four whole chapters that had not previously existed became my favorite chapters. Such a happy revision tale!

Still much later, my editor scheduled what was to be a 90-minute conference call. Ninety minutes stretched to over two hours, and the notes I took filled nine notebook pages. It is safe to say I freaked out. I had been under the mistaken impression that since my development of the nature chapters, the book was done. We'd already sent the manuscript out to half a dozen authors for blurbs; how could it be that I would be expected to change it substantially at this juncture? As much as I loved this Tate McCoy girl I'd invented, I dreaded going back into revision mode. I spent the evening complaining to my husband. Why are they making me do this? Test readers had liked the book. Why fix what wasn't broken?

The next day, the notes no longer seemed extreme. I saw patterns in the suggestions and was able to categorize them so that the job looked manageable. I had a month-long retreat coming up, in a remote cabin in the Santa Cruz redwoods and I would tackle these revisions in that time frame. In the end, it took only eight days to address the entirety of those notes. And the book was again a much better book.

Since this is my most recent experience with revision, I'm a fan of it right now. Revision has been good to me, has done exactly what it's supposed to do -- allowed me to re-see. I will always wish writing was easier than it actually is. I will wish my first drafts, those lovely virgins, would be deemed brilliant. Flawless. Don't change a single word! I'd be one of those writers who lets things gestate just long enough in her head to have them come out on paper perfect. I do have one short story that pretty much wrote itself, soared through MFA workshop, won an award, and then helped me win a year-long screenwriting fellowship. So I'm not saying it can't happen -- these pure and gorgeous virgins landing on the page. But it's rare. Count on having to work your stories over. And over. You are the pestering partner, always wanting more.

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