Lost in Revision

On April 28, 2011, Grace wrote, ….So I have a manuscript that I kind of edited to death- meaning I wrote it and I edited it so it was better but I got so obsessed with making it *perfect* that I kind of sucked the life out of it. Now it’s just listless words meandering across the page that are all painstakingly grammatically correct and technically *perfect* but it has no life, it has no flare, no sparkle. This breaks my heart to make me think I killed the very thing I wanted to improve, so do you have any suggestions about how to raise my manuscript from the dead? Do you know how I can pump some life back into it and make it my own again instead of it sounding like something any generic computer program could have thought up? Any ideas about how to change my manuscript from being flat stiff sentences to something worth reading again would be most welcome…

And in response April wrote, ….it sounds like you need to back away from the manuscript for a while. Don’t look at it for a few months (or possibly longer). Work on something else while it sits. When you go back to it, you’ll be able to look at it with fresh eyes and make more objective judgements.
I agree with April. Clarity comes with time and distance. You may like your story better when you go back to it. You may even think it has plenty of life, and what were you worried about? But if not, you may see the places that you flattened in revision. Then you may know what to do to resuscitate the prose.

If you have your old drafts, you can look at them too and pick back up the bits the bits that used to make your blood dance.

Long ago, when I was unpublished and writing only picture books because I was afraid to try a novel, one of my manuscripts interested several editors, who asked for revision. One of them said he wanted my story to be more “warmly told” and suggested I read The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka. I did, and I loved it, and I knew exactly what the editor wanted, and I rewrote my story, and he hated it and wouldn’t look at further revisions. Other editors wanted other changes, and gradually my story died. What was good in it vanished beyond recovery and I never got it back. So, sadly, this can happen.

But, today, I could have another go at it. If I wanted to return to the story, I would look at my old versions (if I could find them after about twenty years and many computers). If they didn’t show me what to do, I’d just start again from scratch, working from my original idea.

You might succeed with the same strategy. Think about the basic idea and what excited you about it. If you’re like me you’ll write some notes on what you used to love and how to approach the story this time. Most likely you’ve learned things in the many rewrites, and your discoveries will fuel the new beginning.

When I used to paint, this approach worked for me. A painting failed, but I loved what I was going for. I might have been in a class and working from a model. In my first attempt I painted her proportions all wrong, but when I started over I found that I’d learned from my mistakes and she materialized correctly on my canvas this time. Or I was working from a still life or a photograph. A second attempt usually paid off.

But, you may be wailing, I wrote 300 pages!

There may be efficient writers but I’m not one of them. I toss hundreds of pages, which I’ve mentioned many times on the blog. Well, last weekend I found comforting company. The novelist Craig Nova spoke at a conference where I was the kids’ book workshop leader. He talked of his endless rewrites and swore that he’s dumped 100,000 pages during his writing life. That’s thousand with a T. He’s not a young man, but he’s not Methuselah either. And he has twelve novels for adults under his belt.

Craig Nova kept track of those 100,000 pages, and I keep a rough tally of the pages I throw out for each book. I struggled with them as much as I did with the pages that succeeded, so I might as well be proud of them. And you might as well, too.

Goes without saying (but I’ll say it) that you may find it helpful to ask a writing buddy or trusted person to look at your moribund story. She may see where you went wrong better than you can. And she may love parts of your story, which may rekindle your affection for them.

I doubt the problem lies in excellent grammar or technical perfection. We want proper grammar, punctuation, capitalization (unless we have a powerful story reason for ignoring the rules). We don’t want too much word repetition or monotonous sentence structure. Attention to the basics doesn’t suck the life out of a story. It adds to the liveliness of our prose.

You can ask yourself some questions to gain an understanding of how your story floundered:

Why was perfection so important this time? The answer might lie outside the story, in criticism you’d received or a hundred other things. Or you loved your idea so much, more than anything else you ever tried, that you tensed up.

Did you edit out the characters’ thoughts and feelings? This might be the first place to look. Without emotion and an inner life a story will be bloodless.

Is there something inside the story that you were afraid of? If you figure that out, you may decide you don’t want to tackle it right now. Or you may find that identifying the scary element pulls you in and the story catches fire again.

Are there parts that might offend someone? Did you tiptoe around those aspects of the story even without realizing it?

When you answer these questions you may be able to reenter your story with enthusiasm.

The subject of revival sent my mind off to myths and old stories, so here are three prompts:

∙    One of my favorite myths is “Pygmalion and Galatea,” which is the basis of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion and Lerner and Loewe’s musical My Fair Lady. In the myth, Pygmalion is a sculptor who falls in love with one of his sculptures. Unlike many Greek myths, this one has a happily-ever-after ending with Galatea coming to life. Write your own story of Galatea coming alive with unexpected consequences. What’s she like? How does she adjust to being alive? How does she fit into Pygmalion’s ordinary existence?

∙    The myth of Orpheus, alas, doesn’t end well. He tries and fails to fetch his dead wife back from Hades. In your version make Geraldine succeed in reviving her friend or boyfriend Henry, but he wakes up changed. Write what happens. Though this can be a scary story it doesn’t have to be.

∙    Now I’m thinking of the opposite of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Jeremy’s friend Karen is too easygoing, and Jeremy sets himself the task of making her more lively. Write what happens.

Have fun and save what you write!

  1. This is a great topic for discussion! I think sometimes we over-edit and over-revise looking for some kind of perfection that may not really exist. I also think a lot of times we're trying to meet others' ideas of what perfection looks like – whether it be friends, family, other writers, or society in general. But I think when we try too hard to please others we forget to please ourselves. And when we do that the life gets sucked right out of the story. We have to love the stories we tell, and that can only be done by being true to ourselves. I believe that's how to write the best stories we can.

  2. Thank you for mentioning the problem of accidentally editing out your character's thoughts! I've done that already, but I never had a name for what I did. Maybe now I can fix the problem. 🙂

  3. One of the people that I show my stories to writes also. But I have a problem. She'll read the story, then say something like, "awesome!" and nothing else. I would kind of like for her to say if it needs anything added or something. Also, I might be telling her about a story idea, and I'll say a sentence, and a second after I finish, she starts talking about the book that she's writing. Right in the middle, too. Like, "She's a writer, and everything she writes comes true." And for a while I had no idea what she was talking about, then after a few times, I realized she was talking about her book….. Is there any way I can get her to be helpful, or should I just find someone else to show my writing to?

  4. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post. This is going to help greatly when I go back and start editing my story again.
    Right now I'm editing what I wrote for NaNoWriMo to send to an agent and I'm letting the story I killed rest for a while. But as soon as my NaNo novel is good and polished up I think I'm going to go back to it, and this will come in handy.

    I think I really killed it when I didn't like the ending so I focused so hard on editing the beginning that all love for it fled me as I worked to make the beginning super inviting and pleasing all around. I was then stuck with an ending that had recieved next to no revision, that I was too afraid to tackle and a beginning I had read so many times the words were burned forever into my eyelids.

    But I have not yet given up on this story yet and I don't intend to, it may just take some time for me to get up the courage to revise. 🙂

    But reading Jen's post above, what she said is completely true, and I think that's what happened to me in part as well…but I don't intend to let it happen to any of my projects in the future, if I can help it 🙂

    Thank you so much for this, Ms. Levine, it's really quite helpful. 🙂

  5. "Are there parts that might offend someone? Did you tiptoe around those aspects of the story even without realizing it?"
    How do you handle this situation? Its something I worry about often enough. The story might need the element, but is it worth the risk of offending someone?

    @Grace – I can sympathize with your comment about over editing the beginning so it's burned in your memory. I've done it too many times. 🙂 the worst is when you repeatedly start over with your manuscript when you're only halfway through, so the beginning is constantly changing but you never reach the ending.

  6. Great discussion! I've been down this path too–I wanted to make my novel more concise (because I'm wordy!) and it did improve in some ways, but I also realized that my narrator had a loose, rambling style that I liked, and I lost some of that. It's such a balance–to revise just enough and not too much!

  7. This is a very timely post for me, because I've been struggling with revising my NaNoWriMo novel from 2008. I've had several false starts in editing it, so the beginning has been hashed and rehashed many times, but the last half hasn't even been touched. It's especially hard because it's book 2 in a trilogy, and I want certain things to be wrapped up without resolving all the mysteries. It's getting to be frustrating, because I feel I can't move on to writing book 3 until I finish revising this one.

    Frankly, I think I'm a little intimidated by my novel. It's about 100,000 words long, and I wrote it in one month, so it definitely has issues. Editing it is turning out to be more work than the planning and writing of it!

  8. This discussion is great. I struggle with this too, wanting my NaNo novel (and others) to be perfect. But then I think of this: What IS perfect? Sometimes I read books that I think are PERFECT, but the thing is, most pieces are perfect,to someone at some point, in some way.
    My question has something to do with Jenna R's. Most of my characters, especially my MCs(!), are like me, in their skin color and build (white and really thin). I'm afraid that I'll end up insulting someone- like what if they read my stuff and think 'She obviously doesn't like people of other races or overweight people, because none of her characters are ever those.'. Because it's NOT true (my sister is adopted and 50% of my friends are of different race, from Indian to Chinese). I just use those characteristics because it comes naturaly to me and I feel so comfortable with these. Do I need to change things up and use different races and builds? Oh and I never write anything against the characteristics of build and race.

  9. Oh, this was great reading. I totally know this feeling. One way I deal with it is to set aside the story and instead write little vignettes or sketches of ideas or things I want to convey in the story, to see if I can re-capture the original spark.

    @Welliewalks: I don't think it's a need necessarily. A lot of characters in C.S. Lewis's Narnia books were English and in tip-top physical condition and beautiful, for example, and a lot of authors (eg Tolkien) used to have problems writing strong female characters. On the other hand, just because you don't have to doesn't mean you shouldn't try to challenge yourself by getting into the head of someone who is completely different from you. It may be an interesting experience, and may help you hone your research and voice-writing skills.

  10. Jenna Royal and Welliewalks–I'm adding your questions to my list.

    From the website:

    What a timely blog post! I'm working on rewriting my 2009 NaNoWriMo and failing miserably. After the initial start, the beginning, I'm not 15K in and it seems as if my character is quickly losing life. The reactions are not unique, and so that makes it boring to write, as well. And this is after a year's gap. xP

  11. Oh, as for the NaNoWriMo question, this is just what I thought on it:

    I have looked at my book frontwise, sidewise, backwards, and from every other position, and it is still what it has always been: a tawdry wish-fulfillment portal fantasy. I feel that the more revising I do, the more I'm just loading fine fixings onto a falling-down shack of a house. Is there a time to say "I will do nothing more with this novel because it just doesn't deserve it"? Am I giving up and selling it short?

    Comments please.

  12. Rina–Whoa! That's harsh, especially the "tawdry." I can't tell if you're giving up too soon. Maybe you should let this story go, but I'd try to stay away from such strong self-criticism. Start something new and give yourself a long vacation from this one. Watch out, though. If you often call your work bad names, you can infect future projects too.

  13. @Rina: The book you wrote probably has a lot of good things in it, but maybe they just don't work well together in the combination you tried. If you keep working on other projects, you may find a way to re-use or re-frame those good elements in a way that fits them better.

    An example: the third short story I ever wrote was a melodramatic "verse-fic", a story interspersed with lines from a poem. Naturally, it was horrible. A month later, I cut out the poem and rewrote the thing as a memoir–still didn't work because of the melodrama. This year I came back to the story and drew out the most interesting thing, my MC, and wrote him a new story, fiction this time, and it turned out okay, because the struggle that dominates the original story was reduced to a paragraph in this version, which instead focuses on his relationship with one of his friends. Because I reshuffled the elements in the story, it worked better this time.

    So maybe, you could set aside the story like Ms. Levine says. After some time, you could go back to it and ask yourself, "What are the best things (characters, plot threads, ideas, etc) in this story? Could they work better if I took them out of this story and put them into another?" Sometimes, it just takes a little time to figure out what you are trying to say, and what medium you should use to say it.

    Sorry about the long comment. I hope it helps!

  14. Very thoughtful comment from the website:

    @Rina: I agree with Sophie's fantastic advice–sometimes the worth of a story lies in using it for spare parts later on. That's what I've had to do several times with my oldest project–I too found that my main character was what kept me interested in the story, but the rest was free to change. There's another thing–if there is anything in your story that still interests or excites you–even a little bit–there are no rules against dropping the rest and going with what you've got. If the setting is boring or the plot drags, then change it. Here I'm reminded of the discussion a couple posts ago: you're not the same person you were five minutes ago, or two weeks ago, or nine years ago. Sometimes you need to look not at your story, but at yourself: are you still the kind of person who could write this story? Do you still want to write this story? If you don't, then fine! There's my last point: If there isn't anything left in your story that you like (and here we're talking you and you alone–never mind about pleasing others at this point), then don't be afraid to drop it and move on to something else. You can always come back if you want to, and after all, writing is supposed to be fun!
    Hope this was helpful…

    @welliewalks and Sophie:
    I've struggled with this too, and I think that there are a lot more situations than one would think in which having a fairly homogenous cast is perfectly normal. For example, clearly all the people at a school for future knights are going to be in good shape, and the people in an isolated village in the mountains somewhere are all going to be the same race, etc, etc. I also don't know if it's advisable to write in people of different races just to please your readers when you're not really comfortable with it–botching the what-it's-like-to-be-Asian/black/white/Aboriginal/etc card is, I think, worse than not trying to play it at all. At the same time, people of all races have different builds, and every club, house and village has a tallest person and a shortest, a skinniest and a heaviest. Unless your characters are constantly running around and toting ten-pound battle axes, some of them are going to be heavier than others. It doesn't have to come up all the time, but it's always good fodder for when Betty and Julia get in a fight and start taking cheap shots…
    And one more thing: while on the subject of the Narnia books, I read somewhere that C.S. Lewis has been accused of being racist, as the dark-skinned Calormenes are the bad guys and the light-skinned Narnians/Archenlanders are the good guys–in fact, I think he actually mentions in The Horse and His Boy something about how great it was to see the Narnians with their fair hair and light faces instead of the dark Calormenes… or something like that. Anyway, maybe it's my biased love of CS Lewis, but I think the point he's making is one of familiarity. He's an Englishman writing for an English audience–of course we're glad to see the English-looking guys–they're a burst of familiarity on a scene where everything is uncertain. So I guess my point is that sometimes your characters need to match your audience, at least a little bit, so they can identify with their feelings.

    Hope that was helpful… I get the feeling I started rambling at the end there 🙂

  15. More from the website:

    Regarding Clara Warford's post about her writing buddy, I just wanted to say that mine is the same exact way. I've just learned to get more out of our writing exchanges by giving her my comments and then specifically asking her what she would change about my story if it were hers. More recently, I've begun writing down my comments about her story on post-its as I read, and she has taken up doing the same. Just thought that might help;-)

  16. Sometimes it helps to not show something off while your revising, too. People sometimes fall in love with things that just have to change, and it can really mess you up to hear `but you can't get rid of that character' or `that person can't die!' when you know they have to. It's tempting to stick to the original idea in order not to disappoint someone, when really, once they see the complete work and what you've done, they'd probably like it better anyway. (Or maybe they'll still prefer the original -but if they're a good friend they're not going to actually hate you for dropping a minor character, or cutting out their favorite line of dialogue.)

  17. From the website:

    I mostly write fan fiction, usually oneshots, but today I looked back at my work And realized most of it was tradgedy. I almost always follow the same pattern (and even sometimes with the same characters!) one side of the love intrest gets hurt/dies. Funeral/waiting for help/backup scene or touching scene about how they can't stop and abandon the mission. Surviving character goes into deep depression and seclusion, if other one survives, (it's usually the male that goes into the depression) looks like she has it all together but is also depressed, 1) Commiting suicide, 2) Ends with them crying/sighing/just sitting there sadly.
    How can I break away from tradgedy and violence? (because while I'm too young to use sexual themes in my stories, I do use an awful lot of
    violence) Because I enjoy, however morbid it seems, a character's hopelessness, depression, and loneliness, however, I not many, if any, readers enjoy that sort of thing. I also don't have a problem with death at all (though some of my stories have made me cry) and enjoy writing death scenes (I have one for every character I've written about) and love writing about topics like insanity and death. But when I try to write funny, happy stories, I reread them and I realize there is a definite 'Fake Smiling' air to them. How can I write happier stories without seemingly trying too hard?

    Farina–I'm adding your question to my list.

  18. More from the website:

    My friend and I are planning on cowriting a book. We have each come up with our characters whose point of view we're going to be writing from and, personally, I'm pumped. There are a couple of problems though. First of all, is the obvious. We're two different writers with different ideas. I'm afraid we'll start disagreeing, then arguing and that the whole thing will fall apart. The other thing is that I'm used to writing fantasy and this is going to be a historical fiction. I'm afraid that I might not be as good at historical fiction as fantasy. Have you got any words of wisdom for me?

  19. Alison–I've never co-written a book, but it sounds like fun. Those of you who have, please comment. I say, Go for it and argue when you need to. If the worst happens and the story does fall apart, you'll still have learned something. Likewise for historical fiction, it will be a learning experience. All my novels but one are fantasy and that one, DAVE AT NIGHT, is historical fiction.

  20. More from the website:

    This is for the blog, but it's not letting me comment there:

    Thanks to all who spoke about my NaNovel problems. I get down about it easily, esp. after all the hard revising, and really I am worried about my plot being too juvenile and simplistic.

    Charlotte – I like your comments, thanks!
    Both the one about my question, and the one about C. S. Lewis's writing. It makes a lot of sense, your explanation.

    Farina – I write some kinda morbid stuff too by times, and I don't mind "a character's hopelessness, depression, and loneliness" just in and of itself. In fact, I generally appreciate a few poignant, emotional parts in a story. I don't think it'll be held against you by all readers. But . . . I don't really write plain humor either, and often when I try to write purely happy stories, they turn out darker than I intended. I've decided that I'm not going to fight that. So I take my characters through some pretty bad things… but I try not to leave them there. I believe in hope, and I believe that life goes on and joy returns beyond just about any catastrophe, and it's part of my writing philosophy that I show that. Because that's what, in my opinion, makes all that "hopelessness, depression, and loneliness" become part of the journey, and the ashes that the phoenix rises from.

    Whew, I'm waxing poetical. But I hope that helps, Farina. And did I ever tell you about my werewolf stories? Depressing. Until the end. That's how I can stand them.
    Greetings from a fellow drama-writer to another!

  21. @ Charlotte and Sophie- Your comments are really great and thought prevoking. I do need to say one thing: I have used different races (Native American for a sub character and others), and I use short and tall… I see what you mean, about pushing myself and learning how to write from different points of view. I'll totally try! Thank you!
    @ Alison- I am excited to hear that you want to co write a book because I have co written a book (with my writing best friend!) and it was great. I think you need to do two things: 1. Don't worry TOO much about not being good at historical fiction or disagreeing. It happens, and you'll learn something, either way. And, if the story doesn't go well, it's okay because it's not like it's for a grade or for publishing. It's just for fun! 2. Talk to your partner about how you feel. You might decide to come up with a plan, maybe not. But either way, you may find that she feels the same way or she'll know that you need more encouragent. Overall, I think you should just go for it and have a ton of fun! hope this helps!

  22. From the website:

    An interesting post (i tried posting this on the comments page but it didn't work out). I usually edit as I write though, which is probably not the best idea. On the bright side, I do tend to keep what ever I write that I dont like in a separate document. It allows me to take away the parts that I love and don't add anything to story, yet at the same time I can keep them for if I ever need them. The myth of Orpheus is my favorite one, yet it never occurred to do such a prompt. I think it will be very interesting to try it.

    @ Farina

    I don't think there is anything wrong with writing stories that are dark, tragic, and full of death. The worrying thing is if your stuck in a rut and write the same kind of stories (with the same patterns of happenings and similar characters) over and over again.

    My advice would be to expose yourself to different types of writing—that are different to what you'll normally read. Reading exposes you to different ideas in writing; especially, if you pay attention to how to writer portrays the story, which parts you find the most enjoyable, and why you find it enjoyable (or not). Read stories that are really dark and read stories that are really funny and light-hearted. Read from genres you wouldn't think of reading. By reading from different kinds of stories and writers—it will, subconciously or not, show on the page.

    If dark stories are what you enjoy, then don't force yourself to write funny and happy stories if that's not what your comfortable with; writing should be fun and enjoyable for you. It helps though to create a story that goes with your strengths yet also challenges you to expand your abilities. Write a story where a character's death and descent to insanity becomes comedic and funny. Morbid humor, dark humor, sarcasm, and wit… maybe such different kind of humor would be easier for you to write right now and then later you can use what you learned in writing a dark comedy to write a lighter, comedic story.

    If even dark comedies are difficult, remember that surprises, irony, unexpected twists, and exaggerations tends to create a lighter atmosphere to a depressing situation. Think of characters who always fail to accomplish what they mean to do –like clumsiness in the most opportune moment or giggles in a serious situation. It never hurts to make fun of your characters, either. Making light of a situation or seeing it in an expected perspective, often makes people laugh. Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter series always made me laugh because what she usually said were so unexpected…


  23. More:

    Thanks, that’s very helpful…although I still have one cloudy area. I’m probably being an idiot and overlooking something obvious, but well, I’m wondering how much, um, delving is necessary? That may not be the right word, but (this is the only example I can think of right this second) on Food Network Star, the judges are always telling the Food Network wannabies to show the viewers more personality and more of their background. They say they can’t get enough of it when they learn more about each hopeful and, well, do you think our readers are the same way about our characters? Or would they be fine if we just went through the series of actions without bothering to really do some soul searching? This sort of seems like a rambling post, but it’s the only way I can think of to put it. If you can decipher what I’m trying to say, do you have any advice? Thanks, and sorry for having such a confusing question!

    Emma – I'm adding your question to my list.

  24. I know I've suffered from the Revising Bug a LOT with my current story – I've thrown three complete versions out already and am now working on my fourth. Sometimes I despair at it, but each time the story gets a little bit better. I'm already seeing major improvements in this new version, and I just hope that I don't end up editing the heck out of my story to a point where it loses its life.

  25. Gail I have a question for you, and I would really appreciate it if you answered, is your book The Princess Test in past or present tense I always have trouble trying to figure out myself. So I usually ask someone else but no one else around me knows either I need to know because I have to do a report in school on a book written in past tense and I wanted to use yours. Please reply I would be so grateful if you do. Thanks!

  26. Sorry I really don't know how I do this or if I'm doing it all wrong….anyway…I really wanted to come to your Summer Workshop this year but I couldn't find a way to make it down here in IL. I just wanted to know how it's going or if you could post some of the homework you gave the kids maybe. Perhaps I can come next year(I'm praying.) I hope you see this……thanks!

  27. girl_artist says:

    I’m revising, and I think I’m doing well. I still have a voice to the book, and I’m making the book better and more interesting. I cut the prose I don’t need, and that makes my book stronger.

    I’ve been working hard, though. The thought of revising isn’t easy, though I just do it!

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