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Long ago, when I was unpublished and writing only picture books because I was afraid to try a novel, one of my manuscripts interested several editors, who asked for revision.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!