By Susan Wilson
Oak Bluffs, MA, USA
This past August I participated in a writers’ event where I got to share a stage with some exceptional writers and talk about Rejection, Revision and…what comes next. The original title of the panel was actually Rejection, Revision and Reaching for the Wine, which appealed to me on a certain level, but the organizers thought that, as the panel was scheduled for the early morning segment, the wine allusion was a bit off putting. I might beg to disagree, but I went along with the flow.
During the course of that hour, I had to admit that I am thoroughly protected from utter rejection by my brilliant agents who work with me to come up with attractive story
ideas that will appeal to my editor. Thankfully, for me, it’s
been a long time since I received an actual rejection; it’s more that I get
gentle admonitions from my agents to try harder. We just know you can do it.
Leaving the first R aside for the moment, the second R, revision, is something that I embrace. Sidebar: My husband is a high school English teacher and one of the hardest things he has to do is get young writers to understand that revision isn’t a bad thing, or a commentary on talent. It’s another chance to get it right. Years ago, long before I could claim “writer” on my tax forms, I met a woman who was a local poet. To me, pretty much a perfect stranger, she announced that she was writing a novel and it was the best thing she’d ever done. Even though I was only an aspiring writer at the time, I was shocked by her hubris. Who can know that what they’re writing is already perfect? She did. Her certainty was astounding. I couldn’t figure out how she could view her work with enough objectivity to be a judge of it. That’s what readers are for. Whether that reader is a member of a writing group, or an agent, it’s that fresh set of eyes that will let you know if the story is interesting, entertaining, readable, and above all, credible. Even the most outlandish science fiction or fantasy needs to be credible to the reader, encouraging that oft-referenced willing suspension of disbelief. There is an implied wall between the author and the reader, and there must be no breaks in it caused by poor writing.
In my opinion, the most important rule is never have someone who loves you be your critic. Friends, sisters, even spouses are usually not the best critics because they have feelings for you, and who isn’t one’s bestie’s best cheerleader? Then there are those who take on the role of critic a little too enthusiastically and point out every flaw, even typos. I’ve been in that position myself, and believe me, criticizing a loved one’s work is not easy. Egos are fragile, and handing pages over to a close friend or relative takes a tremendous amount of courage. So, my advice—don’t do it. You don’t want to end up writing to one of those advice columnists to help you deal with the fact your sister or spouse or cousin didn’t give you the feedback you were looking for and now you can’t have them at your Super Bowl party. Better to hand your pages over to a stranger on the bus than your fiancé.
But, getting back to revision, as I said, revision is the next chance to make what might be okay into something that is good; the chance to take what is good and make it as perfect as it is possible to be. It’s not punishment. When I get through the first draft of this essay, I’ll get to take what is a lump of clay stuck through with concepts and a vague idea, and mold it into something that is cohesive and, of course, readable. Interesting. Entertaining. I’ve often used the sculpture metaphor for the process of writing and revising. It’s in the removal of the unnecessary that the beauty of the object is found. It’s an especially apt analogy when you think about deletion. I believe it was Isabelle Allende who said apropos of revision: Kill your darlings. Believe you me, I’ve left an impressive body count in my “cuts” folder. There isn’t a writer among us who doesn’t just fall in love with a paragraph or a turn of phrase, or a character, only to realize that it just doesn’t work in the story. I have whole chapters relegated to the dustbin of deletions. Sometimes I fantasize that my next novel will be built upon the foundation of the deletions from the ten before it. A patchwork quilt of revision turned into something useful.
When I speak of revision, I’m not talking about editing. That’s a whole other beast. Editing is the honing of sentences from rough to meaningful with generous application of the rules of grammar, punctuation and word choice. Revision is exactly that, a re-vision of the work. More than once I’ve written a third of a book only to discover that it’s being told in the wrong way, that the goal or the point of the story isn’t at all what I thought. More than once, I’ve completely started over. It is amazing to me that the nugget of the idea I had for a story gives way to a story I didn’t have in mind when I started. A story about an old man lying on his kitchen floor waiting for help becomes the story of a couple and their dog and the stranger who enters their life, changing it forever.
I’m not suggesting that I always love what revision requires. Writing upwards of thirty thousand words only to remove ten thousand of them can be painful. It isn’t just words, it’s the filament of foreshadowing and plot development that have also to be extracted so that there remains no trace of the abandoned thoughts, or, worse, characters. In the above referenced re-work, a fully developed character was reduced to a casual mention. Still, I knew what motivated him.
Going back to that first R, rejection, I think that in some ways, revision is a byproduct of rejection, or its half-sibling, faint praise. It means that the work can be better. That laziness shows. That no one writes with perfection from first word to last period. I bet even Shakespeare revised. Or maybe, given the writing implements that he had, ink and quill, expensive parchment, he wrote more slowly, choosing his words ever so carefully. I can whisk away my typos and errors in judgment, I waste no ink. I don’t have to hone my nibs. I can slice and dice and rearrange to my heart’s content. No lambs have died to make my parchment. But, I digress and I should cut out that last bit.
And then there is that final R, the reaching for the wine. Or the mug of now cold coffee at my hand. Let’s call it the R for reward. For doing the job, for putting ego aside, for being willing to learn from others. For keeping fingers on the keyboard and posterior in the chair until the day’s requisite word count is measured. And then going back and making it better.
Under the excellent moderation of Alexandra Styron, we three impaneled writers shared our war stories, to the amusement of the audience, many of whom, I hazard to say, were glad to hear that all writers are subject to the two Rs as defined by the panel’s eventual title. Misery loves company. Some folks just thought that we told good self-deprecating stories. We got some laughs and, I hope, encouraged these aspiring scribblers to look past rejection and embrace revision. The rewards are many.
Susan Wilson is a New York Times bestselling author. Her newest novel, Two Good Dogs, will be published in March 2017.