The Joys of Revision

WRITING 02In the olden days—maybe no further back than the sixties and seventies—writers used to brag about never having to revise. “First drafts are final” was the saying. Which made sense only a little further back in time during the pulp era when you were trying to make a living writing for 50+ different pulp magazines at a penny a word. Spend too much time revising and you’d spend the rest starving. I imagine a lot of that attitude was a holdover from those halcyon days but, as a more recent wisdom has it “Writing is revising.” Also not completely true on the face of it. Without a first draft, there is no revising. It’s more accurate to say writing begins with the first draft, it just doesn’t end there. It’s called “first draft” for a reason.

Or as I’ve said before (echoing wiser folk) “The job of a first draft is not to be good. The job of a first draft is to be done.” Because in order to fix something you must have something to fix. Pretty straightforward and obvious, I’d think. I mean, it’s great when a first draft turns out to be good.  I’ve had stories that needed little more than a decent line-edit and a few cuts and fills before they were ready to send out. Others….well, consider the example of “Moon Viewing at Shijo Bridge” (Realms of Fantasy, April 2006), probably one of the better-known Yamada stories. That one took twelve revision passes before I was happy with it. I know, because I counted them. Twelve. And it took every last one of them to get the story where it needed to be, where I knew it could be. I am very proud of that one, but it made me work for it.

However many it takes, don’t forget this is just to get the story down to your own satisfaction. However, and unless you are going the Indie route, you have to get the story down to another person’s satisfaction before the reader even sees the darn thing. That would be the editor of whatever publication you’re trying to sell it to. I was reminded of this recently when I sent a new story off and got a revision request back.

I have to confess now that, in general, I like revising. The hard part (aside from the writing itself) is letting a story go when you’ve done all you can at that time. If you hold a story until it’s perfect you’ll never publish anything, because they’re never perfect. Of course, it helps a great deal if you’re submitting to markets you know and respect—and honestly, why would you send your work anywhere else? Don’t you care about it? (Sorry, little tangent rant there). It also helps if you view a revision request not as more work but as yet another chance to improve the story. After all, one of a writer’s best traits after persistence is the inability to leave well enough alone. Because “well enough” isn’t. Fortunately I read the editor’s notes and agreed with pretty much all of it. A scene that still bothered me a little bothered them. Now I knew why. I rewrote it, shortened it, clarified it, which is all I think it needed. We’ll see if the editor agrees, but it was that one final nudge that got the change done, so I score it a win.

I did say “fortunately” above, because it’s not always the case. If writers aren’t perfect, neither are editors. Sometimes they miss a point, and don’t see the significance of a crucial scene. You do. Maybe there’s a reason he or she missed it. Maybe something you thought was clear before the scene happened, wasn’t. Maybe you’re the one who’s wrong. Or right. Sometimes you have to disagree and argue with the editor. That’s allowed, or is in any publication worth dealing with, provided you’re polite and make a solid case. You probably won’t lose the sale but you have to be prepared to let that happen, if the story’s integrity is at stake. Not to mention yours. After all, it’s your name on it.

It usually doesn’t come down to that. The editor wants to buy the best stories they can just as you want to write those stories. With enough revision, especially the right sort, you both win.

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