Imagine writing a short story. Perhaps it is twenty pages long. The story has a beginning, a middle, and end. It has characters, setting, conflicts, resolutions. It comments, implicitly, on a number of themes.
For your short story, you can see all these elements–the plot, the characters, the themes–in one session of reading. You can sit down with your short story, read it from beginning to end, fix the parts that aren’t working. Then you could read the whole thing again, determine what still isn’t working, fix the parts you overcorrected–where there was no description and now there is too much, where action occurred too gradually but is now too sudden. And then you could read it yet again. You could literally read it dozens of times each day, making small corrections each time, until your story wasn’t even a story anymore but a perfect, polished jewel.
Now imagine writing a novel. Maybe your novel is three hundred pages long. Each chapter is its own short story, and there are dozens of them, each one needing to properly balance and reflect all the others. It takes several days, at a minimum, just to read the whole thing, much less make any changes.
How will you possibly revise this beast?
For my last novel, The Divine Sharpness in the Heart of God, I wrote the whole thing through (on a blog, as many of you will remember). After that, I had planned to start a revision back at the beginning. But I wasn’t happy with the ending, so I went back ten chapters and wrote a new ending. Then I started at the beginning and revised the entire thing, tightening up rambling sequences, adding more description where it was too spare, adding one new chapter in the middle. Then I reread the whole thing again checking for typos and wonky sentences.
After that, I was pretty much done. There were some areas that I still thought could be strengthened. But to strengthen those areas, I would need to make changes that might disrupt other parts of the novel, leading to more and more revisions that could possibly unravel the entire structure of the novel. Every change you make in a novel is a giant commitment, because you can’t just spend an hour reading the entire text to make sure the change is working. The change might help the novel, or it might mess it up, and it’s often difficult to tell which.
So I stopped revising. I put out a self-published version for my friends and family and began sending the novel to agents and contests. I moved forward, wrote a few stories and articles. I planned my next book and began to write it.
Then I got feedback from one of the agents I had sent The Divine Sharpness to. She loved the book but had a few issues with it. I agreed with everything she had to say. So I decided to table the new projects and go back to revising the old one.
So here I go. I’m changing all kinds of things; the characterizations, a bit of the plot, the ending. It’s extra daunting to go in and start messing around with something that already had a finished-ness to it, but I know it has to be done. Part of me feels like: still this? I’ve been working on this novel for years…three years, it turns out (I had to go look it up). Well, it’s gonna be a few months more. I am predicting six months, and then, after that, I’m sure I’ll have to revise it again.
That’s okay. I am good at long-term projects. I am a master of delayed gratification. When I first saw kids taking the marshmallow test (kids who can wait five minutes before eating a marshmallow earn a second marshmallow), I knew exactly how five-year-old-me would have reacted: I would have asked, if I can wait ten minutes, can I get two extra marshmallows?
Someday, this novel will be finished. And I’ll look back on the days when I was writing it, and revising it, and revising it again, and I’ll think: wasn’t that the most fun I ever had?
I am singing the “REVISION!” song to this tune (the traditional song of my ancestors, the New York Jews):