Under Construction: Revisions as Home Improvement

Writing Process: Revisions

[ANNOUNCEMENTS follow: Barry Lyga interview with Lucienne Diver]

Most people look forward to revision work with about as much ardor as they do home improvement projects. Carnage, debris, dry wall dust that permeates every conceivable nook and cranny of both your house and your person: such projects can bend the welded iron of the stoutest soul. The flush of excitement at the new creation is gone; we are down to the leaking pipes and creaking floorboards.

And yet, I confess to be very fond of the revision process. I am also a fan of old houses with good bones that need fleshing out in the latest trim. A blank slate may be inviting, but there is something wonderfully challenging and delightfully inspired about turning a completed structure into a show-place. Let’s enter, for a moment, into that aging Victorian you’ve signed the papers for. All right. Someone has put the staircase in a ridiculous position. Well? If you can’t move the stairs, then you must solve the problem more creatively. It is a puzzle. A riddle. And the surprising solutions may result: the creation of doors that didn’t before exist, passageways to let in more light, fixtures you weren’t planning on, but that seem so right in the new space.

Real home improvement is not about painting over the damaged wall or using a bushy house plant to hide a broken bit of molding. It is not slap-dash. It is careful; it is meticulous; it is rewarding: a once derelict structure rises from its crumbling foundations, a testament to craftsmanship, patience and ingenuity.

Revision requires–demands–the same careful attention to detail, along with a fearless desire to improve, despite the mess or the cost. That means looking with new eyes (which is, incidentally, what re-vision denotes). It also means kicking the puppy or, as Hemingway put it, murdering your darlings. Yes, perhaps you bought the house primarily for its beautifully carved entryway. But if the entry must go to make way for a new wing, then there is no point crying over the loss–or worse, trying to cram it into new and unfitting surrounds. (PS: in the case of truly exceptional pieces, you can always put them in storage for the next project).

And so, here’s to revision. I’m in the thick of it myself right now–in the final edit of Maresbeth Chronicles, I compressed 1.5 years into 3 months and pitched a side story I was really fond of. But in the process, I gained space to develop the crucial showdown between Jacob Maresbeth and the nefarious hematologist, Dr. Malloy. Very, very worth it. But of course, like other improvement projects, these things cannot be accomplished in a day. Or a week. Or even months and months (and sometimes years). We can’t tackle all projects the same way or on the same schedule. And, for most of them, we require distance to gain perspective. Take a tour through other “houses” (that is, read good books). Take a holiday from the house you are living in (that is, step away for a while and work on something else). Author Neil Gaiman has some very good advice in this respect on his Advice to Authors:

The best advice I can give on this is, once it’s done, to put it away until you can read it with new eyes. Finish the short story, print it out, then put it in a drawer and write other things. When you’re ready, pick it up and read it, as if you’ve never read it before. If there are things you aren’t satisfied with as a reader, go in and fix them as a writer: that’s revision.

So. Don’t be afraid of revision–embrace it as a challenge.

You never know what kind of story will emerge.

It may even surprise you.

That’s all for today’s Fiction Reboot. Tune in tomorrow–and don’t forget, Friday is the Fiction Feature. If you have some titles you would like to recommend for show-casing, let me know.


Lucienne Diver recently interviewed Barry Lyga, author of I Hunt Killers. Please check it at [interview: Lyga]–another one for the summer reading list!

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