On Revision | Karen Kao

Revision is an ugly word among writers. It means that what you’ve written is no good and you know it. It may mean that you’ll have to start fresh, over and over, the way J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings. Or maybe you need to dig a whole new tunnel to enter your story. Whatever form of revision you’re contemplating, you know this for sure. You're not going to be done any time soon.

I’m in the process of revising my novel manuscript for Peace Court. For better or for worse, I revise the Tolkien way. It’s a page one rewrite, a step off a cliff, a fumbling toward a vision of a novel I can just barely see.

The fact that I’ve started revision at all is a huge moral victory. You see, in order to revise, you first have to overcome rage and fear.


On Rage

The rage comes from feeling misunderstood. You project that rage onto all those stupid readers who question your authorial authority or don’t get your cunning references. Rage is for arrogant writers like me whose work needs no improvement.

That rage hangs around for quite a long time until, inevitably, it turns inward. Call it self-loathing. Self-loathing gives you 20/20 vision. You can see all the manifold ways in which your manuscript truly sucks.

Now is the time when doubt creeps in. You suspect (and not for the first time) that you don’t know what you’re doing. Perhaps you never did. Getting stuck in a manuscript is exactly like walking into quicksand. You know you shouldn’t flail and yet you do.

The worst thing about this internal rage is how very quietly it sneaks up on you. Alice Munro knows how that feels.
I could be writing away one day and think I’ve done very well; I’ve done more pages than I usually do. Then I get up the next morning and realize I don’t want to work on it anymore. When I have a terrible reluctance to go near it, when I would have to push myself to continue, I generally know that something is badly wrong.
— Alice Munro, “The Art of Fiction No. 137”, Paris Review, Issue 131, Summer 1994. Accessed 30 Jan 2019


On Fear

Fear lives just around the corner from self-loathing. The fear of abandoning this manuscript. The fear of abandoning writing altogether. The problem with all these fears is that there are very good reasons for them.

First, the bar is impossibly high. James Baldwin wants every writer to produce “sentences as clean as a bone.” Junot Diaz, in his role as fiction editor of the Boston Review, wants:
fiction in which a heart struggles against itself, in which the messy unmanageable complexity of the world is revealed. Sentences that are so sharp they cut the eye.
— Writer Guidelines & Submissions, Boston Review. Accessed 28 Oct 2015.
Second, no one can agree on what is good writing. For every writer who offers a signpost to success, there is at least one other writer ready to point in the opposite direction. So when a fellow writer reads my novel manuscript and says my narrative voice is all muddled, I begin to despair.


On Hope

Then hope shows up in unlikely places. A newsletter lands in my inbox, spam I suppose. It contains an article on free indirect speech. Lo and behold, I find in that piece, not only a description of the kind of narrator I’m trying to create, but also tips on how to make that narrator work better.

I attend a lecture by a visiting author, Jennifer Clement, who talks about her own revision process. Once the shape of her novel is more or less clear, she sits down to draw a map. Here is the trailer park and there is the school. Then she draws a family tree to see all the many ways in which her characters interconnect. She may cut some or fold others. Clement maps her novels in the most literal sense of that term.

It’s not that I’m looking for revision strategies so much as I’m trying to muster the courage to start again. Because I know that this revision won’t be the last one. When my new draft is finished, the whole process starts again: the rage, the fear and, if I’m lucky, the hope, too.

Alice Munro knows this drill. Stuck writers are not happy campers. We beat our head against a brick wall. We snarl at our significant other for daring to breathe while you’re thinking. Then, while you’re in the dairy aisle at the grocery store fingering the butter, your great epiphany comes to you. You’re saved.

Or not.
I don’t even know if it makes the story better. What it does is make it possible for me to continue to write.
— Alice Munro,” The Art of Fiction No. 137″
That’s revision: finding the will to keep on writing.

Note: When this blog post was first published in February 2019 on my blog Shanghai Noir, I had just started the long slog of revision. I'm happy to say that I survived the process.


julia jones said…
I really liked this outspoken energetic blogpost. Very glad you have survived the experience but feel that I too would benefit by reading Alice Munro. Thank you for the tip
Umberto Tosi said…
... and I thought I was the only one experiencing all that fear, rage and self loathing. Such things didn't happen to REAL writers - who also, never have to revise! No. Really. Thank you for the candor and lucidity with which you discuss the challenges of our craft and the processes of overcoming them.
Ann Turnbull said…
Yes, thank you for this heartening post, Karen. I want to read these books, so I'm off now to look for The Dancing Girl and the Turtle...

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