Revision: Making a Mess
We’ve all been there. Standing in front of the closet door, seeing how it really does close, how nothing’s pouring out–it’s all tidy and contained. Or you look around your office space, and everything is on a shelf, the floor is clean and swept, the books are on their shelves. Even your kitchen–you’ve done the dishes, put them away, wiped off the countertops, and mopped. It’s all pretty and shiny. But you know.
You know that underneath the shininess, it’s not all so good. You’ve got toddler dishes stuck away in the back, even though all your kids are in high school. You’ve got clothes that haven’t fit in five years and jeans that–yeah, you love how they feel, but–the hems are shredded and you lose your keys every time you put them in the pocket with the hole. The office shelves look neat, but the filing cabinet drawers barely close on the old papers you don’t need anymore, and the books…okay, you can leave the books. 🙂
Although, maybe not. In every revision, you will probably have to kill a darling. Or three. Which, yes, can hurt as much as donating those books to the library sale.
Revision is so much like cleaning shelves, or that office, or those kitchen drawers. You’ve written a story that has a cute voice and great humor, that creates images in the readers’ mind. It has a beginning and an end and at least some kind of middle. It looks good. Okay, pretty good. But, just like staring at the closed closet door, you know it’s not good enough. You know you’ve got stuff to throw away, things to replace, and–hoo, boy–this space needs some serious organization.
So you open the door. Or the drawers. Or the filing cabinet. And you start cleaning.
What you start with is a mess. An absolute, no-space-to-maneuver-around-the-piles, where-the-heck-did-THAT-come-from mess. And it’s hideous. You have no idea what to throw away, no idea where to store it until you’re sure it has to go, no idea what piles to sort everything into, and you really can’t believe any of this will fit back into the space it came from.
I’m so there right now. I realized over the weekend that I was at that stage on one of my picture books where I don’t know enough about it to start revising. Oh, sure, yeah, I could play with some words, I could move a few things around, shift character roles, but that’s not good enough. That’s right on a par with taking out the two blouses that have never fit and handing them down to your teenage daughter, who’s been borrowing them for the past year anyway. That’s up there with moving the tupperware with the not-seen-in-years lid to the bottom of the pile and telling yourself you’ll use foil to cover the food. You’re cleaning the surface of things, but leaving the real depths untouched.
I’ve said this many times, but it always seems to come back to me as a surprise. Not the fact that I have to do this tearing apart, not the fact that I have to spread all the pieces out and throw a bunch away. But how painful it is. How horribly and overwhelmingly messy that mess actually is. H.A.R.D. That’s what revision, true revision, is.
What keeps me going? Thinking about that truly cleaned closet–the one that has room for me to do a little supplemental, hanger-filling shopping. The kitchen cupboard that now not only has room for new glasses, but isn’t making me feel silly for hanging onto plastic cups that nobody in the house wants to drink from. The chance to rearrange the books I have left so they’re actually visible or to discover an awesome manuscript I’d shoved into a file and forgotten about. Space, freedom, and hope.
No pain, no gain. Trite, but true. When the alternative is hanging onto something that you aren’t completely happy with, there really is no other route. Standing still is not an option. Moving forward–even with all the chaos and discombobulation–is.