Revision, Revised

This isn’t right. This isn’t even wrong.

– Wolfgang Pauli, allegedly

Revisions continue. Over on Twitter, I said “are these the wrong words, or are they just in the wrong order?”, and I thought I’d quickly unpack this here.

Revision and rewriting isn’t writing. By this point in the process, the book is fundamentally what it’s going to be. You can improve it, you can polish it, you can clarify it, you can remove crap bits or irrelevant bits, and – most valuable of all – you can look back at it and realise what you’ve written. You can’t, however, remake the book.

Caveat – you can, but generally speaking, you shouldn’t. For example, I’ve got to deliver the revised Book 2 by the end of January. It’s theoretically possible, if I ignored every other commitment and deadline, I could write a totally different take on the original concept and deliver that instead, a page one rewrite – but that would be madness and folly, as I’d likely be making a whole series of new problems instead of fixing the ones in the manuscript to hand – and if I blow the deadline, then I’m creating problems for everyone at the publisher. 

(I would say the most important lesson I’ve learned in my career is “don’t miss deadlines”, but the real lesson is “if you’re going to miss a deadline, let people know well in advance. Never go silent.”)

Some parts of the book have to be rewritten. There’s no getting around that.  I know I need to add at least two chapters that weren’t in the original submission, to give substance to one subplot. Other subplots are getting excised, and there are scenes where they crossover with the main plot that had to be scrapped and replaced.

Most of the process, though, is asking the question I started with – wrong words, or wrong order? If they’re the wrong words, they have to go. Usually, though, they’re just in the wrong order. Slide that paragraph up there, and three disjointed interactions A, B, C flow into each other B>A>C, and suddenly you’ve got a clearer emotional arc in the scene. Interweave those two character’s chapters, and you’ve got rising tension instead of the same event told twice. 

Asking yourself “how do I fix this?” implies that the text is a problem, and that the simplest solution is replacing it. Asking “how do I make this work?” makes you think of the text as a machine that’s clogged, or misaligned, and you’ve got to unjam it. 

This morning, I pulled a hideous gunky, dripping clog out of the gears of the plot, and it feels like it’s all spinning out of control. But the fact that it’s moving implies that there’s life in there.

The cloggy words are wrong. 

Most of the other words are right, even if they’re in the wrong order. And I’ve still got a month to patch and polish.

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