Writer in Residence · 07/09/2012

Revising Revision Metaphors

A linked list of all posts from Revision Month can be found here.

Revision as sports movie, as cleared-out room, as changing lenses, as — as in today’s essay by Cam Terwilliger — ballet. Will we ever get enough of metaphors?

Below, Terwilliger talks about some of what I was trying to talk about yesterday, but seems to make it make sense. Maybe he’s on to something with ballet. Or maybe we each need our own metaphors. It’s easier if we can think of the process in terms that seem less mystical. That, in some ways, is what this month is all about.

I like the idea of iterations. I always have — starting out as a math geek and becoming a person who will happily read the same story over and over again, or an author who goes over and over the same thematic ground. Sometimes it can take an author an entire lifetime of working out an idea to get to the truth of it, because truth is not definite or definitive. We need all those iterations. Looking at something once is not enough.

Maybe that’s why we keep talking about the same strategies here. Or maybe it’s my fault, in ordering. Maybe we should wait to talk about rewriting again. But I wanted to get the metaphor thing off our shoulders.

Tomorrow, we’ll get back to listing other concrete revision tips.

As I was writing this introduction, by the way, the site timed me out or something, and I had to rewrite from scratch. A case in which rewriting seems to have worked against me. I’m not sure this is clearer than before, or contains all I meant to say.

Sometimes, I think about trying to write on a typewriter (a thought I have had many times, really, and have even put into practice once). Technology can work against us — not only by how quickly things can disappear, but by how easy it is to change something, and how easy it is to change something back. Typewriters made writers have to retype their drafts. It built in at least this revision strategy.

I can’t imagine retyping my entire novel each time I want to make changes, though. I would have had far fewer editing sessions, or I would have attempted to revise and edit everything at once. Today, I will type a few small changes into my document for the umpteenth time, changes I might eventually take back. I might have let this novel go a long time ago, if I had only a typewriter. Now I’ve almost talked myself into typewriters again.

What I want — what we all want from our writing — is the best iteration possible. Although this is ruining my iteration metaphor, since an iteration is not a version but an exact copy. The changes that occur make me think of evolution, mutations in those copies that lead to improvement or annihilation.

If only we had the utter confidence of Time.

Leave your own revision metaphors in the comments.

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Revision Metaphors: Everyone’s Got One, by Cam Terwilliger

Fiction writers love metaphors. But they especially seem to love them when talking about the winding, excruciating, much-detested stages of revision. It seems like we’re hardwired to crave the perfect descriptor for this drawn-out struggle, which by its nature is nebulous, complex, and ungraspable. “Please!” we say. Give us anything that makes this mess of a story feel clear and concrete.

By this point, I’ve seen revising compared to a slew of physical tasks, some more inventive than others. Here’s a few I’ve noted: panning for gold, surgery, evolution, gardening, sewing, painting, cartography, marathon running, and — one of my favorites — Roman mythology. For more on the Roman mythology one, check out Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium.

But the most common revision metaphor you see is the “construction and renovation” metaphor. In this one, you’re asked to imagine a dilapidated house (i.e. your story), and it’s your job to knock out the walls, put down new tile, replace the roof etc. Once you’ve got that big structural stuff handled, then you go ahead with the details — the accent wall, the delightfully trimmed cabinets, the perfect doorknobs. A few years ago, Benjamin Percy explored this idea for Poets & Writers, in an article called “Home Improvement.” It’s an interesting one, and certainly worth your eyeball time.

One reason the construction metaphor is so great is that it suggests that you’re always working with the material you’ve got in front of you (your house/story). When you’re a carpenter at work, you have to repair and build onto the structure you’re hired to work on. This is obviously a good idea. You want to capitalize on the work you’ve done so far, slowly improving it, step by step (first the living room, then the kitchen, then the bathroom). Thinking about stories in this incremental way is helpful for beginning writers. It keeps them from completely recreating a story from scratch with each draft. Instead, you slowly but steadily approach your goal. It makes it manageable. First you handle the characters, then the structure, then the dialogue etc.

As you might guess, I subscribe to the construction metaphor pretty heavily…

But, not completely.

In the last few years, I’ve also noticed a different feeling about how revision works bubbling up inside me. Often, when we feel obligated to work on what’s already there we can find ourselves getting into pretty sticky situations. Specifically, we get hung up on the sunk cost we have in the current text. When you have the draft in front of you, staring you in the face, it’s impossible not to think of this fact, paragraph, after paragraph, after paragraph. You keep trying to find the way to make the scenes you already have into scenes that work. This can be very — very — distracting.

Though we know revision means we have to change things, we’re often too afraid to make the radical changes necessary. Instead we keep tinkering within the circumscribed bounds of what is already there. Starting over just seems so daunting. It seems like an impossible amount of work. But, in reality, starting all over is often less work in the end. Starting all over can free you up. It allows you to get away from the flawed details that are dominating your attention. It allows you to move forward.

For me, starting over with a story always involves retyping it from scratch. I print out a draft, make some edits and comments on the hard copy, then begin typing it again, in a brand new Word document. This simple, but eye-opening technique is one that Pamela Painter regularly spreads throughout the halls of Emerson College, and for good reason. The basic idea, as she describes it, is that you won’t bother to retype the wasted words.

But for me, retyping stories has become even more meaningful. More than just siphoning off the detritus, retyping makes each draft into a new, more fluid performance of the story. Though I do get a running start by retyping the draft closely at first, I inevitably veer far away from it. The best part of doing this is that it recaptures the momentum of a first draft, but deepens the story at the same time. The feeling is a little hard to explain. In many ways, the story becomes very different. But also — despite the difference — it feels “more like itself.”

Basically, it works like this: if I were to summarize the story in a paragraph, it would be exactly the same summary as the story I had in the previous draft. But if you were to actually read the story, the text itself would be transformed. This transformation occurs because the literary short story isn’t really about what happens in the plot. The literary short story is about how the plot is told, and how the characters are changed by it. In the writing itself, this manifests in what details you linger on, what order you present things in, and how the point-of-view stitches it all together.

By retyping, you always find new ways to make your story do several things at once — move the plot forward, provide characterization, deploy the images. As such, your drafts begins to feel more developed, more coherent, more clear, more surprising — more everything. Additionally, this strategy precludes the possibility that you might write an entirely new story, one filled with new (and equally difficult) flaws. Instead, you transport the spirit and intention of the story into a distilled form. Instinctually, you’d think that starting all over would move you further away from finishing. But, in reality, starting all over has moved you closer to the final version.

But wait. What does all this have to do with revision metaphors? Well, let me tell you.

To me, the experience of starting over, trying to enact the story in a more truthful way, doesn’t jive with the construction metaphor at all. Under the construction metaphor, this process would be like repeatedly demolishing then rebuilding your house. That just sounds insane.

Instead, the retyping process more clearly resembles ballet practice (even if that’s less manly than carpentry). In the ballet metaphor, each draft is a rehearsal. You keep retyping the story over and over again until you internalize its concerns, its textures, its characters. Each time it becomes clearer and stronger, just like a dancer that nails his routine better and better with each practice run. He keeps practicing until — finally — he executes it perfectly.

What I like most about this metaphor is the fluidity it suggests. What matters most in this situation isn’t specifically what you have on the page. It’s about what should be on the page. This way of thinking is absolutely necessary. You can always write more pretty sentences. The question in your mind as you revise should not be: “How can I make these sentences prettier?” It should be, “What would be the ideal sentences for this story, out of all the ones I’m capable of writing?” For me, I can only know this by putting my story through many iterations — many rehearsals. After a while, I start to know the story so well that I can recreate it without following my draft, like a dancer whose muscles contain the memory of all his potential steps. When you view revision using this process — with the ballet metaphor — a story suddenly seems less like a structure and more like an act.

That being said, I’m a little doubtful that this metaphor holds up for the long haul of novel revision. Which only goes to show you why there are so many different revision metaphors in the first place. Each one is imperfect. Each needs a little revision itself. It’s enough to make you totally crazy. Which only makes me think that somebody should use psychotherapy as a metaphor for revision…

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posted by Matt Salesses