Sunday, April 3, 2011

Revisions: your story isn't you

I've heard many authors talk about how the characters in their stories seem to do things of their own volition, or about how the story seems to be outside of them rather than something they have created. It's easy to get this sensation when you're in the midst of creating - somewhat harder, I think, to retain it when you go back and start revisions.

In some ways, that sense of the story existing on its own can make us balk at revising. It's outside of us now, it has its own internal form and structure; the characters are who they are, and do what they do. In other ways, it's the sense that the story represents us as authors - that in a way, it is us - that causes us to hesitate.

I think considering the story as existing outside of us is perfectly fine. It may resist revision in some ways, but as long as we can consider the characters, the form and the structure from the outside, revision is possible. It's when we feel that we are the story that the revisions process can really defeat us. Then critique and requests for edits can feel like insults, and restructuring like an assault.

It's not that what we create isn't great. It isn't even that it's not publishable. I've seen whole books and famous movies that made me think, "needed one more rewrite." But though those books have been published and those movies produced, I always think it's a shame that that final revision never happened.

I've tried to train myself to take a particular view of my own work. To me, the story isn't me, and it isn't even what I've written. The story exists somewhere else - a plane of ideas, or some kind of Platonic dimension - where it exists in an ideal state. What I'm trying to do by writing it is capture that perfect spirit, that resonance, and convey it to my readers. Thus, revisions are the means by which I bring the story closer to the ideal. Maybe this is why I enjoy it so much!

Critique shows me how my readers understand what I'm doing; it gives me a sense of the pictures they see, and the resonance and intensity they feel. They aren't seeing the ideal form of the story any more than I am, but we're all trying, looking at it from different angles, and in that process we jointly get insight into what the story could be. Then once I feel I've glimpsed the way to get closer to what I want, I set about making it happen. Sometimes when I realize what the story really requires, and I feel a resonance come into place, it gives me goose bumps.

I'm not saying everyone has to think this way. What I'm trying to do is explain why I find revisions exciting instead of daunting. If what I'm sharing here helps any writer out there to take on the process of revisions with more relish and less sense of personal injury, then I'll be happy.