You’ve got to be Brave. The Revision Process at One AM.

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I’ve spent the whole weekend knee deep in revisions for my latest manuscript and I believe me, this aspect of writing is as challenging as writing the first full draft. Granted I forced my husband to be on twin duty the whole time, so he’s probably still recovering too, but it made me realize how much the writing process really is just that – a long and detailed (often arduous) process.

Writing historical fiction means that I have to incorporate a sense of time and place that is backed up by significant amounts of research. It also means that at every point in the revision process I find myself second-guessing historical accuracy. Not just the big stuff like making sure my characters aren’t jumping aboard the Concorde in 1912 but the little stuff, like the nuances of speech, use of slang, and the way people perceived the world around them. Sometimes I have to confess, if I don’t know and can’t find the answer I just go with my gut and make it up. Hey, this is fiction after all.

I view revising as adding the second and third coats of paint to a project – each layer adds a subtly and a depth to the characters, to the setting, and to the themes that swirl around the plot. What I find the biggest challenge is avoiding what I call ‘tinkering’ – changing my mind over a minute plot point only to find it has rolling ramifications and then (in total disgust) I find I have to go all the way back and return it all to the way it was. I guess this is what people call a ‘learning process’ but I seem to be a bit ‘learning challenged’ when it comes to this – and still find myself adding complexity where NO MORE is needed! ‘Keep It Simple Stupid’ is a motto I need to have branded to my forehead.

Those who want to see the writing process in action can find me sitting in my writing studio, a converted garage in the back of our house, bleary eyed at one o’clock in the morning, determined to finish the next chapter as I’m ‘on a roll’. I might be on the internet checking on a historical reference, looking up the architecture for a historic home or searching The Times database for an event the latest fashions for that year. I might even be using the delete key to liberal advantage as part of the revision process involves getting rid of all the extraneous stuff that I find stops the flow of the narrative (sometimes bringing tears to my eyes if it was a point of historical research I spent hours on!)

Yesterday I deleted a whole chapter – painful but necessary. I then merged two minor characters to streamline the plot. I decided one scene moved like molasses and I got bogged down in worrying whether the house should have gothic archways or not…Time passed. It was one am…Time to call it quits till the red pen, the axe and the delete key were brought back out to do it all again.

Ah the joys of revision. You just got to be brave…

9 thoughts on “You’ve got to be Brave. The Revision Process at One AM.

  1. Boy can I relate to what you’re saying, Clare. Words are hard enough to come by. Taking them out is painful. And it always seems to be what I consider my most brilliant writing that has to be cut. That’s because I’m the only one who considers it brilliant.

    But as the saying goes, we must all be willing to kill our children. Happy revisions!

  2. Great post.
    It’s interesting that you look at re-writes as adding layers of varnish. For me, it’s more like sanding away my excesses to get to something that’s smooth and natural. Typically, my final draft is 150-200 pages shorter than my first, but only after 20-30iterations in which the sandpaper becomes progressively finer. Of all the drafts, the first one is the most painful for me–the hardest to squeeze out. The last three or four are mostly pleasure.

  3. Nice analogy, John. One of the dangers of too much sanding is the original spark of creativity in the original darft can get washed away. It’s a fine line we walk.

  4. It is indeed interesting to hear the sandpapering versus varnish approach. My final version is typically longer than my first draft!

  5. I’m one of those rare people who loves revisions. It’s where all my pieces tie together and where I add layer after layer. It’s definitely NOT easy to delete something you’ve agonized over, but in the end it’s what makes the book better that needs to stay.

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