Even Talent Requires Revision

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A reader commenting on Don’t Be Too Eager to Publish says:

While I may agree that lengthy detail is unnecessary, I believe you are far too critical of the opening passage. Reading with interest is a very personal matter. Why put a writer in a box where he must conform to the way in which a daydream is described?

The reader makes a valid point.

Although my opinion of the opening paragraph in question is that it could be improved, there is nothing so bad about it that it couldn’t have appeared in a successful novel–IF it introduced a compelling story.

An unexceptional writing style alone is not enough to sink a book that is well-plotted and/or has fascinating characters. The DaVinci Code illustrates the point, as does the first Harry Potter book.

A writer’s voice, like a reader’s preference, is a personal matter. Once a writer has found the voice that fits him best, he needn’t pay too much attention to critics to whom it doesn’t happen to appeal.

Writing style, however, is only one aspect of a finished novel. Plot, characterization, and pacing are what pull the reader along. Self-publishing authors may have plenty of potential as writers, but their novels often suffer from insufficient revision.

Bernard Malamud said

First drafts are for learning what your novel or story is about. Revision is working with that knowledge to enlarge and enhance an idea, to re-form it.

The first draft of a novel is not the novel. It’s a lump of clay to be worked on during subsequent drafts.

Some writers may go through ten or twelve drafts before they feel that the manuscript is ready for submission. Others may manage with two or three.

Careful outlining may reduce the need for numerous drafts. Other factors are individual thought processes, previous experience, and the type of novel being drafted.

The important thing is to get that first draft on paper without worrying about writing style. The next most important thing is to be willing to revise until each word contributes to a carefully-crafted scene that advances the story and keeps a reader turning the pages.

Easier said than done.

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6 thoughts on “Even Talent Requires Revision”

  1. Absolutely, absolutely.

    I tell students that the first draft is the ‘do’ draft. You do what you have to do to get it done. Ideas out of the brain and on the page. Then the next draft is the ‘think’ draft. Why do characters do what they do? Why does the story bend this way? Why, why, why.

    There’s no piece of writing that can’t benefit from a little thinking..

  2. Yes, let’s accept the weightiness of the lump of clay, even as we pack new clods onto it. Though it’s something we lug around every day, we know it can be reformed and resculpted every day, and each time we do it’s burden is lessened.

    The preceding paragraph, for instance…

  3. I find this advice very heartening as I plod along on my first draft. I’ve been feeling everything is “do do do” as I charge from one plot point to the next. Discovering that’s the normal process is a relief.

    I sure hope mine doesn’t take 10 drafts or I’ll be writing it until I’m 80.

  4. One of my favorite quotes, by one of my favorite authors:

    “It is perfectly okay to write garbage – as long as you edit brilliantly.” — C. J. Cherryh

    Here’s another:

    “Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten.”– Michael Crichton

    What’s the point? Editing, not writing, makes a book great.

    (Now, where did I put my red pen?)

  5. “Easier said than done.”

    That’s the truth. Revision is, to me, the most intimidating part of writing a novel. I can’t wait just one month to do it. A lifetime, maybe, but not one month. I’ve only ever finished one story, revision and all.

    And it was a 20,000 word fan fic.

    I’d like to note, though, that it was a very recent accomplishment. It’s actually pretty encouraging. Maybe revision isn’t all that scary…

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