novels / revising / writing

On Revising: Why Can’t It Just Come Out Perfect the First Time?

We’ve been talking about revision lately in my online YA Novel Writing Class with Mediabistro—which has been such a great experience, and ends in about a week! (If you want to take this class, I have no plans right now to teach it again, but my friend and incredibly talented author and teacher Micol Ostow is heading up the same class starting in September. I highly recommend Micol’s class, and here’s where you can enroll.)

Revision has been on our minds partly because the last assignment is for revised pages, but also because it’s looming there on the horizon for all the first drafts, class assignment or no… When the first draft is done, they will have to revise. We all will. A book won’t get done without revision, and I know how all the hard work eking out those first-draft pages can appear so futile when you look ahead and know you’ll only have to make changes later.

And make changes after that. And make changes after that. Honestly, in my experience, there have always been multiple rounds of revision. I’m always writing toward what my book is meant to be, and though I do love this discovery process, when I’m up against a deadline and an inability to make things perfect, it can be very disheartening.

I have to tell you, I’ve been frustrated with myself as I’ve been working through revisions on 17 & Gone these past months. First off, frustrated that I can’t seem to articulate certain changes I’ve known I’d have to do for two drafts now. Also because my attempt at fixing things sometimes works to break them worse than before. And simply because I wish I could just get it the first time. Why can’t I just GET IT RIGHT the first time?

My editor seems to think it’s perfectly normal for a book to go through multiple rounds of revision like this and for a writer to be getting closer and closer to what she is trying to say with each new draft. She doesn’t seem to think I’m an alien or a hack because I need these revisions. This is what she tells me, so I am choosing to believe her.

It’s what I told my class, too, so I should believe what I’m saying, yes?

I do believe it. But when you’re deep in it, the end seems so very far away. I keep thinking it will be easier and faster with each new book, but I’m not sure. I do know that I’ve learned some things with this book that I plan to do differently next time. So maybe it will be faster? Check back with me in a year or two.

Sure, I wish I could get it right the first time, but my words don’t come out that way. Perhaps there are some magical writing creatures who know the exact right words from the beginning (do these mythical writers exist?)—but most of us will only get our books to be better by going back. By revising.

So that’s what I’m doing this week. Working on my book some more to make it as good as I can. I’m close, though. I can feel it.

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8 thoughts on “On Revising: Why Can’t It Just Come Out Perfect the First Time?

  1. Oh boy, I hear you on this. I’m primarily a screenwriter. For a long time, all I could write were first drafts. I found revising to be just torture. Since first drafts are such crap, I decided I would just go ahead and start with the second draft and skip the first altogether.

    What I mean is, I spent much more time prewriting. I would outline, get feedback. Write a treatment (synopsis), get feedback. Polish and revise along the way — and much easier to do with shorter things. Finally I would write a “scriptment” which was more than a treatment but not a full-blown screenplay. It was much easier to revise and reshape something that wasn’t fully formed yet. Psychologically it was less daunting, and I didn’t feel like I was throwing out any hard work. By the time I wrote the “first” draft, it was pretty much the equivalent of a second draft.

    I don’t know how much of this process will translate to novel writing (which I’m attempting soon). I know extensive prewriting and planning works for me, but some people are drafters. They have to write draft after draft as part of their process. Whatever your style, I think you have make peace with it.

  2. Sadly it’s not just novels either. Nothing seems to come out right the first time… recipes, essays, and in my case translated texts… they always need to be revised and redrafted at least two times before you can get something decent.

  3. I’m not even sure how I feel about a project until I’ve reached the second draft. I try to give myself a bit of a free pass on the rough draft. “You can fix it later” becomes kind of a mantra.

  4. Nova, I love this paragraph. “I have to tell you, I’ve been frustrated with myself as I’ve been working through revisions on 17 & Gone these past months. First off, frustrated that I can’t seem to articulate certain changes I’ve known I’d have to do for two drafts now. Also because my attempt at fixing things sometimes works to break them worse than before. And simply because I wish I could just get it the first time. Why can’t I just GET IT RIGHT the first time?” Especially that last sentence. You took the words right out of my mouth!

  5. I was so psyched at the “completeness” when my new novel draft reached its first complete draft — it felt so close to being done. Sigh. Now, thick into a few drafts later, the entire last third of the story has changed, with more to go. I’m excited for those changes — whole characters who have come out of the woodwork to make a richer story than it started out — but can’t help sharing exactly the frustration you blog about: it felt so much better in the early draft phase when it seemed all I had to do was finish stringing together those original scenes. I love revisions that feel like new discoveries — but do hate the kind you mention, the ones that risk undermining things that seemed to be working before. I hope your revisions go well! It was also interesting to hear that you enjoyed teaching the mediabistro course – I’d been curious about that.

  6. So much of this sounds so familiar!
    Revising is the difference between writing and typing …

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