Let’s be honest here

I’ve been trying to write the perfect post about revising a novel and failing over and over. One part of my problem stems from the total difficulty of the project. I’ve tried to revise four previous novels and I’m in the middle of revising a fifth, and I still feel like I haven’t nailed the process. It’s hard to have advice or even anything witty to say about something you’re struggling so hard to learn. But yesterday I read an amazing blog post, and it’s inspired me to say something serious about revision.

Revising a novel can make me intensely depressed.

For me, writing is a powerfully mood-elevating experience. Opening up the word machine in my brain makes me happy, and seeing the word count mount up gives me a wonderful feeling of achievement. But revising my work forces me to face every mistake I’ve made, and it makes me doubt every choice I’ve made as a writer. It makes me doubt my very self-worth.

When I write a short story, it’s easy to find the mistakes and eliminate them. It’s easy to move on to the fun, polishing-the-piece stage of the game. But the size of a novel makes it easy to lose sight of my mistakes. In this book, for example, there’s a cargo-carrying sailing ship–that changes size from chapter to chapter. Sometimes there are three sails, sometimes two. Sometimes there’s just a handful of crew, sometimes an HMS Bounty-sized crew. And since I never said straight out “the cargo ship, with its two sails and six crew members,” but instead only obliquely referenced the information during harried action scenes, I never even noticed. That’s a trivial mistake compared to the plot holes and character-motivation issues. Those things spread their tendrils between many sections and influence many different situations within the text. Fixing them isn’t easy.

That’s why revising a novel takes a while. On some of my novels, the revising portion took longer than the original drafting. That can mean months and months of painfully confronting my own mistakes. And let’s not forget that every manuscript is then going to go through another round of edits from my editor. Just thinking about that can make a girl want to cry!

From what people say, professional writer-types aren’t supposed to admit to feeling down about their work. Real writers should sound confident all the time. Real writers should never admit that sometimes work is hard.

But you know what? It’s okay to admit you’re struggling. You know, lots of activities have difficult portions. I felt really down about gardening when I realized I accidentally weeded out all of my carrot seedlings. And I felt like a complete dunce when I realized I left my tomato seedlings on a shelf my cats could reach, and they ate every tiny Cosmonaut Volkov. Just because I made some mistakes doesn’t make me a black-thumbed plant-killing monster. (The cats, on the other hand …)

I think it’s okay to admit to myself and the people who know me that editing my book can make me a bit gloomy. Just saying it actually makes me feel better, because it somehow reminds me of all those good moments during the editing process. Recognizing an ugly mistake is lousy, but knowing I found it and fixed it makes me feel like a champ.

The most important thing to know about revising your novel is that you’re going to get through it if you’re willing to keep working on it. The harder you work and the more you’re willing to listen to trusted readers–and your gut instinct–the better your product will become. If you’re feeling down about it, just remember that every small improvement gets you closer to the finish line.

In books and online, you’ll find lots and lots of good advice about revision. My job is to remind any of you struggling through the process that you can do it. Like me, you’re smart enough and talented enough to do it, as long as you don’t let yourself give up.

My job is to make you watch this, over and over and over again:

(That’s  Just keep swimming! if it doesn’t want to load.)

And remember:

YOU CAN DO IT! (And yes, we will!)

[And if you’re having a horrible day of writing or revision, remember that you’re not alone. Reach out to a friend and let them know you need a little pick me up. That’s what friends are for!]

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  • Tembrooke

    This was helpful to hear. I have a novel that I’ve been alternately working on and avoiding for years. I’ve gotten fairly close to having a full draft, but bits of plot have changed along the way and left me feeling like the thing is one big mess that I’m not capable of fixing. (Did I mention that I have problems with depression?) I’m trying to find the will or courage or whatever to face it and chip away at it, but it’s not easy. It’s good to know that I’m not alone in my misery. :-}

    Also — such a funny coincidence — someone else recommended that blog post about depression recently, and I read it and bookmarked it. I think I probably need to read it first thing every day until I feel better….

    • It might feel impossible, but just remember that any dumb problem you’ve written yourself into, you can write yourself out of. I recommend making serious short bursts of work (take a major plot hole pass or a character motivation pass or just a language pass), give yourself a good reward, and work on something else for a few weeks. Then stir yourself up again for another major burst. As long as you keep coming back, you WILL kick that book’s ass into shape!