October 27, 2018KR BlogUncategorized

Drafts, Part I: Revision Resistance

On October 20 I attended Cleveland Drafts, a daylong literary festival that snaked its way through a bookstore, a gallery, and three bars in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood. The event was organized by the city’s beloved Brews and Prose reading series, and I was helping on behalf of Gordon Square Review, one of the event partners. This lit crawl celebrated works in progress (and writers in progress, and a community in progress) by inviting a series of writers to read their unpublished and in-progress poems, prose, or plays throughout the day.

Aside from the chance to listen to more than a dozen excellent writers reading their newest work, Drafts made me think more generally about those first tenuous attempts to craft a new piece of writing, not to mention the revision and reimagining that accompanies each subsequent effort to improve the piece.

Revision has been on my mind a lot lately, especially as I continue to refine my novel-in-progress, a project many years in the making. This novel’s journey has been long and winding; I’ve gone through multiple rewrites and have changed the plot, characters, and story so many times that my latest draft is almost (almost) unrecognizable from the first draft I completed in 2013. Unlike a handful of older novels I’d written, revised, and ultimately abandoned, I never let go of this one—because I believe in it, really and truly, and because I want to give it a real chance.

The work has been, at times, grueling. And through this long process, I’ve discovered this is the kind of work not every writer is willing to do. In the last year or two in particular, I’ve noticed a particular kind of reaction from a handful of fellow writers after they learn of my intense, ongoing, significant revisions: They get defensive. Or they suggest that I’m somehow doing it wrong, or hurting my own work, by embarking on such extensive revision.

“There’s such a thing as revising too much,” they might say. Or: “At a certain point, you just have to let it go and accept it as is.”

A friend of a friend who’d just finished the first draft of his first-ever novel had a more extreme reaction. When this writer heard how many years and drafts I’ve gone through on the same project, he grew visibly agitated and proclaimed that he would never work on his novel for as long as five years. In fact, if nothing happened with the manuscript after about a year, he threatened to throw the whole thing in the garbage.

I am simultaneously perplexed and sympathetic to this resistance to revision. Revision is hard work, plain and simple. It can also be terrifying. To change the work you’ve already done, to break things down, and to try something new is intimidating. It’s easier to stick with what’s already there. But when it comes to the creative project that means more to me than anything else, I don’t want to settle.

We all have different paths, we all work at different paces, and each manuscript comes with its own strengths and flaws and potential. We all have different goals, too. For me, I’m trying to truly go for it—to write the best novel I can, and to tell this particular story in just the way I envision. I could have stopped a few drafts ago and considered the book good enough, or I could press on and try my absolute hardest to make the manuscript match my vision.

To get there, I needed to go through draft after draft after draft, refusing to “let it go” before the novel was as strong as I could make it. (I’ll admit here that having a brilliant literary agent and writing friends, all of whom have impeccable taste and high standards, kept me honest and drove me to continue revising.) And while I appreciate that over-revising to the detriment of the work sometimes happens, in most cases, revision makes work stronger—and all of my instincts tell me that my hard work over the years has improved the book. The mere thought of turning in one of the older drafts rather than my most current revision, for example, is enough to make me break out in a stress sweat.

As of this writing, I can’t say for sure that the novel is “done,” but I believe it’s very close. And I can tell you that only three days after the Drafts event in Cleveland, I submitted the latest revision to my agent. With a few clicks of the keyboard, I zipped off the novel via email—a single draft of a manuscript that represents dozens of past drafts, attempts, and failures.

In the second part of this two-part series, I’ll dig through my novel files and share some stats surrounding all the drafts and revisions I’ve worked on over the years for this particular novel. I’ll be honest: It’s not going to be pretty. Then again, no one ever said novel writing was meant to be neat and tidy. It’s a process, plain and simple. So stay tuned for a glimpse of my own (messy, rambling, imperfect) process in my next post.