A bestselling author once said, “There aren’t good books and bad books. There are finished books and books that still need more work.”
Any novelist who’s been through the transition from first draft to second knows that the revision process requires a supplementary set of craft tools. To borrow a decorating metaphor, some scenes may just need an extra throw pillow or potted geranium whereas others need all the furniture replaced and a wall torn down. Writers can, naturally, feel overwhelmed by the number of self-editing decisions to be made. Luckily, there’s help. Writers’ Program instructor Ian Randall Wilson, who helmed our National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) course in November, returns this spring in the onsite course Revising Your First Draft Novel.
Writers’ Program: Who would benefit from your rewrite course?
Ian Randall Wilson: The class is open to anyone who has completed at least a first draft of a novel. If you’re still writing your draft, this would not be the class for you.
WP: It’s commonly accepted that writing is rewriting. What’s your take on this?
IRW: Few of us are Mozart where what we write is set down unchanged as if we’re taking dictation from God or whoever is supposed to be in charge. (Though the new histories tell us that even Mozart revised.) So there needs to be some kind of strategy or process to move the work along to its next stage and, we hope, closer to completion.
WP: What are the major challenges novelists face when embarking on a second draft for the first time?
IRW: I’ve told my students that I wish there was a program you could run the novel through and, poof-voila, it’s finished. I wish there was a single strategy I could offer but every novel has different demands, different issues and different answers to the multitude of questions you can ask about it. It’s a process of trial and error and testing.
My approach to revision has always been to consider a series of drafts. You just can’t solve all the issues of the novel in one pass. Initial drafts will be at the rudimentary level of grammar and punctuation, along with a few obvious style considerations, things like pronoun misuse, grammatical correctness, clichés and that sort of thing. Subsequent drafts begin to dig in on more abstract issues of style and some obvious considerations of intent. Still others focus on the larger and difficult-to-pin-down issues of style as they relate to tone, focus, and organization.
WP: Any advice for students who feel that the revision process may never end given the subjective nature of creative writing?
IRW: Well it does end, eventually. You get the book in the best shape you can and try to send it out into the world. You start your next one. Sometimes this does take a long time. Janet Fitch’s White Oleander took something like ten years to write and revise as did The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. So it can be a substantial commitment. But nothing says that you can’t do several drafts and then take some time away. Work on a short story or two and then go back to your novel. Pace yourself; it’s not a sprint.
Kate Sipples is the Program Assistant for Creative Writing (Onsite). Follow her writing adventures at http://twitter.com/KateofGoodHope.