Wednesday, February 4, 2015
When Book Revisions Get Out of Control
The other day I was having coffee with a photographer friend. We meet from time to time to discuss our respective crafts, and this particular day, we were talking about mine. And he asked a very good and very interesting question.
He prefaced it by saying that it seemed to him that there are often a number of different ways of saying something clearly and effectively. So how much, he continued, does it matter, whether a writer gets a sentence or a paragraph perfect? If it was all right on the first draft, how important is it to keep re-doing it; and, in the course of re-doing it, isn’t it possible that something that was good in the first draft gets lost in the course of constant revisions?
My answer was yes.
Genre Fiction vs. “Literature”
Then again, I write genre fiction — mystery novels, to be precise. That no doubt affects my opinion on the issue. I know I’m producing disposable items, not heirlooms. My books should be done well enough to keep readers entertained during a long plane flight, but I’m under no illusions that anyone will be reading them a hundred years from now.
In that case, the standard isn’t getting it perfect (which a writer almost never does, anyway), but rather getting it pretty good within a reasonable amount of time. Once the first draft is written, it goes through three revisions, the last of which involves reviewing and addressing my editor’s changes. After that, it’s caveat emptor for prospective readers.
I do a great deal of planning and outlining before I begin writing, and with years of journalism experience at my tail, I fancy myself pretty good at writing competent prose on the first go-around. Because of that, and because of the standards of the genre, my first drafts are generally 90 percent of the way to what I want, and revisions are mostly housekeeping affairs, rather than major conceptual rewrites.
Buy a Book at the Airport
Now obviously, if something just isn’t right, the author should keep working on that something until it gets to at least some semblance of rightness. You don’t want to put your book out there with something in it that you know is wrong. I mean, we have to have some standards.
Nevertheless, I keep reading posts in author groups and other such places in which people are agonizing over how to get something perfect. A lot of times, it’s the title and/or first sentence of their book. Other times, it’s just the question of revisions in general. The problem with that is that when you look at anything — a manuscript, a house, a marriage — too long and too hard, all you see are the problems, and the good qualities fade into the background. It’s a path to madness, and writers are singularly prone to traveling it.
If anyone really believes their book has to be revised to the point of perfection, my advice would be to go into any airport bookstore, purchase any bestselling novel, and read it. None of them are perfect, and some aren’t even very well written, but they had something — a story, an idea, a strong central character — that made people like them. And that was enough.
As one of my editors at the newspaper used to say, “Just tell the damn story and give me clean copy.”