Flogging the Beast

Revision is a vital part of writing, and multiple drafts are required for most writers. Five, six, seven drafts go by, with changes mostly minor but sometimes including major shifts that correspond to your evolving sense of the story you really want to tell. Changes can also be driven from outside forces, such as a round of rejections by literary agents. Sometimes the mere prospect of being rejected can drive an author to the keyboard.

At some point, you have to ask yourself: should I move on to that next book I mean to write? I have gently counseled some more obsessive authors to choose that tack, and there is a common reason why. It stems not from any observations about picayune issues such as sentence flow. Rather, they derive from a higher realm, one known as concept.

What if the story you want so urgently to tell has been already been told numerous times? That happens a lot to older authors. They want to report on the exciting times of their youth, and through the gauzy screen of memory certain tropes will stand out. For the great generation it is often World War II. For the sixties generation, it might be sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. The notion that many other authors have plowed the same ground somehow does not occur to them. Writing is a (good) expression of egotism, after all.

You need to assess the work at that highest level. Forget about all the passages you have written. If you’ve worked on them seven times, they are likely the best you will ever get them. Forget about rearranging the order of chapters. You probably have balanced the plot lines by now. And you won’t materially affect a reader’s overall impression of the book by moving up an exciting scene to the prologue.

The most futile step you can take is endlessly adding more scenes or resculpting old scenes in a significant way. Yes, the change is important at an incremental level. Yes, the book is getting better. But unless you can honestly say that your take on an old subject is radically different, you’re just moving piles of sand on the same old stretch of beach.

The myth of the writer burrowed in some book-lined cave whose book will only be published after death very seldom comes true. It’s incredibly likely that you are not that person. It is better to think in practical terms. What was that great idea you had for the next book? Why don’t you spend a few mornings working out some rough details of that? You never know. The next book you write might turn out to be the one you really were meant to write. Don’t pound your head against a wall. Write because you enjoy it.

“Dusting is a good example of the futility of trying to put things right. As soon as you dust, the fact of your next dusting has already been established.”  —George Carlin

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.