Revision as Experiment

This spring, I began the final (I hope) revision of my memoir about my years with parrots and the search for the human love of my life. Rather than approach the manuscript willy-nilly, I wrote out a plan, plus a few general ideas I wanted to keep in mind as I worked. I posted these on my computer screen as Stickies. This is one of the most useful programs I’ve encountered, and it’s free. (www.zhornsoftware.co.uk/stickies/)

My list included reading through the entire stack of critiques from two previous versions of the book, from two different writers’ groups. When you’re talking about this amount of paper, you have to measure it with a ruler. My stack was a foot high.

Right away, I ran into trouble, and not just because of the sheer volume of paper and suggestions. In both versions, two critiquers–men who read science fiction and action novels–suggested that I needed to remove my personal backstory from the first chapter and weave it into later sections. They agreed that Chapter 1 needed to focus on the beginning of my relationship with the parrot I’d just brought home and that the bits of personal history slowed down the action and might keep readers from getting hooked.

The biggest problem I had with their comments wasn’t technical; it was neurological. I had read and revised that first chapter so many times without making any essential changes that it had become grooved into my brain. I couldn’t see how to make the suggested changes. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to. The women in the group thought the backstory and pacing were fine, and I believed that the majority of my audience would be female.

OK, Stephen King says that if you receive contradictory suggestions from roughly equal numbers of trustworthy readers, you can call it a push and write it the way you want. I was inclined to do just that. But there was another element: My ego had gotten involved. The chapter had won first place for nonfiction at a writers’ conference. Didn’t that mean it was good enough? If an agent or an editor at a publishing house–someone with a check in his/her hand–thought the backstory should come out, I’d do the rewrite.

Two questions kept gnawing at the back of my brain and finally shook me out of my complacency:

  • What if the way the book was structured kept an agent or editor from getting to the point of asking for revisions in the first place?  They might reject it with a casual “not for us,” and I would never know why.
  • What did it mean to win that competition?  I wanted it to suggest that I had written the most memorable prose the contest judge had ever read. What it really said, though, was that of all the work submitted, she thought mine was the best; nothing more.

With these insights, my ego finally yielded, and I saw a way to approach the revision: Think of it as an experiment to which I did not have to commit. I wasn’t burning any bridges. I could always revert to the original version–especially if my agent or editor wanted to see another approach.

The point of an experiment is to find out something. What did I learn?

  • Not to get too attached to a particular version of a piece–or to notice when that’s happened.
  • Try different approaches without getting too serious about them. Play with a variety of ideas. You’re just going out to coffee with the revision, not making any until-death-do-us-part promises.
  • Don’t let the resistance build up. If I’d tried this experiment the first time someone had suggested it, I wouldn’t have made the mere thought of revision so difficult to consider for so long.

Here’s the laugher: Once I found the right way to look at it, the whole experimental revision, including transitions and storing the parts I had cut in their own file for use elsewhere, took about two hours. This brought to mind my mother telling eight-year-old me that if I had spent half as much time and energy cleaning up my room as I had complaining about it, I’d already be outside, playing hide-and-seek with the rest of the neighborhood kids.

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