The Reluctant Reviser

photo-sample-dorothyparker“I can’t write five words but that I can change seven.” — Dorothy Parker

 

“Revision is one of the exquisite pleasures of writing.” — Bernard Malamud

I don’t know if I’d go as far as Malamud — “exquisite pleasures” may be a bit overstated. Then again, he probably chose those words very carefully. And I’ve found, over the course of writing six novels — well, nine actually, see below — that revision can be a real pleasure.

I have rewritten–often several times–every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” –– Vladimir Nabokov

My Teacher Loves My WritingI clearly remember, in high school and college, being deeply offended by the idea that I should rewrite anything. My prose was grammatical, my sentences carefully thought out. What could I possibly improve?

Then I graduated and went to work and wrote a novel and tried to get it published — and failed. After a couple of years I shelved that manuscript and wrote another one. That one failed too. So I went back and read the first one again.

IT WAS AWFUL.

Overwritten, pretentious, obviously half-stolen from E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  Bad. So, so bad.

I reread the second one. It was a little better than the first, but still bad. Very bad.

Somehow, in the years that had passed, it never occurred to me to rewrite the books. That’s probably a good thing, because I doubt they could be redeemed, but still…

“The wastebasket is the writer’s best friend.” — Isaac Bashevis Singer

Then I wrote a third one. It was better, though not good enough to get an editor towriters-block say yes. But I loved the story. So I rewrote it. And rewrote it again, based on an editor’s comments. Rewrote it a third time, based on an agent’s comments. I changed the point of view; the order of scenes. I cut, added, cut more. It still didn’t get published, but it became a much better story. It’s historical fiction, so traditionally a hard sell, but who knows — maybe someday it will be a book. And in the process, painfully and with plenty of resistance on my part, I learned how to revise.

The difference between the right and the nearly right word is the same as that between lightning and the lightning bug.” — Mark Twain

The Marvelwood Magicians, the book I’m polishing now for publication in 2017, has been seriously revised/rewritten three times. Plot, themes, characters are finally all clear aLost and Confused Signpostnd well shaped. My grammar is, I’m fairly sure, nearly perfect. So under the gentle guidance of an editor whom I trust, I’ve come down to the words themselves. Choosing the best word really is a pleasure for me. Understanding shades of meaning — the differences among “cried,” “wept,” and “sobbed,” for example, or “uneasy,” “nervous,” and “tense,” and deciding which is the right word for my sentence — is actually kind of fun. Entertaining. Satisfying. Pleasurable, enjoyable, gratifying!

Yes, it took a while, but I finally realized that Nabokov, Parker, Malamud, and pretty much all writers who have ever written about writing were right. Writing is rewriting — and rewriting is where you get to try and try and try (and fail, always fail) to achieve perfection.

“Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.” — Raymond Chandler

 

(BTW, this post has undergone 15 revisions. So far.)

(Make that 16.)

A Proud Taste for E.L. Konigsburg

konigs2Today I found out that one of my favorite writers, E.L. Konigsburg, had died.

 

Her first two books, the Newbery Honor title Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth and the Newbery Award Winner From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, were published when I was exactly the right age tkonigs1o devour them. I read them and read them and read them again. I wanted to be Claudia and run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And I wanted to be E.L. Konigsburg and write a book that made readers want to be my characters.

metI was 20 when I finally got to the Met, and I walked from room to room seeing it through Claudia’s eyes. A couple of years later, I wrote my first novel, about a girl who runs away to live in Central Park. Like most first novels, it was completely unpublishable (a lack of originality was not its biggest problem), but it just goes to show: the influence of a great story lives on in its readers. The desire to write E.L. Konigsburg’s actual book has evolved into konigs3the desire to write as good a book as E.L. Konigsburg did, and I’ll keep trying to do it for as long as I write.

Thank you, Elaine Konigsburg, for the stories and the inspiration.

Some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you  allow what is already in you to swell up and touch everything. 

— E.L. Konigsburg