This blog post is unfinished.
Not like Kafka’s THE CASTLE is unfinished. In which K, nearing the end of his journey, crosses a wide, dark room to better make out a woman’s incoherent mumbling and leans closer and closer and she says __________.
Spoiler Alert: The end of THE CASTLE kinda sucks. But here’s the thing: THE CASTLE is finished. Unlike this blog post. Mainly because Kafka is dead, and I’m alive and therefore capable of revision. So when is the draft finished? Answer: When you’re dead.
I once believed Revision Ends with Publication. This comforted me. My belief allowed a third-party arbiter to step in and say: “That’s it. Pencil down. Your story is finished.” You sign a contract, the print dries, and it’s over. Right? Finally, definitively over. Forever.
Then I picked up Tobias Wolff’s short story collection, OUR STORY BEGINS – largely comprised of his previously-published work. In the foreword, he says:
“The truth is that I have never regarded my stories as sacred texts. To the extent that they are still alive to me I take a continuing interest in giving that life its best expression . . . If I see a clumsy or superfluous passage, so will you, and why should I throw you out of the story with an irritation I could have prevented?”
What an asshole.
He’s still editing stories so good they make me cry. Thanks, Tobias. Any other dreams you’d like to shatter in the process of writing your foreword? “Revision Ends with Publication” was my Santa Claus. While you’re at it, why don’t you go ahead and quote a few dollar figures for first-time novel advances, or shed some insight on the revision process with agents and editors. From what I understand, once a book is the best you can possibly make it – when you’ve poured your foundation, framed the story, sanded every surface and polished and buffed your language to a shine – your editor will walk in with a smile and a sledgehammer.
Nice work. But we should probably go ahead and tear out the second love interest. I know that character is load bearing, but we need to expand the plot and we only have so much real estate to work with. And, yeah — lose the third floor. You didn’t even build stairs that GO to the third floor. How the hell do you expect people to get there?
What’s worse is they’re usually doing the right thing. I’ve learned about these (generally helpful) editor remodels from my more published peers. So that’s the revision process I have to look forward to. At this point, I largely work with me. I have long, drawn out conversations with me. I battle for creative control and word choice with me. And I’m a pain in the ass to work with. I’m unreasonable and prone to melodramatic snits when I approach the dark edge of a realization that the foundation, somewhere along the way, is cracked. And no one is going to care how pretty the banister looks when the entire house is threatening to collapse.
Thankfully, after 15 years of writing I’ve developed two (non death-related) strategies to end the revision process. I know I’m ready to hit send when: 1) I can read my entire book without cursing aloud, and 2) the majority of my edits become changing words and phrases back to earlier versions of themselves.
But sending out a draft still feels like a trust fall in an empty room. Because the person standing behind you is yourself. Are you good enough? Did you work hard enough? Did you spend enough time with the piece?
I spent a year on a revision I sent to a few readers last week, and it still freaks me out. It’s terrifying to struggle for twelve months on a product that can be digested in a matter of days — something that will inspire opinions and criticisms and affect the way people view my work. It’s much easier to keep editing. And keep editing. And keep editing.
But thanks to Tobias the Dream Killer, I don’t believe in a final product. What you share is always a work in progress. It’s a work in progress you send your friends, and a work in progress you send your editor, and a work in progress you eventually give your READERS. That’s why I feel okay about having already edited this blog post 4 times since I published it.
It’s the journey that’s important. Because the revision process is exactly like the lesson I learned from the woman in the castle that day. When I crossed the room and she held out her trembling hand to me. I sat down beside her, and she spoke with great difficulty, it was difficult to understand her, but what she said _______.