Carolyn See and the Prisoner of the Book Revision

Big shout out to Carolyn See, who I have never met (I’d like to!) but who I owe, big time.

See, ten days ago today, (that would be a week ago Wednesday) I cleared my decks for what I’d planned to be one big week of book revision. It wasn’t meant to get what I hope will be my next book into any kind of final form, but just to get it into a nice cohesive shape for my agent, so that she can read it and tell me which bits suck without being distracted by lines like THANKSGIVING SWIMSUIT SCENE HERE and FIX THIS. In other words, a revision of messy incomplete draft one into actual draft one.

Now, I have no idea how to revise a book. Does anyone? Yes, I’ve written a book, but it was a nice easy book, all lists and clearly defined paragraphs and what not. I did not have to consider such things as character consistency and whether or not there are themes that carry through the book, yet evolve.

I say to you right now, there are no evolving themes in Reading with Babies, Toddlers and Twos. Shoot me.

But this is a memoir, and a story, and rather a long one, and it is supposed to include all of those things, plus although you can include some lists and maybe a paragraph heading or two, there’s a limit to how much of that a reader will put up with. So this is a real revision, and here’s what Carolyn See (in her book Making a Literary Life) has to say (totally paraphrased) about book revision: Print the whole book out, she says. Get a nice glass of wine and a separate piece of paper and a pen and just read. No line editing. Just read it. All you’re allowed to do with respect to any given chapter is a little chart: What I Have/What I Need.

Well, I put my draft on the iPad (which is the only way I can keep myself from line editing) and I shortened that chart down to just What I Need, because I was drinking my glass of wine and I didn’t want to have to put it down too often, and I went through the whole thing, and I made lists of what I needed in each chapter. And I got to the end, and it didn’t seem too daunting (well, it did, but it seemed do-able, as long as I kept my expectations low and remembered another great piece of writing advice from Anne Lamott: shitty first drafts). So I sent my agent a nice little email, and I said, you’ll have it next Friday (that would be last Friday) because without an external deadline, I can get really caught up in that whole have-a-glass-of-wine-and-make-a-chart thing. Also, laundry.

And then the blog editor of the New York Times called and asked me to write the Motherlode blog for a week, and after a few careful seconds of studied deliberation (because I wouldn’t want to seem overeager) I said, hell yes. And then I sent my agent another email, about my new and improved use of my cleared week, and then I did that (that was last week) and all was good in the world and bells rang and it was great fun but needless to say, I didn’t touch my book draft at all.

And then yesterday I had a few things to deal with, and so it wasn’t until today, at noon, that I sat down with my draft and my list (no wine this time) and realized now I actually had to revise the thing. I could barely remember what it was about at this point, and things looked bleak. But there was my list.

And it is working. There is the list: I’m missing this, the mood is erratic here (more than it should be) why is Wyatt in my lap when in the last paragraph he was in Rob’s and what is this bit FOR? And two hours later I looked up from a revised chapter and prologue, and I feel ready to actually go on, and reasonably confident that I actually CAN go on.

Thank you (bless you) Carolyn See.

4 Responses to “Carolyn See and the Prisoner of the Book Revision”

  1. Sarah P. says:

    Wow. That’s great advice. And I *love* Lamotte’s shitty first drafts. It’s chapter 3. I think I have it memorized.

  2. KJ (aka Lola Granola) says:

    No kidding! You have to get Carolyn See’s book, too, though. I love it!

  3. shirlee says:

    Hey! I’m so excited that you’re finished! Good job, KJ! And, actually, I do know how to revise a book. Red pen, hard copy and clear vision. The only way to do it is to pretend it’s not your work. Hard to do, but it works every time! Especially if you’re drinking wine or eating chocolate!;0)

    PS You’re making me brave. I’ve had a fiction proposal ready to go to my agent for a month, but I’ve been too chicken to send it. It’s not my normal thing, and I’m terribly afraid it sucks. Sigh. But, maybe I’ll send it before my conference in Seattle next week, because you are being brave enough to set a deadline for yourself, and I should be brave enough to send in my sucky proposal.

  4. KJ (aka Lola Granola) says:

    Take the leap, friend! You’ve leaped bigger….
    I just promised my agent: it’s hers by Wednesday. I am revising chapter 11 of 15. I’m on a ROLL.