Flannery O’Connor said, “Like the old lady, I don’t know so well what I think until I see what I say; then I have to say it again.” This is hard to believe, right? If any writer ever knew what she was about, I’d guess it was O’Connor.
But it’s totally true for me–my revising begins more or less at word one. I start blabbing, then pull back to see if I said anything worth listening to, then try again. O’Connor also said, “I write to discover what I know”, but I’m more with Grace Paley, who went one better. “We write,” Paley said, “about what we don’t know about what we know.”
What you don’t know is the tantalizing thing, at first. The story stays just out of reach and you race along behind, a little out of breath, first trying to keep it in sight, then gain on it, at last catch it.
By contrast, revising is like rearranging a familiar, well-loved room, only instead of furniture and paintings you move around bits of plot and dialogue and back-story, always looking for what works better somewhere else, what’s gotten worn out, what doesn’t need to be there at all, what you’ve got too much of—and what is still missing. When you revise, you know what you know about what you don’t know, or whatever. Except, that is, when the story surprises you all over again.
A (very) few of the revisions I’ve made (so far) in my new book:
–Biggest of all was switching from third person. First is a voice that makes me wary and that I rarely use, but it made all the difference with this story.
–My hero discovers something valuable that doesn’t belong to him. In my first two drafts, he puts it back. In the third, he steals it. Eureka!
–The book is a mystery of sorts, set on an island, and I have a thick fog that, originally, rolled in about halfway through. It was very island-y and great fun to write, but duh! What a waste to use it in the middle of the narrative. I moved it to the ending, where it’s not only atmospheric but actually heightens the suspense. (No free lunch—every element needs to earn its keep.)
–I’ve revised almost all the dialogue to some degree. During revision I find I pay more attention to how the real-live people I’m around speak (as opposed to when I’m drafting, when I’m in my own fog). I listen for the silences, too. Something important I’ve discovered is that when I’ve given a character a big hunk-a-chunk of a speech, it usually means I was stuck, and trying to explain myself to myself. Alarm bells!
–Fixing appalling sentences goes without saying. That’s a part of revision housekeeping that’s kind of like doing the laundry—a few stubborn stains, a lot of wrinkles, and man, who left a leaky pen in this pocket? Could it have been me?
Humbling stuff, don’t I know it.