One of our Author Accelerator writers asked a question during Office Hours the other day that stopped me cold because it was so unusual – and so awesome. “Can a scene die from too much revision?” she asked.
I love this question for so many reasons, and I thought I would examine those reasons one at a time:
1. It assumes that a piece of writing is alive – which I believe is absolutely true. I mean not in a literal sense – the way a person is alive, or a goat, or a sunflower, or even a virus. But alive in the sense that it generates a certain kind of energy, and that this energy has the power to attract and repel – first the creator herself, and then if she is persistent enough to finish, and brave enough to share what she has written, other readers. A piece of writing can live in this way beyond the author’s lifetime. It can connect people across time and space.
2. It assumes that a piece of writing can die – which I also believe to be true. It might fail to catch fire after the initial spark, or it might fall completely flat, or collapse under its own weight. They say there are 50 ways to leave your lover – well, there have to be at least as many ways for a story to die.
3. It assumes that the writer is the god of the work – responsible with the very existence of the thing. Anyone who is engaged in the act of creation knows exactly what this feels like – the burden of it, the thrill. Our power is immense! Our writing will live and die depending on our actions, and we alone are in control of that reality.
4. It assumes that revision is a force so powerful it touches upon the very soul of a piece of writing. And it is. Susan Bell, author of the excellent book, The Artful Edit, says this about the revision process:
“While we write into a void, we edit into a universe, however ravaged it might be.”
That may well be one of my all-time favorite quotes about writing. Writers toil in the ravaged universe of their own making, trying to keep the spark of creation alive, trying to bring the work to life. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen through revision – the wondrous trial and error of putting this word after this one, this sentence after this one, this scene after this one, all the while keeping the logic of the piece in mind, and searching for the center.
5. It assumes that there is a point at which the writer needs to stop. Stop fussing, stop worrying, stop adding, stop subtracting. Put down your pencil and just be done, by either walking away from the piece altogether, or declaring that you have done the best you can and taking the next steps to send it out into the world.
6. Because YES a scene can die from too much revision. A chapter can die, a whole book can die. You can work the thing into a pulp. You can cling to it with a fierceness that will choke it. How do you know when that point is? I love this quote from James Elkins:
“To put it as simply as possible - and this is a simple answer, not a total answer - I know when a painting's finished when I understand why I wanted to do it in the first place.”