Monday, May 18, 2015

Revising? Well, now, let's see. Revising is like..... by Anne Nesbet

So as I mentioned here a while ago, 'tis the season of revisions, here in Nesbetland; I have been whipping my middle-grade spy-vs-spy novel set in East Berlin, Cloud & Wallfish, into better and better shape. Remember the 17-page editorial letter I got from the very insightful Kaylan Adair at Candlewick? That revision!

With the aid of my trusty revision notebook (pictured here),
in which I outlined the existing version on the left-hand pages and added revision-letter questions, fixes, ideas and descriptions of new stuff on the right-hand pages, I worked through the list, and then added to the list and did it all again, and and and . . .

. . . and what you have to understand is that the past couple of weeks have been extraordinarily busy ones, even without taking revisions into account. Three other very different tasks have also been demanding my time and attention, and it occurs to me that each of these activities reminds me of revision, in one way or another. So let's explore some revision similes today!

1. Revising is like . . . correcting papers.

It's the end of the semester, so I have been grading papers and exams. Lots and lots and lots of papers and exams. Here are some of the 55 final papers I have to correct (over on the other table: a great big pile of final exams). 
When I read student papers, I can't help but think like an editor. What that means, essentially, is that I read students' work as if they were going to write another draft sometime soon. Most of the time, of course, that isn't the case. It's the end of the semester, not the beginning! But I can't help it: I want that mythical future draft to be wonderful, and I feel as though if I could only figure out exactly what questions to ask, I could help that mythical future draft come to life. So that's how correcting papers and revision are alike, apart from the obvious red-pen similarities: they both tear apart an existing work in order to create something new in the (possible) future.

2. Revising is like . . . cooking.

This time of year we have guests over reasonably often, guests who really want to be fed. Just the other day, I tried a recipe I'd never tried before: braised chicken thighs with green olives and preserved lemon. Oh, my! It was delicious! But while I was cooking, I kept thinking about how oddly like revisions cooking can be.

When you cook something for the first time, you have to do quite a bit of planning. Just to start with, you have to make lists of ingredients. (Similarly, I had to turn the editor's long letter into a list, in order to be able to begin to work with those comments.) You thought you already had ground ginger in the spice cupboard, but it turns out you have three bottles of ground cardamom, and no ginger, so off you go to the supermarket at the last minute. (In the revision notebook, the lists of comments and questions demand answers; sometimes an explanation you THOUGHT you had all worked out turns out still to be lacking something--so off you go to hunt that missing ingredient down.) But once you have all the ingredients, even the ground ginger and that pesky expensive saffron, you can follow the recipe, and miraculously something delicious appears. (That's the point in revisions when you start shifting the "fixes" on the right-hand pages in the revision notebook into the actual manuscript file.) Yes, revising can be like cooking; with luck, the end result will make a very tasty story.

3. Revising is like . . . conducting.

Didn't see that one coming, did you? But I did something yesterday that I've never done before: I conducted a symphony orchestra. Just for one piece--Manuel de Falla's "Ritual Fire Dance"--but it was a thrill, and a lot of work, and . . . it reminded me of revisions!

Before you perform, you have to rehearse. You rehearse and rehearse and rehearse and rehearse. Lots of that rehearsing is done by you alone, in front of a mirror.
The Lonely Practice Mirror
But every time you rehearse with the actual orchestra, something new goes wrong or doesn't quite work. And then you have to figure out how to fix it! I spent a lot of time over the last few weeks worrying about how to cue the clarinet and the violas at the same time when I only have two hands and they sit in very different parts of the orchestra. Or how to get the tempo moving when everyone comes in together. Or how to explain what the ticking pizzicato should sound like, beneath the flute solo. Or how to get the quiet places really, really quiet, so that when the brass comes in, it's like an explosion!

The part of my brain that spent all these weeks thinking obsessively about what I would do differently at the next rehearsal--is pretty much exactly the same part of my brain that picks apart plotting and pacing. Problem solving, problem solving, problem solving. I'll be at the supermarket, shopping for ground ginger, and suddenly I've got it! I know what has to happen in Chapter 17!

The end result of all this thinking and planning and rehearsing is a good performance. A book is not that unlike a concert, really. It's just slightly smaller in size and easier to tote around.

So those are some of my recent favorite revision similes! What do you think revising is like?


  1. Anne, this is a perfect mix! I especially like the conducting part - great way to think about it! I am also in the midst of deep revisions and putting all those notes together with different instruments. :) To me, revising it like one big recipe. You have all the ingredients spread around (literally because I have notes, timelines, character worksheets in a rainbow around me on my desk) and then chop, mix, substitute, and blend in one big stew pot....then simmer and voila!

  2. And P.S. I have that same Le Creuset pot in the same color handed down to me from my mom who got her set in the 1960s!

  3. Donna, isn't it the absolute best pot in the world? We cook in it almost every single day, seems like! Good luck good luck good luck with your revisions, too!

  4. I actually love revising. It's my chance to expand the story and enhance the plot. I'm an "under writer" and always need more words. I just got back feedback from 3 writers on my finished WIP. It's exciting to see your story through someone else's eyes!

    1. Good feedback is a gift, that is for sure. I'm like you--I love revising. Making a story better! What could be more thrilling than that?

  5. Anne, you have been busy! I love your revision is like... list. I totally empathized with the cooking analogy--and having to rush off for that elusive ingredient. (But my wife is more like you. I tend to be tried-and-true, and she likes to try new recipes on unsuspecting guests.)

    I am impressed at your conducting. My eldest, soon to graduate from high school, had his moment in the sun last week when he got to conduct his high school band at their senior concert. (Interestingly, out of the five senior conductors, three were left-handed!)

    I'm not in revision mode right now, but will surely return to this post when I eventually am!

    1. Congratulations to your son, both for his conducting adventure and for graduating from high school!

      As far as cooking goes, by the second time through a recipe, I'm always making reckless additions/simplifications/experiments. So the guests should probably be glad they came on a "first try" day.

  6. Yes, yes, and yes! Though I haven't ever conducted an orchestra before. Revision is so hard and there are so many pieces to it. My would be: Revising is like . . . jigsaw puzzle. Only one where you don't have all the pieces yet, so you have to make the pieces. And ones that are supposed to fit together have to be adjusted to actually fit. Sometimes you have to make new pieces, too.

    Great post!

  7. Jigsaw puzzles! Yes!! Moreover, EVERYTHING IN LIFE is like a jigsaw puzzle! It is the universal simile!! :) (There are jigsaw puzzles in Cloud & Wallfish, too.)

  8. Well, this is just plain brilliant. I'm working on edits right alongside you, and since this is the first time I've sold a book written in prose and truly have no idea what I'm doing, I've decided to re-write it from scratch. It's the only way I can think to become immersed in this story while learning the pacing of prose.

    So revision is both like studying for and then taking an exam at the exact same time, one designed just for me that I take in fits and starts but trust will be finished by the deadline. :)

    1. Rewriting from scratch is a brave thing to do, but I do feel sure that moving from poetry to prose just means you will write the most delicious & lovely prose possible.

      Revision as "exam" is a comparison I hadn't thought of, however! I guess my previous similes didn't sufficiently account for anxiety, hmm?

  9. Thanks so much for your thoughts! I especially loved the idea of your revision notebook. I'm going to try it today!


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!