Just finished a fourth round of revision on the first book. Empirically speaking, this sounds like too many rounds, to me–I’ve never been keen on revision. (You may recall my method for revision which involves lots of beer and stomping around ) And yet. . .
It does seem like the book is getting better. On the one hand, all the major stuff was taken care of in the first two, and now we’re getting down to brass tacks. But those brass tacks can be very interesting. This round (and the last) has been about the subtle things, the nuances that shade a character or a scene, that underscore emotion. It’s the final sanding on the varnish of an instrument so that, when you tap it, it delivers that beautiful resonance. You could imagine that sound on the last polishing, and assume that you were done–only to find this slightly different, infinitely more beautiful sound.
And therein lies the trouble. How do I know when it’s done? If I thought it was done last revision (or, I daresay, even the one before), yet it could still be better, then am I done now? As eager as I am to get this book out there in the world, should I be more eager to hang onto it a little longer, to seek those last few places where a word or phrase could be just that much better?
Is there a point of no return, beyond which I’m actually making the book worse, and how would I know when I get there? I suspect the answer to this question is when I start questioning the deeper issues again–when I start wanting to make material changes not because the book has stopped working as a whole, but because I have moved on to a different place as a writer, and now want to write a different book.
I think it was Oscar Wilde who once claimed to have worked all day on a poem. In the morning, removing a comma. In the afternoon, putting it back. This has always sounded pretty obsessive to me, except that in the realm of poetry, that single comma might have tipped the entire meaning of the piece. Is this even worth considering in the world of novels?
The real danger is not whether the single work in question gets better or worse (anybody read “Leaf by Niggle” by J. R. R. Tolkien?) Rather, the danger is that the author never progresses beyond this work, the pro-version of the Zombie manuscript. One might argue about the merits of being the author of a single perfect work, versus writing many more, and there are certainly things to be learned in revision as well as in creating new works. But the work of a book is not done until it is in the hands of the readers, and the accumulation of all of those words and phrases, imperfect as they are, creates the experience of a whole new world.