Seven: On learning to embrace revision

Guest post by Alexandra Risen

Photo: Jon Sullivan

 

I haven’t been a debut writer forever. It just feels that way.

Likely because of how often I revise-restructure-rewrite-rethink-reword-reassess-review. Enough times to learn one thing: Even if you are writing memoir, the truth can be said myriad ways and almost always better than the last time you said it.

My personal memoir about my garden started as twenty short stories, edited several times by creative writing teachers and fellow writing students. Two years later, I asked an agent if they were publishable.

“No,” he said. Not maybe. Not gentle.

“Reassess your approach. Then restructure.” He patted my stack of paper where I had naively typed “Confidential” under the title, as if someone might actually want to steal my brilliance.

I pushed my embarrassment and insecurities aside and registered for a memoir course at University of Toronto. I read breakout books like How Not to Write a Novel, Bird by Bird, and The Plot Whisperer. I loved my memoir instructor, and after the course ended, I begged her to be my Final Project adviser. On her advice, I thought more deeply about themes and tension and narrative arc; I rewrote and saw the story take on a new shape.

Before I submitted it to the university evaluation panel, my adviser told me she believed I had talent and that the manuscript had strong potential, but there were too many storylines.

I knew better.

My agent reviewed it again.

“Too many storylines,” he said. “Rethink it in simpler terms.”

I joined a weekly workshop, where, chapter by chapter, over another two years, I rewrote, they reviewed, and I reworded. I tried new software like Scrivener and read more books, with inspiring subtitles like Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish with Confidence. The thing is, deciphering software and extra reading are ideal time-consuming activities for a procrastinator. I was starting to enjoy writing.

Somewhere between reading, rethinking, and rewriting, I read (I don’t recall in which book) that a manuscript is often complete after seven revisions.

Seven?

Liberty.

Harsh workshop criticism that used to depress me became a rung to draft number seven. I sought input. Please, I’d beg my husband, I’ve only had feedback on this scene five times — I need two more!

My goal to finish my book was replaced by the desire to reach the lucky seven edit for each chapter. Every misplaced comma and inaccurate word, every removed adverb and exclamation mark was a step closer. Draft six didn’t resemble draft two. Chapter One became Chapter Seventeen. Chapter Three and Eight disappeared. None of it mattered anymore. Cutting a scene didn’t hurt — it was a relief. I was shedding those unwanted last five pounds. Cleaning out the junk drawer. Throwing away those favourite comfortable but sloppy pyjamas.

Life is a series of revisions.

Today, some of my new best friends are editors. I can’t resist them. I stalk them. They are artists, wielding their pencils and applying Track Changes to better the literary world.

When my agent landed my book deal, the acquiring editor said, “I love it!” and then she promptly had me review, reword, and revise.

 

 

Alexandra Risen

Alexandra Risen

Alexandra Risen’s Unearthed is her meditation on love, acceptance, and our interconnectedness with nature, a memoir to be published Summer 2016 in the United States by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and in Canada by Penguin Random House. She is one of three founding editors of the online literary magazine Don’t Talk to Me About Love, which explores love in fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and art.

Alexandra studied memoir writing with instructor Allyson Latta, who was also adviser for her Final Project toward the Creative Writing Certificate at University of Toronto. An excerpt from that version of her memoir was a finalist for the university’s Marina Nemat Creative Writing Award.

Comments

  1. Nancy says:

    WOW!

    Alexandra — you are my inspiration.

    I am presently taking my second course with Allyson. She is wonderful and brilliant and supportive — points me in the right direction and gives me much to consider with respect to revision.

    I have a book in me. It is beginning to form on paper. I am looking at revision one. One day, I hope to see revision seven on the horizon.

    I loved your “revision” piece!

    Nancy

    • Alex says:

      Congratulations on revision #1, Nancy. They get easier after that, and you’ve got the right coach! All the best in your writing. a.

  2. Dace Mara Zacs-Koury says:

    What an encouraging post! Alexandra’s journey resonates. Congrats to her for staying the course. She writes with such sculptured grace, it “sings”!

  3. Judy Bullis says:

    What an exceptional piece. I love your perspective, your wonderful never-give-up attitude. But mostly I love your ability to poke fun at yourself as you describe the stages of your revisions…”I knew better.”
    Moments ago, I hit the send button to Allyson with my final project manuscript attached. And I just said to my partner, as I sat down after, that I never want to look at it again! But I will…in the morning. And I’ll find a zillion things I missed.

    This was just a lovely read Alexandra. I look forward to the full book… and congratulations!

    • Alexandra Risen says:

      Judy,

      Thank you for your lovely comments. Congratulations on pushing that send button! Best of luck in your revisions! a.

  4. Sandy Shaw says:

    Great post, Alex. You almost make it sound like fun! Looking forward to reading Version Seven.

    • Alexandra Risen says:

      Hey Sandy,

      Thank you! It feels more fun after the fact, although the journey is what counts, apparently. As Hemingway said “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” x, a.

Leave a Comment