Happy Sisyphus

We here at DGLM are big believers in helping authors develop their work.  That means that  all of us spend a significant amount of time reading, evaluating, and editing proposals and manuscripts so that we can get them in shape for submission.  Oftentimes, for myriad reasons, our input extends beyond the selling stage and we get involved in the editorial process after the book is sold.   In other words, we spend a lot of time observing the creative process in all its (painful) glory.

Revising seems to be most people’s Achilles heel.  I’ve seen even the most confident, successful, unflappable, hardworking authors melt into puddles of insecurity, denial, and rage at the thought of tackling a revision of a work they’re convinced is perfection (or as good as it gets).  For every author who loves to roll up his/her sleeves and get to work polishing, adding, restructuring, and (perish the thought) cutting, there are dozens, nay, hundreds who are thrown into existential despair at the thought of revising.

Which is why this piece in the Atlantic is so wonderful.  From Khaled Hosseini’s fatalistic “it’ll never be as good as you imagined” to Fay Weldon’s “F—k it! Just start again!” I love the advice and the insights into the writing process, so much of which involves watching the rock rolling downhill after you’ve used every ounce of strength to get it to the top, pausing a moment to feel sorry for yourself, and then taking a big breath and starting the uphill climb again. 

I agree with Hosseini that perfection can’t be attained, that all you can do is the best you possibly can and hope that your work strikes a chord and means something to someone.  But, to get the thing as good as it can be requires a lot of rewriting, reconceptualizing, reevaluating, all the re’s, including restarting after you think you’re finished.  And, in order to do that you need to be mentally and creatively tough.  Just because it’s not perfect yet doesn’t mean it’s not good or it can’t be.

What are your thoughts on revising?  Is it as horrific a process as many authors make it out to be or is there zen in the art of taking your work apart and putting it back together?


15 Responses to Happy Sisyphus

  1. Joelle says:

    I love to revise. I love it so much I can hardly wait to finish a draft so I can start revising. Even more than that, I love notes from my agent, critique group, and editor so I can dive back in. This does not make me popular at writer parties.

    On the other hand, I have sold a fair amount of pieces on the craft of revision, as well as taught workshops at festivals and conferences which makes up for my lack of popularity with my peers.

    That cartoon? Yeah, that’s me writing the first draft. To each their own!

  2. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    A lot of this depends on the type of work in question; if you’re doing “serious” fiction, a la Khaled Hosseini or an in-depth non-fiction work of some sort, a lot of precision polishing is called for. And back in the 90’s, when Boy’s Life Magazine commissioned me to do a funny graphic novel series for them for a high 5 figures, I spent most of that summer adjusting the humor level (mostly downward) to their satisfaction. Of course, they offered a kill fee and straightforward reasons why they wanted it dumbed down, so I was fine with that. A few years later, I ramped the idea up to Intermediate status and got an immediate bite from a new agent at one of the top 3 agencies in town; the downside was that he was peer-pressured into demanding a lot of pointless revisions in order “to make it more literary” without any offer of a contract, (bear in mind we’re talking a silly spoof fairytale for 6th to 8th graders here) so I bagged the project and started something more worthy of my time. I know nothing’s ever “perfect”, but on the other hand, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it…

  3. Thoughtful post!

    My newspaper editor used to tell us, “Don’t try to make chicken salad out of chicken sh*t.” In other words, know when you’ve got something of substance (which is worth revising) and when you’ve got nothing (which isn’t).

    That advice has helped me in my daytime writing and my midnight-I-should-write-because-the-kids-are-asleep work.

    Unfortunately, you don’t magically know the difference until you start revising. Late last year, I realized that the New Adult book I was trying to revise simply was not worth it. I had undergone some major life changes in the middle of the writing, so the mood and focus by the end of the book was nothing like the beginning of the book.

    I had a hideous mess of a novel, so I thought (to quote Fay’s comment in your linked article), “What the hell, start again.”

    So, I asked my favorite characters in the story to get on a lifeboat with me, promising a better place, and then sank the whole novel.

    Now, I’m in the middle of revising the new one, and it’s hard and time-consuming and, oh, so rewarding. I don’t mind having sunk that previous version.

    Well, I might have cried a little at the time… 😉

  4. Sima Dimitrijev says:

    Writing is thinking; it goes through numerous feedback loops, which are effectively self-revisions that create the as-good-as-it-gets work by the author. Feedback by agents, editors, and others offers the opportunity for collective “thinking” and revisions that can create a collective as-good-as-it-gets work for much broader audience, which is still intellectually owned by the author. A smartly “selfish” author should always undertake a revision in response to a useful feedback.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Writing is kind of like running a marathon. It’s the build up that seems insurmountable. But with enough training we start to believe we can do it and we write the book/enroll in the race. Then in the first mile, we approach a hill we hadn’t planned on and we think we’ll never get over it. That’s what it’s like when we get our track changes back and there’s red everywhere. All the red can seem daunting. But like the hill, it has to be attacked, because mostly the hill is an illusion and once we get over it we’ll have more confidence in our ability to tackle whatever is to come.

    Enough with the exposition – Revising sucks and so does the hill. Sure it makes the finish line sweeter, the story better, but it’s still painful! Just being real.

  6. Miriam says:

    Ha! Thanks for keeping it real, Anonymous. I agree with Kevin and Veronica in that you also need to know when a full-scale revision is worth it. To quote the great philosopher Kenny Rogers, “You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run…”

    • D. C. DaCosta says:


      Nearly any discarded episode can be re-worked for a future project.

      I had a 3,000 word event in one novel that was just too darned long. I cut and reworked it to 600 words, and the original version makes a great stand-alone short story.

      I had another episode that was just too harsh for my protagonist to bear…so I put it into another book and had it happen to a guy who really deserved it. Much better!

  7. D. C. DaCosta says:

    Question for Miriam:

    Why do you buy a book if it’s not actually ready?

  8. Miriam says:

    We’re agents, not publishers, D.C., so we don’t buy, we sell. Most of the stuff we see is far from ready for publication and it’s our job to get it to a place where it’s simply ready to sell. Hopefully, a smart editor sees the potential in what we submit to them and is willing to work with the author to make it into a published book. So, there are many layers (and lots of revising) between the author’s “finished” manuscript and the book with a publisher’s imprimatur on it.

  9. Lynn says:

    Miriam, needless to say revisions are a necessary part of the process, but if I could only incorporate your idea of zen into it, the whole thing may become less painful!

    When I first started my WIP, I had only the ending and a title in mind. Both were extremely important and I didn’t think I would change either one. As I wrote, however, I realized the title had to go. It wasn’t easy, but I’m happy to say the ending has stayed.

    Last year around this time I thought I was on my final revision. Well, one year later after cutting, adding, mixing and baking (Sorry, my mind jumped to making Christmas cookies later on today!) it took an extra year of revisions to finally come to a point where I feel I can give it to several beta readers.

    For me the hard part wasn’t the revisions, it was knowing when to stop. It’s never going to be perfect. As Hosseini said, “It’ll never be as good as you imagined.” I was taking out a comma, then putting it back in, putting a word in, then taking it back out…. I would rewrite a passage, let it sit for a week and then realize it was written better before I rewrote it. What can I say, revisions are important, but there comes a time to stop and let another pair of eyes read it.

    Happy Holidays to you and yours!

  10. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    By the way, Boys Life paid a high 4 figure amount, not five! And I agree with D.C. in that I never throw anything away-the Black Swan that has had agents hiding on the fire escape all summer waiting for reinforcements to arrive started back in 1998 as a backdoor attempt to crash the Oprah book club; it was “good” but only so, because it kept trying to rewite itself as a YA book which I was trying to avoid because the YA market hadn’t rebounded from the implosion of a few years earlier. Several years into a new century, I impulsively decided to let it be what it wanted to be and watched while it tossed about 30% of itself aside to become what it is now. And Prince Charming is still cooling his heels in protective custody in his comfortable 12th Century monastery far beyond the reach of the Aunt Polly Brigade that wants to reeducate him for his own good… By the way, any thoughts on how revisions R. L. Stine went through?

  11. Siri Kirpal Kaur Khalsa says:

    I revise as I g. As I hear them/see them, the sudden ooh!-I-could-add-that-there, the slower hmm-that-really-doesn’t-belong-in-this-book get taken care of.

    Revisions after that sometimes fill me with joy: oh, this is going to be so much better! Others, I wonder at the sanity of the person requesting the revisions. But…

    I would a thousand times rather do my own dirty work than have someone take their creative frustrations out on my writing without getting my approval first. I’ve had it happen. And I don’t approve of it.

  12. jeffo says:

    I mostly enjoy revision. For me, writing is a two part (well, a lot more than that, really) process: drafting, then crafting. Both are fun for me, in different ways. The crafting part is that fine tuning. I feel like I’m sanding or doing fine detail work on a carving or something, and it’s enjoyable, but in a different way from the rush of drafting.

    Of course, I’ve not yet reached the stage where I’ve had an editor send me a thousand pages of notes on my 300 page manuscript. Maybe I’ll look at it differently when I get to that point.

  13. Sometimes I find it so easy to re-write and re-edit a portion of my work that I become derelict in writing the chapters that follow. Other times, my focus is on completing the story before I forget the ideas that came into mind. For me, the workflow is an ebb and flow of intensity and where I focus my efforts. I know the process of writing is different for every author. The methods that work well for one might work against another. I can say this with confidence. Each of us is limited by the knowledge we have at the time, and can only reach our own plateau. It certainly helps to have a second pair of eyes with a fresh objective view take a look at one’s work. The combined input of two brains is far less limiting than one.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Please type the characters of this captcha image in the input box

Please type the characters of this captcha image in the input box

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>