Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Wrestling the Octopus of Revisions

"Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor." --Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

She's done it again, Anne Lamott has--she's helped me with an aspect of writing. This time, the subject is revision. She even puts a face on it. Tell me if this doesn't describe our wrestling matches with words!

In Bird by Bird Lamott writes: "There's an image I've heard people in recovery use--that getting all of one's addictions under control is a little like putting an octopus to bed. I think this perfectly describes the process of solving various problems in your final draft. You get a bunch of the octopus's arms neatly tucked under the covers--that is, you've come up with a plot, resolved the conflict...gotten the tone down pat--but two arms are still flailing around. Maybe the dialogue (doesn't) match, or there is that one character who still seems one-dimensional...But you finally get those arms under the sheets, too, and are about to turn off the lights when another long sucking arm breaks free..."

Now I know why I feel so exhausted--I've been wrestling with an eight-legged creature here. And each of its legs needed its own bell-ringing go-round and could not be ignored. Whew. Then, about the time all seemed  settled, another leg would wave wildly again, and I'd have to revisit the problem. The legs I wrestled with include:

1) Voice. Is it consistent, authentic, and appealing?
2) Characters. Do I really know--and connect with--them?
3) Tension/Conflict/Narrative. Is there a good balance?
4) Point of View. Have I stayed true to it (in my case, third-person limited)?
5) Description/Sensory Details. Have I used them effectively to help draw the reader into the story?
6) Mastery of the Craft (showing not telling, active not passive, weeding out of redundant words/phrases, etc.). Have I identified--and corrected--most of the weaknesses?
7) Plot. Have I patched all the holes?
8) Story. Is it the best it can be? When do revisions end and queries begin?

When do we know when we are done?

Ms. Lamott goes on to answer this very question: "...even though all the sucking disks on that one tentacle are puckering open and closed, and the slit-shaped pupils of the octopus are looking derisively at you...and even though you know that your manuscript is not perfect and you'd hoped for so much more, but if you also know that there is simply no more steam in the pressure cooker and that it's the very best you can do for now--well? I think this means that you are done."

So, as I finish my last few pages of revisions, I am staring down the octopus and telling him we are done. Finished. Kaput. Go away! Well, at least until the next round...

In the meantime, here, among other books on writing and the many fantastic blogger posts that came to aid me in my corner of the ring during this process, are some links that I'm sure you'll find helpful, too: "Revision Checklist," Nathan Bransford; "What the Fiction Editor Looks For, Part 1" and "Part 2," Rachelle Gardner; "Revision is a State of Mind," Mary Kohl; and "Ten Mistakes Writers' Don't See (But Can Easily Fix When They Do)," Holt Uncensored.

What arm of the revisions octopus has been waving in your face lately? Do you enjoy the sport, or have to fight your way out of the tangle?

"There is always too much: Any good book spills over the sides, overwhelms the structure created
to contain it. Now you have to have some backbone and keep the book honest to its cause." --Philip Gerard

*photo courtesy of sxc.hu/


  1. Bird by Bird is an excellent book. Every writer NEEDS to read it. I hate revisions. I'm a writer that loves first drafts. Everything is so new.

    But we write so revise we must. Some writers never submit, because they're afraid or they think their story isn't ready. There has to be a balance.

    Great post. Excellent!

  2. Great links! Thank you. And I love her description of when you know you're done. That fits so much better than any other description I've ever heard. Because I just don't think I'll ever get to the point I think it's perfect. Ever.

  3. I once asked an author how she knew when she was done. She said it was when she changed something - and ended up changing it back three minutes later! Oh, how often I find myself doing that! Could my mother have been right years ago when she said I was a perfectionist? :)

  4. Great breakdown, Kenda. Thanks for doing this and also for the links. My WIP will be better for it!
    Have a great weekend,

  5. Thanks for the comments :-)

    Robyn, you're so right--we need to edit yet we also need to turn off the editor's voice at a point and just go for it!

    Janet and Peggy--"perfect" and "perfectionist" are words we should cut out of our writers' dictionaries, don't you think?

    And Karen, hope the links will be helpful. I know they were to me. Thanks for stopping by...

  6. Awesome! Great post, Kenda. Thanks for the links. :-)

  7. Perfect analogy! I may have to make myself a revision octopus, and label the arms to keep myself on the right track.

    Thanks, Kenda!

  8. I love the imagery in this analogy! I think I have more than one octopus running (er...swimming?) around here!