Revision: A Creative Approach to Writing and Rewriting Fiction
By David Michael Kaplan
Story Press, 1997
David Michael Kaplan’s Revision focuses a wide-angle lens on a process many writers dread and disdain — revision, the reworking or “re-seeing” of a story, novel, or creative nonfiction piece until it is perfect, until the piece emerges as the fully-realized portrait the writer first imagined.
To get to that fully-realized portrait involves more than changing a word or phrase here and there, or deleting or slinging paragraphs around, or switching point-of-view from third to first person. It encompasses all those aspects of craft, but also involves rethinking the story as a whole, then re-imagining and reworking its parts until its meaning rings true. It is, as Kaplan writes, a process that involves the “desire for perfection” though, of course, not perfection itself.
“The purpose of writing a story is to rewrite it,” he writes.
For Kaplan, revision begins well before a writer writes. It begins with preparing to write a story, playing around with character, plot, point of view, images, until a story shapes itself beyond being a splinter in the mind’s eye. Revision is constant. It leads the writer to the first draft — with permission to get the story down first, no matter how out-of-whack the draft may be — to the first read to cuts and adds to punching up the prose so no words are wasted.
Chapter by chapter, Kaplan takes readers through the process, using examples from his own drafts as well as from drafts by other writers to illustrate it. His approach to revision is thorough but not intimidating, a workable process. (I experimented with the process, revising a chapter of my novel; I’ve re-imagined the whole thing, eliminating contrived scenes, making the drama of the piece much more realistic to the characters and plot.)
Kaplan’s advice rarely falters. His chapter on writing good endings, however, is murky. He does well pointing out flawed endings — avoid, for example, inserting movie-of-the-week message endings, or deus ex machina resolutions — but is unclear exactly how a writer gets to a good ending, one that “fully, faithfully and surprisingly resolves the story’s conflict.”
A valuable piece of advice Kaplan offers is to set aside fiddling with style until the very last of the revision process. Being obsessed with style while writing the first draft can be particularly debilitating.
“A special word about style,” he writes. “This is often the A1 anxiety producer in the first draft. You realize as you’re writing that your syntax is tortured, sentences don’t parse, you’re vocabulary is fractured, your language is clunky and insipid . . . You are a bad writer, no two ways around it.”
What really makes a bad writer, to Kaplan’s mind, though, isn’t first-draft gibberish, it’s disdain for revision. His message: writing is never complete. Revision is the writing process itself, it makes writers, writers.
“Dedication to revision,” he writes, “is what makes the difference between a mediocre writer and a good one, and often between a good writer and a great one.”