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Revisions: killing the caterpillar

Revisions are hard.

Finishing a book is very satisfying. You’re pretty darn proud of yourself for completing such a big project. Maybe you tinker with it a little bit, a sort of loving dusting off of a favorite trinket . You spot a few typos, maybe remove a sentence that has always bothered you. And then, with the flourish of one who has triumphed against great odds, you set your work aside to begin something new.

But you are not done. Oh no, you are definitely not done. You’d like to think you are. But, because you are committed to improving your skill, you submit your work to the trusted eyes of a critique partner, an editor, an agent at a workshop — someone who will tell you everything you don’t want to hear, but need to. And then, when you have picked up the pieces of your shattered ego, you take an honest look at your book and realize they’re right.

It is time for the dreaded revisions.

Unlike editing — which is really just tidying up the clutter and setting all your grammar in order, maybe polishing a paragraph here and there — revisions are fundamental changes. It is the demolition of part of your house and rebuilding those rooms to a better design that makes the whole house more of a pleasure to live in. It might be the complete removal of a character whose arc didn’t work. Perhaps the whole ending must change. Things that worked in your head don’t always work on the page. Thank goodness for trusted advisors who spot these problems before you send your book out into the world.

The problem is this: your book is more like a caterpillar than a house. It is a living thing in your mind and heart, a thing of your own creation. You know you really wanted a butterfly, but a caterpillar is pretty good, right? I mean, it’s working just fine as a caterpillar. It might even be one of those more unique caterpillars with hairs, spikes or other appendages that make it stand out above the rest. Perhaps it has particularly striking patterns of color. The more you think about it, there’s really nothing wrong with a caterpillar. And you made it. So that already means its special.

But it’s not a butterfly. Publishers only sell butterflies. And somewhere in the DNA of your caterpillar is everything it needs to become a butterfly. Except, first it has to dissolve into primordial mush and start again. It needs to become a revised version of itself.

What makes this process especially hard is that the caterpillar is not going to go through the whole pupa stage itself. Nope. You are going to have to undo your own creation. It is incredibly hard to “unsee” the complete, and possibly lovely, caterpillar in front of you. But you must. You can’t simply paint wings on it. That’s just a caterpillar with wings. It’s wrong. In fact, it’s worse than a plain caterpillar because it’s pretending to be something it’s not.

So you have to tune your mind out to the lyrics of the song in your head, those words you sing automatically, that come unbidden and easy. You have to, because there’s a better song that you won’t hear until you can shut the noise of the first one out completely.

You have to kill the caterpillar. And it really is a deathblow. You will never go back to those first words. But, when the shock of what you’ve done fades, the idea of the butterfly still hangs in the air. And you begin a new conjuring act, weaving the threads of your thoughts into something even more remarkable, which wouldn’t have been possible without that painful metamorphosis. As you see the new shape emerge, there will be something familiar about it. But this new creation is something that readers will want to have light upon their shoulder. And when they exclaim at it in delight, you will have honored the sacrifice of the caterpillar deep within.

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Sep 28, 2020

Beautiful description of the process...

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