First Draft, Second Draft, Third . . .

ripples in a pondI wrote last time about revision, and I’ll return to revision here. It’s one of my favorite topics, because revision is one of my favorite activities.

Yes, of course, the doing over can be frustrating. My first drafts have a way, initially, of seeming . . . well, not perfect—I always assume the need to polish—but pretty darned good. And then there is the discovery, made new each time, that each small change is like dropping a pebble into a pond, that chasing those widening ripples through the entire manuscript can be maddening.

Once I get past defending my first effort, though, or resisting the consequences of change, I love returning to a piece I’m deeply committed to and making it sing. That process—and its result—is one of the most satisfying in all my working life.

The revision of the memoir I’m working on right now, however, has evolved as a rather different process than any I’ve experienced before. The manuscript has truly required a re-vision, a new vision, and a rather different way of working. I like discovering new and different ways to do my work. Challenges keep me fresh.

I wrote the memoir the first time in verse. Using verse wasn’t just an experiment. Doing it that way seemed to give me the permission I needed to approach my own story safely. The quick-in, quick-out that verse provides allowed me to leave out all I didn’t choose to reveal, especially about other people. Eventually I discovered that it allowed me to leave out whatever I didn’t want to touch about myself, too, and that was the problem. I’ve already written here about the choice to start over in prose—April 21st, “The Letting Go,” and May 5th, “And Again!”—so I’ll move on.

I began my careful way through a new draft. I’m inclined to call what I was doing slogging, because sometimes it felt that way, but it was a slog that was taking me where I needed to go. I found a new form that retains some of the verse but rewrites far more into prose, prose that demands I go deep, and the whole evolved into a shape I liked.

Taking what I have already created in verse and reworking it in prose was an interesting and challenging process, though. Sometimes the movement from verse to prose seemed to be working so brilliantly that I found myself thinking, “I should do this every time, write all my manuscripts first in verse to find their essence and then in prose to expand.” Because the individual stories have already been told but in a highly condensed, powerfully felt way, I could relax into the material, explore it for nuance, extend it into worlds I’d leaped over the first time through. My work grew stronger.

Sometimes, though, a topic played out in verse recast as a prose story seemed flat, even tedious. I’d go back to the verse, examine the two versions side by side, and create a third, trying to retain the best of both tellings. And wonder if I was beating a dead horse.

In the midst of this work I spent time on an island with two alumni of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Program in Writing for Children and Young Adults where I used to teach. We were there to plan a north woods writers’ retreat—more about that another time—but as we planned we also exchanged manuscripts.

One of the women pointed out that two of the five sections I had completed still didn’t go deeply enough, and I had already guessed that and was grateful to have the work I knew lay ahead affirmed.

The other, both a writer and a librarian, pointed to a deeper concern. She said she didn’t find enough of a hook, enough reason for the people who came into her library to ask for my story. She talked about the memoirs folks did ask for, again and again. And I knew instantly that she was right. That’s also something I’d known from the beginning, but I’d put my knowing on a shelf, and I’d had no plans for dealing with it. Again, I was grateful, though a bit scared, too.

So I came home and started again at the beginning, seeking to find a way in that would serve both my personal story and the readers I must draw if this manuscript is going to be published.

Third draft. Third and final? I always think this one is going to be final, hope it’s going to be final.

So today once more I sit down to write. Good work. Work that I love to do.

And the love . . . that’s what matters.

10 thoughts on “First Draft, Second Draft, Third . . .

  1. Carleen M. Tjader

    Wonderful pieces of wisdom today in your post. After not liking revision very much lately, I finally, yesterday, had a good afternoon with my most recent manuscript.
    Now I’ll see if I still like it today!
    I also appreciated your post about the truth we do not say…so true.

  2. katelynchwrites

    Marion-great post about revising. I’m presently slogging through a revision that has left me wondering why on earth I’m doing this. BUT, I have to remind myself that I do love this work and that some days are harder than others. I try and remind myself about the ‘vision’ of the work, or why I wrote it to begin with. It’s like coming home.

  3. alhenry

    Marion, great to see someone writing about that old bugbear: revision. I agree that you only truly become a writer when you are able to embrace revising. Having other eyes on a WIP, as you noted, makes this much easier. We’re too close to our own work to see where it’s confusing or overwritten or too subtle for readers to follow. Off to revise!

  4. Jane Buchanan

    I was just ruminating on revision myself–that moment when the good of the story begins to outweigh the attachment to those special turns of phrase one is so pleased with. That’s when I start to feel I’m on the right track!

      1. katelynchwrites

        I have to leave you this quote by literary agent, Joan Paquette:
        (I keep it at my desk)
        “The magic comes in discovering what we truly want this story to be and coaxing that dream out of the words we are crafting.”


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