Lose the first draft. Deep Revision: Part 2.
This is Part Two of a 5-part tutorial called Deep Revision. This series is designed to help you prepare for The Little Bird Writing Contest.
I lost a file once — no hard copy printed — of a finished, polished, multi-drafted story. It was my best version of this story, and I’d spent years on it. The file became corrupted when I was at Banff Centre for the Arts, using a borrowed drive to back it up. I was supposed to hand the story in to my mentor the next day.
The story was gone. I had to rewrite it from scratch. From memory.
The new version is way better than the one I lost. I know I can’t prove that to anybody, but it’s true. The new story still had all of those years of improvements held within it, but it was written in one solid voice, instead of a patchwork of edits.
This experience taught me how to recognize true revision.
Your turn. Your assignment is to trick yourself into losing your first draft. Here’s how.
1. Examine your (printed) story. Find a paragraph or two that you would like to renovate. This could be a scene that needs more detail, less summary, a character who needs physical description, or a setting that you want to come alive.
Invite your intuition to this examination. Watch for a clue, a tug, or an invitation as you read over your draft. You will feel this in your mind or your body, depending on who you are. Most important is to not overthink it! When you feel a tug, don’t talk yourself out of it and find a “better” scene to work on. You don’t have to go through your whole piece thoroughly, either. First impulses are best.
2. Whether you found a place intuitively or just had to make one up for the exercise, it doesn’t matter. Label this place on your manuscript with a symbol. I draw stars with highlighters for this. You can also use letters: “A” or “B” will do fine. Now in your notebook, on a fresh blank page, write a matching symbol (or “A”) at the top of the page.
3. Now put your manuscript away so you can’t see it.
4. Close your eyes and re-imagine that scene, character, or place in your mind. Experience what it is to be there. Focus on the sensory details. It can be good to focus on something small, as if you have zoomed in with a camera and are now studying the intricacy of a close-up. It can also be good to focus on a physical sensation, like texture or temperature. However you want to re-experience the scene, do it fully and lose yourself in it. Don’t do this halfway. Keep your eyes closed until you feel that you are there. Don’t worry about sentences. Forget sentences. You’re going beyond language right now. Feel the scene.
5. Open your eyes and freewrite the scene again in your notebook, from scratch. Try not to activate your memory - you’re not trying to remember what your words were in your original draft. Your job is to rewrite this piece from scratch. You left language when you re-imagined it with your eyes closed. Now you’re going to write the scene directly from the source, the place that exists before language pins it down.
6. Repeat these steps as necessary, flipping from your printed draft to your notebook and back again as you rewrite scenes and sections. Keep using those letters or symbols to keep your place.
7. At the end of your writing sessions, transcribe and collect the rewritten sections into a new blank document on your computer. You will build your new story this way, using a combination of old and fresh material.
Important: leave the original document behind. Please type a new document to free yourself from the old one. The symbols/letters you marked on the draft are your trail — use them to help you organize your material.
Enjoy this deep work. Feel free to share how it went in the comments below. And in case you missed it, here's Deep Revision Part 1.
And I’ll see you here next week for Deep Revision Part 3.