Those who follow this blog must be annoyed with me. (At least, I hope there are some who follow it!) Where have I been? I haven’t posted anything for awhile. I hope you’ll forgive me. It isn’t that I haven’t been working; on the contrary, I’ve been working steadily for the past week on The Snake.
I finished the first draft. After letting the manuscript sit for awhile, I started revising. Beginning writers—especially when they’re in school—don’t understand why revision is so important. “I wrote it once. Why do I have to write it again?”
The first answer to that is, “Do you want people to read it, or don’t you care?” If you don’t care about your work enough to do your best to make it your best, why should I waste my time on it? Life is too short. There are too many fantastic books to read. I’m not going to waste time on garbage. You owe your reader your best. You owe yourself your best as well.
Not everything I write is wonderful. But it’s always the best I can do.
However, that’s not the real reason I revise. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, I don’t really know where I’m going when I start writing. The Snake began with Omar, a boy who wants a pet snake. That was all I had when I began. I didn’t really know who Omar was, what his family and friends were like. I didn’t know why he wanted a pet snake or how the people around him would react to the idea of his having one. In a way, it’s like meeting a new group of people whose company you discover you enjoy. You don’t know them well, but as you do things together, you learn more about them.
My friend David Gifaldi, a much better writer than I am, expresses it well. You have to hang out with your characters. If you want them to talk to you, you have to talk to them. They’ll reveal a lot of interesting things about themselves over time that you never would have suspected. They just won’t do it right away. They have to learn to know you and trust you. As David puts it, “They only talk to their friends.”
When I write the first draft, it’s full steam ahead. I keep writing, no matter what. I don’t read over what I’ve written. I seldom make changes or corrections. My goal is to get the story down. Yet the story keeps changing even as I’m writing it. I’m getting new ideas. How old is Omar’s sister? What grade is he in? What does he look like? What are his parents’ names and what do they do for a living? The characters of the last chapter may have the same names. However, they are very different from the ones in the first chapter. I’ve also learned more about snakes. Some of the information I put in earlier chapters is wrong. I have to go back and change it.
In other words, I’m not just rewriting. I’m re-discovering. The first draft marks out the territory. The second and subsequent drafts bring it together so that all its elements are consistent with one another.
If you had asked me what this story was about when I began writing, I would have said, “It’s a story about a boy who wants a pet snake.” If you asked me that question now, I’d say, “It’s a story about how families work; how the needs and actions of one member influence everyone else. It’s about love, sacrifice, kindness, understanding. Most important, it’s about overcoming fear.”
Pretty heavy themes! If I knew it was going to end up like that, I never would have started. I just wanted to write a simple story about kids and pets. My characters wouldn’t allow it. “There’s more to us than that,” they said. “If you’re going to put us in your book, do us justice. Don’t make us less than we are.”
That’s why we revise. Always be the best you can be. Never be less than you are.