I’m doing something I’ve never done before–extensively revising the first draft as I go along. Usually, I blurt out the first draft, either by dictating it or by typing it, or by a mixture of both. This time I’m revising a lot as I go, and revising can be tricky. How much should I revise before I move on? And why should I revise a chapter ten times if that chapter ends up on the cutting room floor? (Many chapters will end up not making it into my final draft. I know that from experience.) And yet, if I don’t revise, I may miss some key elements of the story or the characters, aspects or details that I need to keep writing. So–what to do? I’ve recently decided not to revise a chapter more than three times in the first draft. That means I can’t revise six to ten pages more than three times.
Because revising has its perils. It can give you a sense of control over something like novel writing that is not really controllable. As John Gardener once said, writing a novel is like setting sail in a rowboat, on the ocean, without a compass.
I used to rewrite the openings of my novels hundreds of times until my friend and writing buddy Marni Jackson pointed out that this exercise was a waste of time. I revised like this because it gave me the illusion of control but it stopped me from moving forward with my story. In fact, endless revising on the first draft can feel like masturbating without an orgasm. You think you’re making yourself feel good. But you’re really driving yourself crazy with frustration.