Monday, April 26, 2010

Total Face Transplants and the Art and Artifice of Revising

Last week, Spain announced that it had performed the first total face transplant. Shucks, I've been doing them for years. Whole body transplants even. Everything from minor cosmetic surgery to replacement of all vital organs and systems, right down to the heart and spleen.

Okay, admittedly, my transplants weren't on actual human beings, but it doesn't mean my subjects weren't soulless either. I'm talking about my WIPs.

I've always sort of thought of the revision process as the messy underworld of writing, the thing everyone knows about but doesn't really care to think about how it's done. Sort of like embalming. I mean, as writers, we think of ourselves as artists - or, rather, artistes. A work is produced by sheer creative force, a process as wonderful and painful as giving birth - or, in my case, passing kidney stones. It's a beautiful thing.

The process of revising is not beautiful. It's messy. It's - yes, I'll say it - mechanical. We take a completed work of art, the Draft, and descend upon it with hammer and chisel and we begin to chip away, patch, discard, replace and otherwise disfigure until the next iteration may or may not look anything like the original.

And yet, it's better. And because it's better, we make another go at it. And another. And another. To take the analogy one painful step beyond reason: For me, the writing and revising process is like starting out with the idea of sculpting Napolean on a horse, coming up with SpongeBob SquarePants sitting astride Gary the Snail and then, after revisions, getting George Washington crossing the Potomac. What happened to the original vision?! It's still there. It's the soul of a work.

Not a single one of my writings has escaped this process. True, I have stories that retain the heart or vision of the original idea and so are fully recognizable as the work I set out to create, having perhaps only changed in a few minor ways. But the vast majority of my writing undergoes iteration after iteration of revision where pretty much every word has been changed at least once, every sentence painstakingly agonized over, every paragraph, scene and chapter pulled out and replaced. It doesn't feel like art, it feels like surgery.

But surgery is a skill.

And as with any skill, you can only refine it by doing it.


  1. Such a great analogy! I'm currently taking the scalpel to one of my novels since I keep getting rejections on my partials. Something's wrong, and I'm going to try my best to fix it. :)

  2. I'm an obsessive nipper and tucker :)

  3. LOL! I luv it! I'm not just an artist. I'm a friggin' surgeon!

    Great post! ;0) Made me smile.