Every revision has its own character. There’s the first messy revision, during which you try to cull from the confusing mass of pages some sort of a narrative. The second brings with it massive structural changes (in my case, cutting the timeline from ten years to two, changing one of the major settings, and killing off several characters). The agonizing third revision, when you have to start cutting the stuff you really like. And the fourth, where amidst the carnage left from the last revision, you start to see the plot holes as possibilities instead of demoralizing obstacles, and remember, if only briefly, why you loved writing in the first place.
And then there’s the fifth revision. Where you hate everything.
I put off my fifth revision for months. Every time I went near my manuscript, I recoiled from it in horror. I couldn’t believe that I had spent so much time producing such boring, unreadable crap. I decided to put in a drawer, where it may have remained until this day had I not gone out for drinks with a friend in the midst of his own novel revision. When he asked me about my novel, I told him that I hated and couldn’t work on it. He thought for a moment, and then said:
“Can you hate it and work on it at the same time?”
I considered this. For weeks, people had been telling me that I should focus on querying or put it away for a while, until I no longer hated it. The general consensus seemed to be that working on a novel you hate was a bad idea. It hadn’t occurred to me that that might not be true, that in fact it might be possible to use the hate in a productive way, to channel it into making the story better. Either way, it couldn’t hurt to try.
I printed the manuscript out and attacked it with a red pen, marking it up with such helpful notes as “this is all terrible” and “make less bad.” And though I still pretty much hated all of it, an interesting thing happened: because I was no longer attached to the story or the words I’d used to bring it into being, it became easier to cut things that didn’t serve the narrative. My favorite movie theatre scene? Out. The penultimate chapter that was the seed for my novel and formed the first chapter I ever wrote? Gone. As much as I used to love these scenes, now that I hated everything, I could finally see that they were no longer useful. Now that I wasn’t distracted by my love of the story and the characters, I could see where the plot holes were, where the characters’ actions seemed inconsistent. The loss of an emotional connection to the story had brought with it something just as helpful: a ruthlessly detached, birds-eye view on how to make it better.
A few weeks and one very bloody manuscript later, I finally have something – not something I love, not yet, but something I can work with. As it turns out, hating my novel was the best thing I could have done for it. And with every scene I cut, every plot hole I identify, every pretty sentence I delete, I can feel myself start to fall in love with it all over again.