Writing as Sculpture: Sanding the Elephant

Sculpture: From Antiquity to the Present Day (2 Volume Set)The rewrite of Vodnik continues. I’m on page 79 out of 186 (not the final page count–just the Word doc I’m working in). And . . . just as before, I’m discovering that this stage of the revision process is more difficult than I thought it would be. The closest metaphor I can come up with is anti-sculpting (something I know pretty much nothing about, so I might get completely wrong).

With sculpture, you start out with a solid block of stone. You then go about removing everything in it that isn’t your end product. If you’re sculpting an elephant, you take off all the bits that aren’t elephant, and what you’re left with is (an elephant, hopefully). With writing, it’s the opposite. You start with nothing, and you add material until you have your final book. (Yes, there will be some editing and deleting and the like, but the bottom line is that you’re always going from nothing to something, as opposed to going from something to something else.)

This will make more sense as I keep going (I hope).

The first steps of both processes are fairly similar: you add (or subtract) a large amount of material, relatively quickly. Yes, things might pop up–an unexpected plot problem halfway through, a pesky bit of weak granite–that make you have to revise your ultimate vision, but for the most part, that first step is hammering your way through the material to get a rough estimation of what you want the thing to look like. By the time you’re done with this stage, what you have generally looks like what you want it to become. It’s recognizable as an elephant. The problem is, it’s not a very good elephant.

Oh, it’s good in that people look at it and say “That’s an elephant,” instead of “Is that a duck?” But it’s bad in that no one’s going to want to spend much time admiring it. (Unless you’re still early on in your development stages as an artist, and you need the encouragement.) So you roll up your sleeves and get to work on step two. Now, you’ve switched to a slightly smaller chisel. You’re rounding out pieces of the sculpture. Some big chunks of stone are still falling to the floor, but you’re using a different skill set than what you were using for step one. You can’t be as cavalier. No sledgehammers are involved. And once you’re done, your elephant looks much better. It’s still no work of art. But it’s a pretty darn good elephant.

But the difference between a good elephant and a great elephant–or an immortal Elephant for the Ages–is all in the details. The subtle nuances. And those come out in step three, where you’re not using a chisel at all. You’re sanding and filing the statue. Taking off just enough stone to be just right. The difference between Michelangelo’s David and some random statue is all in the details.

I’m not claiming I’m writing a masterpiece here. What I’m saying is that I’m discovering at each stage of the revision process I’m using different tools. They’re all difficult. Just because huge chunks of text aren’t getting changed or deleted doesn’t mean it’s easier. This morning, it took me an hour to figure out how I wanted to revise 100 words (it went from 100 to 285, and they were difficult words to write–it was an action scene that’s pivotal for the main character, but it’s also racially charged. How to make it tactful, not too over the top, emotionally challenging, interesting, and believable all at once–not the easiest task.)

Some of this struggle is likely due to the fact that I’ve never (ever) revised a book this much. If I had, some of my earlier books would likely be published by now. (Unfortunately, you can’t tell someone who hasn’t revised enough that they haven’t revised enough–because to them, they feel like they have. Does that make sense? People talked about how much effort revision took–and I agreed with them, feeling like I’d put the same amount of effort and struggle into my own revisions. And then I was pushed to keep revising. It’s an eye-opening experience.) So hopefully this is a process I get better at in time.

For the meantime, I have a schedule worked out to be finished with the revision on the 25th, a whole week ahead of schedule. I thought I’d be done way sooner than that, because when I looked over Stacy’s notes, I didn’t see any huge changes. No need for large swathes to be revised. But it turns out fine tuning some of these scenes is just as difficult as making major edits to larger scenes.

Go figure.

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