I’ve always found “polishing” to be too elegant a description for the act of a writer’s revision, which can often feel more than a little violent. Over the course of a semester, my students in a fiction workshop simplified the famous, but also quite elegant, “Murder Your Darlings” to a more blunt “Kill Your Babies.” This, I think, adequately captures how it can feel for a writer when she is numbly staring down at page after page of words that look done, that even read as done, but godammit, they’re not done. The writer somehow knows this, even if she has no idea what to do next. This can understandably lend itself to certain murderous feelings.
At this moment, the writer’s process takes on an enormous complexity, and despite the best efforts of workshop leaders and creative writing textbook authors, it is unable to be easily simplified into specific rules. To get a grasp of the type of precision required of the writer during revision, I like to look at this line:
So we beat on, a boat against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Anybody recognize this? It’s the last sentence from The Great Gatsby, and on first read, it appears to be a perfect line. Except that it isn’t. This is a perfect line:
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Ridiculously minor revision, right, “a boat” becomes “boats”? Singular to plural. But it is only this second version, as it appeared in the published book, that accurately captures the condition of The Great Gatsby’s characters. Think about the metaphor. If they are one boat, that suggests some sort of unified condition. If they are boats plural, then Nick, Daisy, Jordan, and Gatsby are isolated. By extension, we—the readers, Americans, human beings in general—are all isolated, and that is precisely the condition that Fitzgerald conveys in his novel. That is The Great Gatsby.
Let’s examine one more short passage from the book, this time dealing with just Daisy:
“Listen, Nick,” she broke out suddenly, “did you ever hear what I said when my child was born?”
“Well, she was less than an hour old and Tom was God knows where. I woke up out of the ether with an utterly abandoned feeling as if I’d been raped by a company of soldiers and left out in a field to die.”
I actually really like this last line of dialogue. Daisy’s choice of description for giving birth quite efficiently offers a brash snapshot of character: one line and the reader has a pretty clear sense of her. There’s just one problem: the character revealed by the dialogue is not The Great Gatsby’s Daisy.
Perhaps she’s in there under the surface somewhere, but within the novel’s surface itself—how Nick sees Daisy, how Gatsby sees Daisy, how Nick sees Daisy through how Gatsby sees Daisy—this Daisy is way too sharp. She’s lost a bit of the fuzziness, the abstraction crucial for the role she ultimately plays in the book as a character revealed through glimpses. So it appears in the published book like this:
Well she was less than hour old and Tom was God knows where. I woke up out of the ether with an utterly abandoned feeling…I said: “I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”
Still offers quite a hit of character, right? Tonally more subtle but still pretty damn sharp. Daisy, however, remains less defined, more an open question. The statement about what “a girl can be in this world” hints at greater depths, but we don’t actually know this woman, which is exactly what the novel needs.
This, by the way, is not how we often think of the process of revision. Usually, we think of revision as making qualities less abstract, more clearly defined, but this example suggests something more complex: that the real trick is in discovering precisely what the story demands—even, as in this case, if it means a slight pull back in focus to deliver it.
And that, perhaps, is as accurate a description of revision as anything else, but as we shall see with other authors, a story can have an absurd variety of needs.