#1: Reviser’s Block

Welcome to Story Hospital! I’m so excited to be getting this project underway.

Dear Story Nurse,

I have written myself under an avalanche. I did NaNoWriMo, and I really liked that, so I did another one. I’m pretty good at finding a way to write at least a few words every day no matter what else is going on in my life (job, family, world politics, etc.). But then stories keep piling up. (I mostly write horror shorts, in case that matters.) I have a critique group, I get revision suggestions, but when it comes time to sit down and write, it’s almost impossible to get myself to do revisions—even if I think they’re good ideas that will make the story better. Maybe some writers write perfect first drafts, but not me—these stories canNOT go out to editors as they are. So here they sit.

It’s not that I sit around doing nothing! I write the drafts of new stories, which I know is productive. But then there are *more* stories that need revisions. That I am not doing. Help!

Snowed Under (she/her)

Dear Snowed Under,

Thank you for writing in with this problem. First, I want to affirm that it’s a real problem. I suspect that when you talk with other writers about it, they roll their eyes and declare loudly that they wish they had too many great ideas for stories and just couldn’t stop writing. But the real issue here isn’t too much writing. It’s not enough revising. Specifically, it’s this:

when it comes time to sit down and write, it’s almost impossible to get myself to do revisions

Even if you didn’t have a billion story ideas, I suspect you would still struggle with revisions. It’s easy to think of the writing as taking you away from the revising, but don’t get too caught up in that love triangle. The relationship between you and revising, between you and the work you’ve already created—work that you know needs more work—is what’s at the heart of this. Much as someone who’s happily monogamous won’t cheat, if things were peachy-keen between you and revising, other story ideas couldn’t come between you. So let’s see if we can get you on the path toward a happy ménage: writing sometimes, revising sometimes, feeling good about it most of the time. (No writer feels good about writing all the time, alas.)

Here are some possibilities for what’s getting between you and doing those revisions:

  1. Self-doubt/perfectionism. You’re very aware that your drafts are not ready to send out. Are you concerned that no matter how much you revise, they’ll never be ready enough, and therefore even starting revision will be pointless?
  2. Fear of rejection. Are you projecting a few steps down the road to where you have revised a story and sent it out and then it gets turned down, or it’s published and then readers or critics dislike it? Revision avoidance might be a particularly sneaky type of rejection avoidance.
  3. Anticipation of discomfort. Is the revision process itself a struggle for you, mentally or physically? Do you have the tools you need, and do they fit your body? (If you’re using a red pen to mark up manuscripts and you keep getting painful writer’s cramp, it might be time to find a different process.) Does revision feel exhausting, or call on a part of your brain that gets tired out easily?
  4. Shame. Do you have some attachment to the idea that revision should be easy, and feel embarrassed or angry at yourself because it isn’t? Are you comparing yourself to your peers and coming up short?
  5. Possessiveness. As long as the stories are drafts, they belong to you. Is it hard for you to think about sending them out into the world?
  6. Negative associations. Has something bad happened in the past around revision, or something you associate with revision? Are you mentally bracing for it to happen again, or trying to prevent it from happening again?
  7. Lack of discipline. Usually when we talk about writing discipline, it’s the butt-in-chair “write a page every day” sort, but it sounds like you do that part pretty easily. If you do it too easily, you may never have had to develop a real practice of discipline around your writing work, which leaves you floundering now that you’re confronting the part of the process that’s harder for you.
  8. A recent change. Has something changed in the space where you do your revisions? Have you parted ways with an editor, collaborator, or beta-reader who was very important to your work and influenced how you revised it? Are you getting less sleep, or feeling more pain, or dealing with a life change unrelated to revising at all? If something outside of your work is sapping your strength or attention, that can make a task that’s already difficult feel impossible.
  9. Choice paralysis/overwhelm. You have too many stories to revise and don’t know how to choose which one to do next. Or, all you can see is the hugeness of the pile of things that need revision, and even when you try to tackle it one story at a time, you feel the rest of the pile looming.

I don’t know you, so I don’t know whether these are relevant. But in general, it might be worth sitting down and asking yourself, What thoughts do I have about revision? What emotions come up when I contemplate it? When I try to psych myself up for revision time, what makes it hard? The answers you find to these questions will help you figure out how to start approaching revision in a way that works for you, instead of continuing to try the “just do it” approach that isn’t getting you anywhere.

Finally, some quick tips for routing around or busting through your reviser’s block:

  1. Bribe yourself. Set a very small, repeatable, quantified goal, like “revise three paragraphs” or “spend ten minutes on revisions.” Take an index card and write your goal at the top and the numbers 1 through 10 across the bottom. Every time you reach that small goal, punch out or cross off a number. When you reach 10, redeem that card for a prize! I recommend something small and fun and tangible, like a plastic dinosaur from the 25¢ vending machine at the supermarket, or a bracelet charm. As the rewards pile up, you’ll have a wonderful collection of visual reminders of how awesome you are. And whenever you get stuck, take a break to reorganize your charm collection or make your dinosaurs fight. Once you’ve refreshed your brain, on to the next three paragraphs! Over time, as you get better at revising and it starts to feel easier, you can make the goals and the prizes bigger. But while you’re trying to build habits, start small.
  2. Learn from yourself. What’s a time in the past when you’ve powered your way through a difficult thing or developed a new habit? How did you do it? See if you can translate your success at pumping iron, surviving four years of college, quitting smoking, or flossing your teeth every night into success at revision. And if you’ve successfully and happily revised your writing in the past, figure out what made it work so well and recreate those circumstances as much as possible.
  3. Optimize for revision. I noticed that you said “time to sit down and write”; if you think of it as writing time, of course you’ll want to write. So set out some specific blocks of revising time, as distinct from writing time. Adjust the proportions of writing and revising time as necessary, but you might want to weight revising time fairly heavily until you’ve knocked down a bit of that mountain of waiting work. Develop a system for deciding what to revise first, and if it takes you more than, say, five minutes to pick a story to work on, go in alphabetical order by title. If revising gives you story ideas, keep a notepad or text file handy in which you jot down no more than three sentences summarizing each idea before going back to the revision work. Create some structure that supports the revision process.
  4. Prepare for the worst. As a chronically anxious person, I find that the best counterbalance to anxious avoidance is to imagine the worst-case scenario and then picture myself conquering it. What is the absolute worst thing that could happen if you revised one of those languishing stories? Or, what’s the worst thing that has ever happened during or following revisions? How did you get through it? How would you get through it if it happened again? Make sure you follow through to the part of the exercise where you vanquish that terrible thing and emerge utterly triumphant.
  5. Make it feel good. Now that you’ve imagined your success at the worst-case scenario, try thinking up the best-case scenario. What’s the most fun you’ve ever had revising something? What’s the easiest it’s ever been? How can you make it feel enjoyable and good? Since you have that pile of stories to work on, pick one that’s light and fun and not too challenging. If revision is physically difficult, do it in small chunks and give yourself lots of time to rest. If external motivation helps you, make a mutual accountability pact with a friend who’s forming their own new habit (ideally someone who will cheer you on, not grouch at you when you falter). If you like deadlines, set deadlines. If you hate deadlines, meet all your current deadline-based commitments and then stop working on deadline. However you decide to go about it, approach revision in a way that’s kind to you. It won’t always be easy, but it doesn’t need to be awful.

I wish you all the best in your future revising!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on PatreonGot a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

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