Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Magic Pen Revisions

Before law school, I worked in the New York State AIDS Institute.  It was not a very high-powered job.  To paraphrase someone I heard at a conference, I didn't work with people who had HIV, I didn't even work with the people who work with people with HIV -- I was about three or four layers removed from the actual front lines of providers and educators.

I also wasn't a proper public health professional, nor was I a proper New York State civil servant.  I had a friend, though, who was both.  Mona used to tell me about the civil service exams she had to take.  Her least favorite were the "magic pen tests."

If I understand the technology correctly, you took a standard multiple choice exam only with a "magic pen."  If you answered a question correctly, additional questions were revealed.  If you answered them correctly, perhaps even more questions showed up.  If you couldn't answer anything right, it was a quick exam!

Of course the technology was very buggy, which rather defeated the purpose and infuriated the test-takers.  Mona's descriptions were hysterically funny, though, so some good came of these tests.

I can only imagine what those tests were like (other than annoying), but I feel now as though I might have a better idea.  I'm revising my work-in-progress and it's a bit of a "magic pen" experience.  I didn't quite finish a full revision of all 24 chapters before RWA.  Since Orlando, I've had to start back at the beginning for a variety of reasons.

As a new writer, there are parallel tracks to getting feedback and possibly recognition.  I've entered a contest, so the first 7,000 words had to be worked over pretty carefully and proofread.  (I'm blessed to have married a man with a wide range of professional experience, including as a proofreader.  *bliss*)  Then, I needed to make sure the first three chapters were pristine as part of the query package I sent to the agent I pitched to in Orlando.  Then it was the first 75 pages (which works out to be the first 5 chapters), which go to a writing coach I've retained.

Sidebar:  I should explain about the writing coach.  A Famous Author, whose debut novel was so pristine and un-first-novel-ish that I had to ask her for advice, told me to do as she had done:  get a writing coach.  It's such diabolically superb advice I'm annoyed I needed to ask for it; I should have thought of it all on my own.  I haven't started working with my coach yet, but I met her in Orlando and liked her immediately.

I will admit to having had two silly reactions when I met her, both of which I banished immediately.  First, I wanted her to gush over my writing (she'd read the excerpt that's on my website) but that's dumb.  I don't want her to like my writing, I want her to see its flaws.  The second reaction was a fear that she'd treat me like the puppy that's left a puddle and rub my nose in my errors.  But she won't.  She'll show me what I need to improve, suggest how to improve it, then tell me how my improvements are going.

I haven't started working with her yet, and I need to keep going with the revisions even if she tells me to tear it all apart and start over.

Here's the magic pen part of this process.  Because of having abandoned the full revision near the end and starting again at the beginning, I should be finding the first few chapters nearly perfect.  But it's as if my previous changes had been made with that magic pen, and as I got those right, I'm allowed to see more changes I need to make.

Okay, I can actually hear fingers curling in anticipation of leaving me a loving & helpful comment about how I must guard against making too many changes and losing sight of my vision, my unique voice, etc., etc.  You guys are so great, but you're going to have to take my word on this one:  My writing still needs work.  I'm not wracked with anxiety and insecurity.  I'm fiercely determined to learn how to write.  (As I put it to the writing coach, also a former lawyer, "I have degrees in biology, philosophy and the law . . . and not a single creative writing class in 9 years of higher education!"  At least I know what I don't know.)

Does anyone else have this experience?  You know: you're revising a bit you've already revised, only now you can see how that bit of dialogue is patchy?  It was patchy the last time you worked on that scene, but you couldn't see it then and now you can.  I am rather enjoying this "magic pen" stuff -- it suggests I'm learning -- but it's also just a bit freaky.

Oooh!  Writing fiction has a freaky element.  Who'd da thunk it?


  1. I think this applies to any writing. My mom used to tell me, "There are two kinds of dissertation: done, and good." (She never finished her PhD. I did, mainly because of her second piece of advice: "Don't get pregnant until it's done.") This doesn't mean don't revise. It means you'll always keep seeing ways to make it better. When you fix one thing, you can see and attend to others. But eventually, it just has to stop. Good luck with that! Revision is so painful, but can be so satisfying.

  2. But it's as if my previous changes had been made with that magic pen, and as I got those right, I'm allowed to see more changes I need to make.

    YES. I have definitely had this experience, many times. Though now that I've been writing for a number of years, it happens less; not sure if that's because I have fewer prose flaws now or because I'm on deadline and don't have time to ponder overlong!

  3. I'll be interested to hear how you get along with your writing coach.

    Best of luck with the revisions! I far prefer them to writing the first draft.


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