Notes on the Craft of Fiction: How long to wait before revising a chapter or a scene. The good news.
You’re coming to the last couple of hours of a writing session. You’ve got the house all to yourself, the only distraction being an occasional foray onto the Internet (a tic you’ve been trying to minimize anyway). You’ve begun working on a chapter that was fairly solid in the rough draft but needs touching up to reflect plot and character evolution. Pretty routine stuff, right? But you find yourself laughing out loud at something a character says. Then the other character’s retort surprises you and leads to something even more interesting. And look how the snow is falling out the window. This is real. Your fingers dance as you lay it all down, faster and faster. It really is like taking dictation from God. It’s like you’re a painter who up to that point had been swiping at the canvas blindfolded. The flow is effortless. You want to pump air. And you’re still going like gangbusters when your spouse finally gets home and reminds you of the attention you’d promised to render. Five more minutes, babe! Finally you lean back, exhilarated, more certain than ever that this book you’ve been laboring on for over a year is going to fly. With luck, your loved one will greet this news with more than just a roll of the eyes as you open a bottle of wine and babble away.
Where does this sense of creative bliss come from anyway? It’s obviously a question at the very heart of all good writing–fiction, poetry or heart-felt non-fiction. It can only mean that the lucky wordsmith is melding on a deeper level with the story, infusing it with his or her personal essence so that the elements of character and plot begin blossoming into something greater than their constituent parts. This is a joyful thing and worth pursuing despite the long odds.
But, should the writer head straight back to the inspired patch the next morning and prune it toward greater perfection? Or does that risk being dismayed and discouraged by the fact that the text probably isn’t be as good as it felt last night? In other words, will rushing back while still intoxicated by creation invite the censor to limber his whip and flay you even harder?
There’s no set answer to this dilemma, of course. If you’re working on a short piece and facing a deadline, you may have no choice. Some well-practiced writers have the skill and confidence to pull weeds and nourish seedlings at the same time. But in general it’s wise to let the sun rise and set at least a few days–especially when the writing was joyful and easy–if for no other reason than to let the burst of inspiration propel you onwards.
A book is a very long trek and the writer must stumble surprised and sweating upon many secret gorges and hidden waterfalls in order to craft a journey that readers will want to take. So, let’s pour that blissful excitement into a Nalgene bottle, grasp the machete and keep bushwacking.