Posted by: jeannineatkins | November 9, 2011

Revision: Climbing and Crawling Through the Strata

A student recently sent me a proposal for a revision of her novel noting the too-silent heart she recognized in a draft of her work, which disturbed her. I admired her brisk overview of the task ahead. A lack of feeling may be something an author must see for herself to change it, and what steely-nerved honesty that takes. Most of us take on subjects that mean a lot to us. We believe we’re pouring in all our intelligence, observations, memories, and imagination. But sometimes when we look with a cooler eye, or perhaps a trusted reader points it out, we did a lot right – we have interesting characters, a tight enough plot, sturdy sentences – but the piece still lacks a beating heart.

How do we find it? There might be a thousand possible paths, but all I know is that it’s wise to trust in the revision process. Peeling away layers that feel flat to see if there’s some bit of treasure we can keep that points a way. Or while trying to fill in gaps, do we spot a dusty sign pointing a new way? Can an image be developed until it starts to thud something like a heart? The more of a mess we make in this stage, the likelier we are to find what we’re looking for. If revision sticks to the surface — cleaning this, moving that – no deeper feeling, which can push the story to the next level, is likely to be found.

I know my student is courageous: it showed in her gritted-teeth assessment of what days before she’d seen as good. She quoted Katherine Paterson: “I must write out of the heat of my own deepest feelings, the sounds of my own heart.” Could there be anything much greater to strive for?  I wish all of us luck as we head off with axes and picks, not brooms, chopping away at old terrain, looking for gold.



  1. Thank you, Jeannine. I’m warming myself in your window seat, and drawing courage from your words. ❤

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