On Revision, Sculpture, and Pliable Stone

May 03, 2021

By Christine Carron

I’m close to finishing a third revision of a middle grade novel. The first two revisions fell into place with an almost unreal ease and with each, and I had a visceral experience of both the story getting stronger and my craft skills sharpening. Sweet!

Then I got to revision three. There was struggle, there was despair, there was doubt. Months came. Months went. I wasn’t sure if I could pull off what the story needed. I had chosen to detonate a key structural conceit of the story, which—once detonated—left a gaping hole in the novel. Basically, I blew up a quarter of the book.

The good news is I’ve already re-envisioned and written the arc of moments that fill the hole. (Feel free to join me in a victory dance.) So the worst part of Revision Three is decidedly behind me. And once again, I can see how the changes have increased the story’s effectiveness and expanded my craft skills. All good.

But the difference in experience of the first two revisions versus the third one got me thinking about what exactly happened in my head and heart on that third revision. Come the next revision, I want to have a strategy to reduce the struggle, despair, and doubt bits.

Michelangelo once wrote in a letter to a fellow artist that sculpture can be distinguished between two types.* First, the type that proceeds by adding, per via di porre, as with modeling in clay or wax. Second, the type that advances by taking away, per forza di lavare, as with carving in stone. His assertion is a combination of technique and material.

Revision requires both sculpting techniques. With all three revisions, I both added and took away. Sure, the prodigious removal of a quarter of the novel in the third revision necessitated an equally prodigious addition, but that was just an amplification of a process I had done before. Technique was not what discombobulated me.

What tanked me and my revision confidence for months was that I had erred by thinking the story had shifted strongly into stone mode. Stone is less forgiving and mutable. I wasn’t strategically chipping, I was strategically detonating. A scary prospect with stone. Like, yeah, I’m just going to blow David’s metaphorical arm off my manuscript and cross my fingers.

In retrospect, it would have been good to really pause and consciously get intellectually and emotionally clear, that I was officially moving the story back not into clay mode—some of the story was staying fixed—but into pliable stone mode.

Which is not really a geological thing. I have never heard of bendy marble, for example. But we are writers; we deal in metaphors. So the next time I choose to do a major revision deep in the game**, then I am going to pause and say a mantra daily—pliable stone, pliable stone, pliable stone—and see if that helps with the revision experience.

There will still be all the intellectual and imaginative wrestling to do in such a scenario. That has to happen in a major revision regardless of material. But I’m thinking the emotional experience will be less trying. Which is a major Goodjelly win, because here we attend to not just the writing but our writing journey as well. Less strife, less stress, more confidence and joy. That’s revising the Goodjelly way.

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* See Vasari on Technique, p. 179.

** This manuscript had already gone out to publishers and received a full sweep of rejections, so definitely deep in the game.


The Goodjelly Prompt of the Week

  1. Do you enjoy revising?
  2. What do you like and/or dislike about revising?
  3. How does the metaphor of pliable stone land with you in context of your revising experiences? Was there ever any extra stress or resistance about revising connected to the sense that the manuscript was more final than it actually was, i.e.. more stone than pliable stone?  
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