I’ve been thinking about the alchemy in writing. Here’s what I’ve come up with:
I am currently in the middle of the revision process for my seventh novel. I like to think of this part of the process as an alchemical process. One of the definitions of alchemy is:
any magical power or process of transmuting a common substance, usually of little value, into a substance of great value.
The concept of alchemy is usually associated with Carl Jung who used it to describe how we develop the potential in our personalities. But why can’t there also be an alchemy of writing?
Not that I think there is anything “magical” in doing three to six months of revisions. It’s hard work. The first drafts of manuscripts, like the personalities of the chronically unaware, are raw, unrefined messes. To put first drafts out into the world is not only naive but careless. They are almost always ineffective and even embarrassing when read a few years down the road. (You can also over-revise, but that’s another post.) It is only in the subsequent drafts, where the true gold of a piece can be found.
Still doubt if the alchemy of writing rings true?
In writing, excess words must be cut in order to get to the ultimate clarity of a sentence and an idea. Characters must be developed and given interesting, vital lives. Plot must be unearthed and honed into a rhythm that can sustain and carry a reader along for two to three hundred pages.
I have been writing for fifteen years. At this point I have a solid level of craft behind my revisions, as well as clear knowledge of my strengths and weaknesses. I’ve been to countless workshops on writing and taken creative writing classes at the university level, in addition to putting hundreds of hours into the actual process of writing. I also get the feedback of my first readers (those three or four trusted writer/friends who I let read early drafts in order to get feedback), as well as feedback from my literary agent.
The revision process is one area of my life where I am fearless. And if you are really serious about being a good writer, maybe even a great one, I think you have to be fearless, too. I have been known to throw out entire chapters if they aren’t moving the plot forward. I get rid of characters without a whiff of sentimentality if they aren’t compelling and holding up their end of the bargain. I change tenses if more immediacy is needed. I add new characters if they offer something unique. I add a surprise or two, perhaps a twist of fate. I do this because I am always striving for excellence when I write a story, as I am always striving for excellence in my life. I want a story to grab my readers, inspire them, and entertain them from the first to the very last page.
When I first started writing I complained a lot about the revision process. It is like putting your work onto the analyst’s couch, baring its soul to find out what is genuine and what is fake. But now–and I never thought I’d say this–it is one of my favorite parts. It requires a skill set that is developed by practice, by actually writing day after day, year after year. It requires reading books on craft and going to writer’s conferences with the intention of learning how to write (instead of only choosing the workshops on how to find a good literary agent). Sometimes this skill set can be developed by taking classes on writing and perhaps even belonging to a really good writer’s group. (The really good ones are hard to find, by the way, and may require some searching out.)
The revision process is where the most potential lives for the writer and artist, just as increasing self-awareness is where the most potential is found in our personalities. Revising is about becoming a master at your craft and learning how to tell a really good story or writing a really good poem or creating a really good concerto. (If you are a writer and you hate revising, then at the very least you must find yourself a really good freelance editor. If you are a person whose life could use some “major editing,” you may want to invest in a good counselor.)
The revision process is where something ordinary and mundane is transformed through the writer’s own skillful efforts into something extraordinary and lasting. Whether you’re revising a piece of writing or music or some non-artistic yet still creative project–or your own life–keep the faith and don’t give up. Remember, you are the alchemist of your creation.
So there it is. My theory on the alchemy of writing. Let me know what you think.
P.S. I revised Seeking Sara Summers at least twelve times over a period of eight years. I am much, much quicker at it now. A new novel now takes within 6-12 months to complete. Check out Seeking Sara Summers, if you haven’t already, and get a free sample chapter.
P.P.S. I am an ex-shrink who writes novels. Check out my books here.