Revising the Garden of the Novel

I have been lost in the wilderness of my current novel (adult literary fiction) for some time now, overwhelmed by the daunting process of revising.  Having not had a formal education in writing, I've been reading every revision guide and piece of authorial advice I can get my hands on.  And it has made me so upset to see so many well-respected writers and editors talk about "fighting," "breaking," and "attacking" their writing when they revise, as if it's some monster to be defeated.  "Kill your darlings" they say, "make the manuscript bleed."  What of the pieces of ourselves and our hearts that live in that manuscript?  Are we expected to put part of ourselves to death every time we have to revise?  And then it hit me, why can't revising instead be a positive process? 

I have a weakness for British gardening shows.  It's no secret that I'll take Monty Don and a quaint cottage garden over a high-stakes drama any day.  So while watching ordinary gardeners turning their unused, weed-ridden gardens into truly delightful spaces, I thought, why can't I do this with my novel?  For me, creativity and creation are deeply positive things.  My end goal, no matter whether it's a painting or a book, is plant the seed of something positive, whether it's hope or joy or gratitude, etc.  So it seems only natural to me that revising and editing (both firmly a part of the creative process) should follow suit, should also be positive.

Of course, if you're overhauling a garden, the first step is usually to clear out the space.  Cut back the dead prose, the passages with no life or energy, that are no longer working for your new vision or your new season of writing.  You must make room for new growth and new ideas.  Yes, this means a lot of hard work, and sure, on the surface it can seem like a violent process: slashing and digging up all the weed-ridden info dumps and dull descriptions, but it is also invigorating.  You're not destroying, you're creating space.  Space for yourself, for your story, for your reader's experience.  You're pruning back scenes to let the action/characters/etc. shine through.  Less is often more in gardening and in writing: you must maximize the space, make full use of the literary form you're utilizing. 

I don't exactly have a green thumb, but I quite enjoy growing roses.  And if you want your rose bushes to keep blooming all season, you must continually trim off the dead blooms; roses thrive on new growth.  And I believe, so do novels.  Both can be beautiful, fragrant gems, but as they say, every rose has its thorns.  Which is to say that the revision process is never an easy or painless one.  My advice: wear thick gloves, don't be afraid of a few cuts, and go in anyway, armed with purpose and determination.  You were brave enough to write a novel, you are brave enough to revise it. 

Books are surprisingly hardy creatures.  Like trees, if they're made of tough enough stuff, they can survive the worst of storms and continue to grow and thrive.  They need room to grow as well as sunlight and water.  In your novel, make space for new perspectives, or for ideas you plant to germinate and grow.  Cram too many ideas together and they'll suffer, fighting with each other for the limited resources of the reader's attention and belief.  I like to imagine working on your plot structure like landscaping a garden, setting a clear narrative path for the reader to wander down and enjoy all that your novel has to offer.  Let them admire your beds of character: filled with all sorts of disparate plantings that come together to create a well-rounded and interesting whole.  Allow them to stop and sniff the lovely aroma of your prose, notice the ingenious layout of your plot, and surprise them with hidden delights every step of the way. 

Finally,  I believe that books and the characters in them take on lives of their own.  As such, you must allow them to grow.  Sometimes this means not hovering over them with spade and pruning sheers every minute of the day, or not fertilizing them until their tender roots start to burn, but simply walking away, and letting them get on with it.  It may take a few seasons, but growth takes time.  Be patient and don't give up.  Soon you will have created a garden that can be carried anywhere and enjoyed by readers the world over.  I believe in you.