Revising a Novel Is Zeno’s Paradox

During NaNoWriMo, millions of people are writing first drafts of novels. This is fantastic. Winning NaNoWriMo is an achievement (an achievement I’ve never attained myself).

In my experience, writing the first draft is the easy part. And if it’s not easy, it means that my outline has a problem (outlines are harder than first drafts) (yes, I’m a plotter, but I’m cool with pantsers, I don’t care how a novelist writes as long as I love the published version).

Outlining is harder that spewing out words at the top of my head. And revision is even harder than outlining.

So, so, so many things are going on in a novel. I can’t focus on everything at once. Thus, for each revision, I focus on a different goal. One of my drafts was all about getting the plot structure pinned down (yes, even as a plotter, I sometimes don’t find plot problems until it’s all written out). Another draft was all about clarity, i.e. could readers understand what was going on.

Between all these drafts, I’ve taken cooldown periods of at least one month. I’m in a cooldown period right now.

I want to open up my files again right now and start the next round of revision. But I stop myself. I need this cooldown period so I can look at my novel with a fresher eye, and that if I shortchange this cooldown period, I won’t accomplish as much as I want during my next revision round.

When I wrote the first draft of this novel last year, I thought I would have self-published this novel by now. And yes, I could self-publish the novel today. It’s within my power. But it wouldn’t be in the best interests of my readers. Nor would it be in my self-interest. Frustrating as it is to put so much time into revision and cooldowns, I’d rather delay publication and give this novel my best effort than publish an insufficiently revised draft.

Every time I finish a draft, I think ‘this is the best, next time I’ll just need to clean up typos and then it will be ready to be released.’ But when I review the draft again after a cooldown, this is never the case.

It’s like Zeno’s paradox. I’m Achilles, racing against a hare. Surely I can outrun the hare. But the hare keeps getting ahead.

I feel each draft is better than the prior draft. This novel’s quality of writing is proceeding. But there’s always more.

Calculus resolves Zeno’s paradox with the concept of limits. For novels, the ‘limit’ is when it’s worth unleashing upon general readers (as opposed to beta readers, who expect unpolished writing).

Sometimes I feel like I’ll never get this novel to that level, that it will always languish as an amateur effort. Then I remember that calculus broke Zeno’s paradox. Achilles can outrun the hare. It takes perseverence and thought, but it’s possible.

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