Revising Your Story
by Leslie What
Revision doesn’t guarantee a sale; it just increases the chances of editors noticing the work. Sure, sometimes a story is perfect and no market exists, but my experience suggests this is the exception, not the rule.
The need for revision may depend on the type of story. My first published work, essentially a “guy standing at the back of a line and moving to the front” story (only with panache), sold pretty much as is (”King For a Day,” Asimov’s, September 1992). My second published story, about a “woman who uncovers painful secrets from the past that grant her a deeper understanding of the complexities of her current relationships” wasn’t so straightforward and required several revisions before appearing in F&SF (”Clinging to a Thread” April, 1994).
The need for revision may also depend on the care taken with early drafts. I’m a sloppy writer who usually discovers the story along the way. Early drafts lack focus and contain more bad writing than good. Luckily for me, I know my future drafts will get better.
There’s controversy about how much revision is warranted in any given piece. I would agree that revising means the writer sees a lower hourly rate, except that I would have no hourly pay without revising. Some professionals swear revision is a waste of time. This could be the case; the only way to know is to see how far you get either way. My suggestion? Publish without revising if you can, but if your work does not consistently receive the attention you know it deserves, consider learning to revise.
II. MATH LESSON
Revision need not be overwhelming. Approach the process as you would a math problem. The only concepts to remember are Addition, Subtraction, and Fiddling With the Equation. When revising your work, there are things you might need to add or things you might need to take away. When neither concept helps, change the overall structure.
Some writers complete a first draft before attempting revision to prevent the analytical process from interfering with the creative one. I tend to revise as I’m going along, but only because I successfully killed off my inner critic way back when (See Speculations #15).
Give yourself time to feel distance from the material. While the language of a story is still firmly fixed in memory, it’s difficult to notice what has actually been committed to the page.
Revise from the page, not the screen. Print out work and mark corrections on the paper. Stories read differently in different formats. One illustration of this point can be found in the online community, where frequent misunderstandings occur over the meaning and intent of electronic posts.
Read your work aloud, noting complex or confusing sentences for later revision. Don’t just lip read, enunciate. Keep your original draft in a separate file to later compare with your revised drafts. Experiment with mixing and matching, going back and forth between original and revised copy. Sometimes I find it easier to revise by starting anew than by correcting an older version.
For the purpose of explanation, I’ve broken down the process of revision into three categories: 1) The little things: style, word choices and dialogue; 2) Mechanics: plot, scenes, characters, point of view, tension, flow; 3) The takeaway: theme, the ultimate meaning of a story. Most of this you already know; in theory, so do I. That doesn’t prevent me from making mistakes.
III. THE LITTLE THINGS
I look to see my words were chosen with care. Bungalow vs. little house, for example. Are there places where the descriptions are vague but need not be? “She was interesting looking,” when I might have said, “She had the face of a Doberman glued to the body of a supermodel.”
Are there any places where the storyteller’s voice turns into legalese or tekno-babble, posing as textbook rather than fiction? If so, I break up complex explanations with dialogue or interior monologue, or delete narrative black holes and show the technology through an action or summary scene.
I cut repetitious sentences, replacing things like “He blinked his eyes” with “He blinked.” Better still to delete meaningless action like, “He blinked,” unless my character has some sort of nervous tic. When you think about it, everyone blinks, so why call attention to it this time?
Do my sentence structures vary? Have I relied too heavily on subject/verb/direct object constructions? “Einstein ate his pie” sentences annoy when overused, especially when beginning several paragraphs on every page. I look for common words accidentally used more than once in close proximity or unusual words that might be more effective when only used once.
Dialogue should speak for itself. Is it crisp and concise, or does it ramble in places? Participial phrases are easy to overuse and can ruin otherwise adequate conversations. “I’m going to kill you,” Darth Vader said,readjusting the flaps on his robe. “Oh yeah! You and whose army?” answered Luke, straightening his socks. “That would be me,” croaked the Emperor, running a hand through his hair.
Overuse of “ly” modifiers is annoying. Overuse of anything, except chocolate can be annoying, and even chocolate has limitations. Every noun does not need modification. A Hershey Kiss is just as tasty without being a rich, brown, creamy, sweet chocolate nugget. Description works best when advancing theme, or developing important characters; it can be cut when irrelevant to the story. A woman obsessed with food might be thinking: rich, brown, creamy, sweet chocolate nugget, but the astronaut grabbing a snack on his way out the door is thinking: candy.
The beginning of a story isn’t the place you make the sale, but too often, it’s where a sale is lost. I almost always say too much before the story officially begins. When revising, I move lines that are necessary for the narrative — just not the opening — to a later point in the story.
A common mistake, one I still fall into despite knowing better, is the “driving to the story” opening, where my characters are in transit to the place where the story actually begins. Variations include the “walking to the story” opening and the “flying to the story” opening. How a character gets there is seldom as important as what he finds once he’s arrived.
I look carefully for scenes that do not actually contribute to the reader’s understanding of the central characters, conflicts, or key events. Sometimes my workshop flags these scenes as static; it’s up to me to decide whether the story works better without the scene. (See my warning in the next section before tossing anything away!) I examine each scene to determine if it can be shortened to increase clarity and tension, perhaps summarized in a few sentences rather than left fully explored.
If I’ve given too much space to scenes that build up to the climax, have I rushed to end the story, shortchanged crucial scenes that needed fuller dramatization? When possible, I combine scenes together to strengthen the overall story effect, especially when I’ve repeated information or re-introduced characters or setting because of breaks in the narrative due to flashbacks or dream sequences. I compress or eliminate flashbacks and dreams whenever possible. Stories are often strengthened by revealing action scenes in chronological order, even when the story was written in another order that made sense at the time.
I look carefully at transitions between scenes and revise anything the least bit awkward or in need of further clarification. When I notice I’ve given too much information to explain how a character traveled from one place to another, I cut all that out, have the character stay put. A lot of revision has to do with simplifying what was needlessly complex.
Regarding Point Of View, is it consistent? Does the narrative refer to a character in a consistent way, or as Harry Scorpion in one place, Detective Scorpion in another, Harry S. somewhere else? If the story is told in first person, have I shown the reader enough of what the narrator sees for the story to make sense? Have I withheld information that the narrator already knows but the reader does not? This last is not only a point-of-view glitch, but a cheat.
Stories change when told by a different viewpoint character and sometimes that’s a good thing. I’ve tweaked point of view from first to third, changed the central character from an adult to a child, and found a better story and a market because of that. My story, “The Goddess is Alive, and Well, Living in New York,” (Asimov’s, May 1996) started out in first person but was revised to third person once I realized it read funnier without the narrator hearing herself speak. I’ve had success keeping my characters essentially the same but changing the scenarios, turning a Halloween story into a Christmas one, for example. (”Compatibility Clause,” Fantasy & Science Fiction, January 1995). This required revising the entire story several times to make sure everything made sense and the holiday theme was more than a hasty giftwrap. I’ve even thrown away whole stories, keeping only the title. (”Smelling of Earth, Dreaming of Sky,” Asimov’s, September 1997) when I realized the story was hopeless, but the title was a keeper.
Plotwise, I make sure something big has happened. I look for a clear conflict, and ask myself what this conflict represents in terms of the character’s relationship to his world/family/sense of self. Was the plot too obvious, the resolution too easy? It’s embarrassing not to recognize when I’ve used stereotypical situations, but relying on the first trope that comes to mind can make the difference between an ordinary story and one that captures the imagination. Kate Wilhelm suggests brainstorming some of the paths the story could take if a few conditions changed — at least three — and choosing the least obvious solution. I sometimes try a practice draft to see where the story travels.
When a story doesn’t sell and I can’t figure out why, I count up the number of scenes, then rank them in terms of their importance to the story. I count the words and compare the length of scenes — opening, middle, action scenes, climatic scenes, and resolution. This shows me when my stories are off-balance, the weight unfairly distributed. Addition and Subtraction, where to cut and where to end? Not higher math, but that doesn’t make it easy.
I’ve gotten a lot better about making certain I have set every scene in a definitive time, on the today of the story rather than on a unspecified anyday, unless I’m trying to show how every day is the same, and if I’m trying to show that, it needs to be for a purpose.
Do my characters talk about other characters who are important to my story, but never make an appearance? This is usually a very bad idea. Characters should act, speak, move about in the context of a setting and there should be few scenes, if any, where a character is speaking to himself, revealing plot through inner dialogue instead of action.
“Look back at some of the stories in your drawer which were turned down by magazines. How many of them start with a description of the sky? How many make use of dramatic scenes, in which something takes place between characters? How many of them contain long passages where your main character is all alone recalling an event which took place before the story actually begins?” –Doris Betts.
V. THE TAKEAWAY
This is where it gets tricky. A story can be well-written and technically competent, yet leave a reader saying, “So?” A story must be more than entertaining, it must be meaningful, impart some sense of understanding about our world through the characters’ interactions with their world. A story that tells a truth in ways that the reader cannot forget is one worth reading.
When stories have a high So What? factor, I try going back to the original inspiration to see where my story took a turn for the worse. What did I want a reader to learn or feel or think? This depends on whether the story came from an idea, a character I couldn’t forget, or a powerful image that needed a story to give it context. Revising the emotional content of a story is as important as revising for mechanics.
I look closely at character. Are protagonists and antagonists complex enough to seem real, or archetypes by default? My favorite stories are ones where I find myself rooting for the bad guy and feel conflicted about that. Are there sufficient clues to help a reader understand what motivates each character? Does my main character achieve any insight or change because of her experience? The answer isn’t always yes, but the question should be raised.
Just as telling a story in chronological order can improve dramatic tension, telling a story in the right psychological order can strengthen the emotional content of a story. Robert Boswell says we must give characters a chance to react to what they have experienced by first showing the event, then showing the effects. I look to see if I have described key details of key events and the characters’ subsequent emotional responses.
Clichés sometimes creep into prose because they say exactly what needs to be said. The problem is, cliches waste opportunities to develop theme and tension through the careful and deliberate use of imagery.
I make sure my symbols work for the narrative. When someone drives across a bridge, I am aware of the psychological implications of crossing to the other side. I don’t have my character chopping sausages while describing a failed marriage to a best friend unless I want the reader to make crass associations. Too much imagery makes the narrative dense. The wrong imagery makes a story seem trite or unfocused. Clumsy or obvious images leave a reader feeling bludgeoned. Subtle images work on a deeper lever to create memorable fiction.
If I’ve workshopped the story and heard this response, “I don’t know why this scene is here! It adds nothing,” I listen carefully to that advice, but am wary of cutting. Writing is not always a conscious act. My subconscious mind makes mystical connections, suggesting scenes and images that are thematically related but don’t quite play out on the first few drafts. It could be that a scene that isn’t working needs more exploration before its relevance becomes clear. If further exploration fails to reveal a reason, then and only then will I delete it.
I check to see that my setting, in every scene, works to foreshadow events, express mood, or help define problems. Is there a reason I’ve spent a sentence describing the burnt crumbs surrounding the toaster, or have I added empty calories, description without purpose?
Shawna McCarthy wanted to buy one of my stories (”Magic Carpets,”Realms of Fantasy, Sept/October 1995) but felt the ending left the reader cheated and without hope. After thinking about it, I agreed with her, and revised the last few lines of the story. That wasn’t enough. Changing a few lines meant going back through the entire story and making changes — mostly small, one a little bigger — to keep the ending honest.
It’s difficult to tell if an ending will leave a reader feeling that the story was worth the effort, but I can usually see if an ending has gone on a paragraph too long and dulled the total effect. Endings should resolve or at least address conflicts brought out in a story, and should do this in a fair and logically consistent way. Characters should earn their ending;when endings are brought about because of happenstance, readers feel cheated. Damon Knight says in “Creating Short Fiction,” that a flawed ending often indicates problems with the beginning or middle. If the ending doesn’t leave the reader with a feeling of satiety, I try rearranging the equation, starting from scratch when necessary.
VI. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH?
“Write a story, mail it off, write another story.”
“It’s a draft until you’re dead.”
Hemingway wrote up to thirty drafts for each story. On a typewriter. Whatever your feelings about Hemingway, you have to admit: he was published. Even more telling, he’s still in print. Still, at some point, he knew the story was finished and sent it off. For me, that point is when I can’t find any more reasons why my story could possible be rejected. I’m a ruthless critic when it comes to my own work, and if it is still rejected, I will set it aside to revise another day.
Revision is a challenge, but also an opportunity. After all, nothing is chiseled in stone, unless one is in the monument engraving business. Even then, mistakes are made.
So how to motivate yourself to revise instead of just giving up when a story doesn’t sell? I have a friend who never revises, doesn’t believe it is necessary. When he doesn’t sell a particular story, he files it away and goes on to the next one, never looking back.
I find this a terrible loss. My friend is the only one capable of telling his stories. I don’t see things the way he does. Neither do you. A writer is a trained observer who shares truths no one else is privy to through her interpretation of events, either witnessed or imagined. When writers give up on our stories, we deny everyone the chance to hear what we have noticed about the world. The truth isn’t out there! It’s here! In our fiction. Revision is one tool for uncovering that truth.
Revision has made me a better writer, maybe a better person. The process has taught me I need never give up on stories I love, that change is always possible, and can turn things around for the better.