Piddle Twiddle And Revise
So you’re sitting there and your story is a shambles, and you think you need to revise it.
My first advice is that you lie down till the urge passes.
When I was a wee little writer, knee high to a manuscript, I heard Kris and Dean say that you shouldn’t revise unless you have a lot of experience. When you start out as a writer, if you try to revise, you’re more likely to do harm than good.
Did I listen? Oh, heck no. I didn’t listen.
Were they right? Oh, heck, yes, they were.
There are three big dangers in revision:
The first one is that you’ll have no clue what is wrong with your story. This is quite normal when you’re just starting out. Oh, you might think you know. Trust me, there’s more than half a chance you’re not only wrong but disastrously wrong. A lot of the stories I “revised” I ended up keeping only the parts I should have tossed.
The second one is that you’ll go after the wording. This is the place where most of us hit when we’re just starting out. We get wording, or we think we do. Our brains are full of all the cr*p we learned in school: No adverbs, strong verbs, simple sentences, no repeating two words close together…
None of these are exactly wrong, and if you’re writing a business paper, you should ABSOLUTELY follow all of those. For a piece of fiction. Well, believe it or not the whole thing with adverbs, simple sentences, nothing but said is not a universal prescription (no matter how much the big publishing houses thought so) but a style. It’s the Minimalist Style of writing.
Look, there are fads in writing, just like there are fads in other arts, and they aim at solidifying rules for a particular kind of taste. If you like your fiction spare and to the point, by all means do imitate the minimalist style. Just be aware it’s not the only style or the only way to write. And no, you don’t need to go Dickens. But if you’re a newby, it’s entirely possible the charm of your writing is the cacophony of adverbs, the repetition of a word that shows a theme. You won’t know. And it’s likely that if you go after the words you’ll kill your story and turn it into a mannered, flavorless “recital piece.”
My first publishable (but not my first published) short story was Thirst. It took me 8 years and 80 rejections to sell. And every time it came back I revised it. And what I revised was the wording, of course.
After rejection 80 I looked at it. It was a well mannered story with everything in place, and it had as much life as a really dead dinosaur. I pulled up the first version. Oh, it had typos, but it was alive.
If you revise the wording and you don’t know what to do, chances are you’ll kill that thing daid.
Third: You might never be done. I have a friend who spent ten years revising her first novel which was pretty good to begin with.
Now, it wasn’t going to set either the Thames or the Delaware on fire, no. No. It was a decent midlist adventure in foreign lands thriller. She could/should have sold it and moved on to the third, the fourth and the fifth and so on ad infinitum.
Instead she revised that first book. And revised it. And revised it. For all I know she’s still doing it.
I learned this lesson with my very first series/world. I spent years revising, recasting, rewriting.
There’s only one problem with that and something I want you to consider: there’s only a limited number of people/categories of people your story will appeal to. And no matter if it’s the perfect story, it won’t improve that. And if the theme/type of story don’t appeal to most people, it’s not going to be a bestseller, no matter what.
This was, of course, worse when we were limited to traditional publishing. Your story could be gold plated gold, if it wasn’t something the establishment knew what to do with, you’d still be left out in the cold. Hence my first series, which I spent years writing and polishing and cleaning, was never going to sell. You see, I had hermaphrodite humans for the fun of seeing how the society would work out. (Also there was the little tongue in cheek fact they came from a society that was supposed to create equality.) But I wasn’t making a point about evil patriarchy (on the contrary) so that series would never, ever, ever, ever sell.
Took me years of revising/trying to make it perfect before it dawned on me.
But still, if you write a story about a poisonous frog and most people hate the idea of poisonous frogs, you’re not going to be a runaway bestseller. Shrug it off and move on.
“But Sarah,” you say. “My story really needs revision. Does that mean I have to take whatever comes off the keyboard?”
No. But you have to go in with a battle plan and know when to withdraw.
We’ll tackle that next week with “This story is all wrong.”
For those of you who’ve been writing for a while, this week I want you to do something painful. Go back to your very earliest stories and read them. Figure out why they didn’t work, or what you could do better.
Next week we analyze story flaws and how to fix them, if they can be fixed.