Short Story Workshop 8 – Piddle Twiddle And Revise

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.

52 thoughts on “Short Story Workshop 8 – Piddle Twiddle And Revise

  1. “Go back to your very earliest stories and read them. Figure out why they didn’t work, or what you could do better.”


    I’ve kinda done that and cringe. Hmm, I suppose I could dig up my old copies of Harper Beat* and find some of my stuff.

    1. If I go back to my High School / College days (thanks to creative writing classes, I still have a few examples lying around) I have about 30 years of stuff to go through. Yipe.

      Doing a mental review, I find that I spend a lot of time doing the build up and resolve the climax in just a few paragraphs. (One of the few times I don’t have a quick resolution is when I did a 2 page, fully blocked out, combat sequence.) –sigh- That’s when I don’t have Mary Sue running though the story. ((I started to grow out of that 20 years ago)) The other issue I see is a tendency to not do complete stories, but slice-of-life vignettes. Those are fine for my Pern fan club mag, but not good if I want to move past the ff stuff.

      One word I hate, and can’t believe I actually wrote – angst. Arrgh. How did that creep in? I want to tell the character to grow the f*** up.

      1. Wyldkat, I’m sorry, I don’t know if you’re male or female. The long build up and resolution in a blink seems to be a female thing. Even for published authors.
        NOT intrinsic, and I learned better, but it’s amazing how many women get away with it.

        1. Ah. So there is something I do that is “normal” or “typical”. -laugh-

          Well it is a habit this gal would like to get past. 😉

          1. It was the only thing in which I was normal, too, as a writer. Normally I get told I “write like a man” TM, including when it’s said derogatorily. Fortunately husband rolled up newspaper early on and started smacking my nose. “Bad Sarah, you skipped over the climax again. Those 4 pages of ending should be fifty. Go back and write a proper confrontation.” (This was done metaphorically. No real newspapers or noses were involved.)

        2. Or a Fred Saberhagen thing: 19.5 chapters of build-up, 0.5 chapters of climax, 0.5 pages of denouement.

    1. So did mine, but fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your view) some of my stuff was printed in a fanzine.

  2. Back in ’73 as I recall Heinlein made a speech at Annapolis, his alma mater. Great speech, it’s in various places online under the title “Channel Markers.” A portion of the talk was devoted to his advice on how to be a selling writer. Somewhat dated as the business was very different in those days, but still a very valuable insight into the mind of one of the great ones.
    One of his points was to never ever rewrite except at editorial direction, and by that he meant having a letter in your hand saying “if you make these changes I will buy your story.”

    1. “If you make these changes I will buy your story.” The very first rejection letter I got said something like that, except the exact wording was “I will be very interesting in printing your story.” (No, that’s not a typo — it said “interesting,” not “interested.”) Somehow, I didn’t have a lot of confidence in the suggestions made by that editor.

    2. The talk that Heinlein gave was once available online as an image of a printed source. In it, RAH enumerated 5 rules. The most controversial was #3. And Sarah’s note here is the best justification of rule #3 I’ve seen.
      #1 You must write.
      #2 You must finish what you write.
      #3 You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
      #4 You must put the work on the market.
      #5 You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

      1. Dean had to kick me a couple of times to try rule #3, using similar arguments to what Sarah used here. I didn’t believe it, but I agreed to try it (and the rest of the rules). That was when my stories started selling.

        Does that prove anything? No, but I’m reluctant to change course while this course seems to be working.

  3. I already did that, go back to my earliest work. And I began revising it.
    If I’d published under a pen name, I could have dropped it, and published newer works under a different name. I have the option of adopting a pen name now, but I sort of like using my own name on my works. And since that has become a kind of ‘brand name’, I like the idea of going back and making that first book better.
    I’ve always written the best book I could at the time; but half a million words on, my standards have changed.
    I doubt I’ll do more than one revision to that first book, and most of that will deal with the first half-a-dozen chapters; I plan to do quite a bit of cutting so the story moves faster. All that lovely verbiage…sigh…gone to the trash! But it’s about the story, not the words, and the story will be better. It will move faster and have better flow.
    That’s a good thing, when we’re talking about a ‘brand’.

  4. I’m taking my earliest stories (flinch) and turning them into a novel, since they are all linked and once I get past the “well, that’s why it goes ‘thud’ ” stage, they’ll work better as chapters than as stories. Plus the characters have changed and grown a LOT since I wrote the first of these.

  5. “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.”

    I would go back and read my first “modern” story (i.e., written after my 30-year hiatus — stupid, stupid, STUPID!), but I probably should leave that one alone right now. It’s sitting in the production queue at Naked Reader. (nudge, nudge…)

      1. Will do when I can get a solid Internet signal. The one here is spotty. Thanks!

  6. So, what’s the dividing line between revising and editing? Does looking at a sentence when rereading and saying, “Ugh, that’s awful,” and changing it count as revising? Or does it require a bigger picture change?

        1. *To me,* “revising” is changing the flow/plot/narrative. I’ll use a “book” i just finished (last week) on Kindle. It needed _revising_, not editing. If I had seen it as an editor, my response would have been. “drop the sex scenes (or minimize them), and _expand_ the rest. There are the bones of a good book here.”
          Another “example” is the, IMO unlamented SyFy show “helix.” There were “holes big enough to rum a military convoy through.” It was a “Swiss Cheese plot,” it was so bad. Wireless Key card security, but they couldn’t track an infected person. _Large_ empty lab, easily found, but *no* experimental animals. You get the idea. “editing” a story means *pruning,* not wholesale hacking at random.
          By all means, check for continuity errors, plot holes, etc. Just don’t act as if you’re hacking your way through dense jungle, clearing for a crop. Personally, I never “edit (except minimally), or revise” until a major portion is written. “Just because you can, doesn’t means that you should.” It’s not like you’re typing it on a typewriter. Computer files make changing _so_ much easier. A scene may work better elsewhere in the plot. *No one* does topiary, until the bush/tree is *big enough* to see the potential shape.
          I’m sure that Sarah can give even better examples, but I don’t have enough to do any of mine. I’ve been writing/learning since HS, and have on Urban Fantasy, and two SF? books floating around to work on some day. The SF? I know the general plots, and just need to be able to sit an work on writing them. Being in a Nursing Home, they control: bath times (2 per week), meal times, bed times, and wake up times. As well as inflicting room mates with advanced dementia on me. (Try writing with someone yelling {loud enough to be heard ten miles away} “Momma, momma, mommamomma . . . .) Unless/until I “hit the lottery” for enough to GOOD (Get Out Of Dodge), I have to work on stuff I can turn around quickly.

  7. Wait…you don’t mean the “Hardy Boys” fanfic I wrote in high school for my best friend, do you??? You wouldn’t…couldn’t…be that…cruel. (I think she has the only copy, unless she burnt it to ashes like I asked her to. But I didn’t get a pinkie-swear, so….)

    I don’t have to go back very far to find writing that didn’t work. I’d hit a wall with the sequel to “Forge,” and for the life of me couldn’t figure out what it was. Spent a lot of time trying to fiddle with the “words,” until I Just Put It Down. When I finally got back to it, I realized every character who came on the scene was re-capping “Forge” from their pov. (I’d never written a sequel before, what did I know?) Ack! No wonder the thing plodded along like a drunken, pregnant elephant (elephants don’t know how to read the Surgeon General’s warning on bottles of adult beverages). Six thousand words lighter, (no, I’m not kidding), the elephant is beginning to dance. (But the hippos seem to have stolen all the pink tutus.)

    But I never would have seen the problem, unless I’d just had a nice lie down first!

    1. I’ve got two immediate post-writing phases, in neither of which I can revise (effectively): In the first I’m still too close, and I can copy-edit and clean structure and grammar up but can’t really get after story too much. In the second I’ve spent too much time with it and I hate the hack trash and really ought to delete the doomed thing.

      With some space, I can begin to see it as a story somewhat separate from myself and read through with more clarity and objectivity. But I’m still not sure I could intelligently revise the larger story without external editorial comment. It’s hard to see different choices in the larger plot structure or scene arrangement, since the ones I initially chose made the most sense at the time. And I always know the pieces of the story absent from the page, so catching holes or assumptions in the arc can be frustratingly difficult.

      It’s also really easy to kill the quirks and turns which bring me such joy when initially writing the thing, because I’m self-conscious about them. I either guard them jealously and rob them of their flavor, or hack them out with a blunt machete losing some voice.


      1. “…hack trash and really ought to delete the doomed thing.”


        Except I ended Forge on a cliffhanger…I can’t leave the hero in that kind of trouble for eternity! He doesn’t deserve it!

        I’m fortunate that once I get “some space” from the ms, the plot holes and awkward moments do stick out. The problem I had was that it took a lot longer for me to get that space than I thought was reasonable.

        Looking forward to the next installment here!

        1. I’m given to understand the period of distaste is common. I remind myself of this, frequently. :\

          Definitely looking forward to the next installment. And after short stories, our gracious host has threatened to move on to novels. I have expectations…


            1. cue good vibrations musak

              we’re picking up great expectations…
              she’s blogging about writing novels…
              great, great, great, great expectations…

              earworms, anyone?

        1. Never heard Famous Five but a quick google search shows that it is something I would’ve, and likely still would, enjoy. I may have to see if our library has any of them.

          I was the girl who chucked Nancy Drew aside and went after the Hardy Boys. I found that I liked the team work Frank and Joe displayed over the girlishness of Nancy. Go figure. (and would anyone be surprised to hear that I liked Mack Bolan and the two spin off series?)

            1. I found a copy of one in the next county over. I’ll add it to the list, right after Draw on in the Dark, and the Grimnoir chronicles I found at my library, and between Analog issues.

              Heh, my reading list is getting long – I just wish my reading time was as plentiful.

      1. Definitely both. Read through stacks of ’em. (Along with Nancy Drews, Trixie Beldens, Rick Brants, Tom Swifts, Chip Hiltons, etc., etc., etc.) But the books didn’t have Parker Stephenson.

        1. *chuckle* I was one of the multitude of Shaun fans. I think I still have that album my parents bought me buried somewhere. Although, to be honest, I seem to recall that I liked Joe better in the books, so it probably was a transfer at first.

          1. I was prepared ot like Joe better, too. Until…Parker Stephenson. Having dodged the David bullet as youngsters, now that we were upperclassmen in high school (we sent her little sister into the stores to buy the Teen & Tigerbeat fanzines for us), we weren’t going to fall for Shaun. Since I was writing the story, I got dibs on Parker/Frank. She insisted I recast Greg Evigan as Joe, and we were both very happy.

  8. I’ve heard this advice about not revising and it tends to rub me the wrong way. I think it’s partly because we’re not really talking about the same process. When I do what *I* call revising, I’m reading like a super-educated reader and watching for the winces and the reactions and trying to fix them. I’m comparing the story in my head that I was aiming for to the story as I experience it when I read and trying to bring them closer.

    I’m not doing grammar or wording specifically unless the thing that throws me out of the story or makes me shudder is bad wording. I generally don’t have many of those problems at that stage because I proofread (for a tradpub) for years and usually fix that stuff as I go along anyway.

    So to me if feels like I’m being told to just leave a story that I’m not happy with and don’t like just because “don’t revise”. Seems like all writing advice has people that it will help and people that it will hurt and people that it will drive nuts. One thing that I see a really lot that it’s often exactly the wrong person who grabs onto advice with both hands and won’t let it go.

    1. No, you’re not being told that. But my “revise” includes that and we’ll go into that next post. There are many levels of revise and if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll kill the story dead with any of them.
      On the parts that make you wince — yeah, we’ll discuss that too. Most readers are not super-educated and hte parts that make you wince are usually the ones they like. Depends on why they make you wince. In my case I wince at too revelatory/too intimate/too vulnerable bits.
      We’ll talk.
      We’ll talk.

      1. That’s a good point about “too revelatory/too intimate/too vulnerable bits”. I suspect that I wince at those bits too. Big sigh…

        1. The reason I’m saying this is that I re-read Darkship Thieves a year later, before writing Renegades. If I could, I’d have cut out every bit where there’s too much emotion and Kit bleeds/hurts. Which means half the book. Because I cringed. And you know, I don’t think it would have made a better book.

          1. That’s interesting to me. Is it the intimacy/emotional vulnerability/such-like that makes you cringe, or do you not like your writing in those sections?

            I’m not always comfortable with how I’m conveying/portraying emotional scenes/character intimacy/vulnerability but it rests on my desire for clarity. I don’t know that I want them out I just want them better.

            But, then, neophyte — I want it all better. 😀

  9. I’ve gone back to the earliest I have available, occasionally (junior high, I don’t think I still have anything earlier, ‘less it’s stuck in a box somewhere).

    Two paths I can take when reviewing those:

    Nostalgic — look at that (awkward) kid, man how the world’s changed, I remember that feeling, what happened to the thermonuclear fireballs?

    Critical — Ack! Urp! *close file*

    Oddly, I usually stick with nostalgic.

  10. Great, finished my rough draft and now I’m trying to figure out what to do next. You’re right, I can piddle and twiddle till the cows come home, but revision is something I need to master…well, and writing.

  11. Would it be fair to say that when you suggest avoiding revisions you mean don’t change the story? Otherwise, how do we reconcile the need for beta readers? If I recall correctly, if 3 or more beta readers say x is a problem, we should probably fix x.

  12. Two things helped me out the most. The first was the Orson Scott Crad book on how to write fantasy and science fiction. The second was an editor for a fan mag (Gerald Perkins), he was the second editor I had, the first was an obnoxious ass (and supposedly he was a PROFESSIONAL), but Gerald cleanly, succinctly, and without any ego told me what I was doing wrong and how to do it right.
    I owe him a lot, I wish he was still around so I could thank him once again.
    Most all of my old stuff either disappeared, or got cleaned up. I do have the traces (the files got corrupted) of the first novel I ever tried to write. Every once in a while I go dig through what’s left of its bones and try to think if I should every try to write it again from scratch, but not sure there is a point to that.
    So here I am many stories later and I think that maybe I’m finally starting to get somewhere and be successful.
    Thanks again for putting me on your list btw, My sales are still soaring and I thank you very much for helping with that.

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