Will It Live, Doctor?
This is the first question you should ask when you’re looking at revision. Now, I’m going to assume you’re not an idiot and especially at the beginning, you’ve let some time pass between your writing the story and the revision-read. Yeah, this is important.
Every writer ever born must hold in his head, simultaneously, two opinions of his own writing: that it’s the best thing ever put on paper/electrons, and that it’s a waste of trees, electrons, and possibly ink, not to mention his time in writing it.
You must hold these opinions to be able to create AND to improve.
The problem is that each of these opinions will be ascendant depending on the curve of your career you’re on.
If you’re trying out a new technique you just learned – say, heinleining information, or flash backs, or whatever or if you are a rank beginner – and you achieved it halfway decently, you’re going to think the sun rises and sets in your prose. It’s perfect, perfect, I tell you.
It might be, or you might be a victim of being a beginner at whatever it is. It has been proven in psychological studies that while a little knowledge is NOT necessarily dangerous, it does, necessarily, at least in the arts, give you a way inflated view of your abilities.
Then as you learn more about the art or craft, you can see the mistakes you (or others) make very clearly.
This is why, btw, editors who also write have trouble reading AS READERS and why contests judged by writers who are not as far along as you are are the strangest thing in the world, because they tend to give prizes to those people at their exact level, and see as mistakes what they don’t “get”. It can also be a problem with writers’ groups unless you’re all either very empathetic or very close to each other in ability.
It’s also why writing might for a while destroy your pleasure in reading that genre. I chased myself off science fiction, then mystery, and then I learned to turn off the editor and read as a reader (thank heavens.)
So, anyway, you need some distance. And nothing – but nothing – gives you as much distance as writing something else. No, just setting it aside is not the same thing. It needs to stop being your bette noir or your favorite child, whatever. With short stories this is relatively easy. Go and write another story then come back to that one.
This is why I had you look through your trunk. Yes, it’s also because I’m a vile sadist. Deal. I advise you to cultivate some sadism, at least towards your characters, in novels particularly, and I’ll explain why IF I do a novel workshop.
So, go back to those old stories. The first question to ask yourself is:
Does it engage you?
If so, why does it engage you? Is it the character, the situation, the emotions?
Whatever is the strongest part in the story, your goal is to bring all parts as close as possible to that ideal. (No, you can’t make them all equal. That’s not how life works, sorry. You’ll always have a primary talent and the others will be more work.)
How do you do this?
First, determine whether the story is worth saving as is. Let’s face it, if the character is great but is just running around in circles and going shopping and having breakfast, you don’t have a story. You have a character.
Take that great character (or situation, or emotion, or intellectual concept) and give him/her/it a better home in a new story. This is not called re-writing as such, but recasting.
Second, so the story is worth saving. Don’t start fixing typos. That can wait to the end. If typos/word choice/phrasing are all that is wrong with it, you’re not rewriting. You’re proofing and polishing. Congratulations. Sometimes the thing just works, right off the box. Heaven knows why. But don’t much with success. Nothing says you have to rewrite. Clean it up and send it off or put it up for sale. The stories are your little hos, strutting around in their high heels to bring the sweet, sweet cash back to you. (As they should be, since you made them.)
Third- The story is worth saving but a lot of it is… well, it worked better in your head, let’s say.
Ah. Well. You’ve entered the revision zone.
Now, not to stay stuck in there, you have to accept two things:
That no story will ever be perfect. I will be happy if I ever write anything as great as Cold Equations or even Midnight Mass (by F. Paul Wilson) but both stories have flaws and detractors.
So, you have to decide on how many times you’re going to fix that story. I recommend three times. One for major flaws, one for the little crap and one for wording/typo. But that’s me. You make your decision and you stick to it, you hear?
That you have other stories to write. After a while, move on. (This is where it really helps for this not to be the latest story you wrote. There will already be that baked in understanding.)
So, to begin with, let’s kill some myths:
-to make a story great you must always kill your darlings. Uh. Maybe. Except for where your darlings are the best part of the story, or where you think your darlings are the wrong things. Don’t kill anything. Ix nay on the killing ay. Hold the ax until we discuss it next week.
– in a story every line must count towards the resolution/conflict/ending. Unless your story is a short short, it probably isn’t true. The line you’re about to cut might be what strengthens emotion/gives life to the story. PUT DOWN THAT SCALPEL. I told you to wait.
– Cutting a story always makes it better. What is it with you and edged weapons? Ixnay on the cutting ay I say. IX and VERY NAY. Some stories are “fat” and are made better by cutting. But if you’re writing something like a period piece, you might need the fat in there. And your story might too lean.
Sit back. Relax. Put down the cutty-thing.
Over the week, read the story you’ve selected to revise, and figure out a) what its strongest feature is. b) what you were trying to achieve with it.
We’ll reconvene next week for “Finding the Pony.” That is, figuring out what you have to shovel, to find the real thing in the smelly stuff.