Will It Live, Doctor? – Short Story Writing Workshop, Part 8 (Maybe. I think. I don’t count too well.)

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.




  1. Yeah, I’ve been pulling stuff out of the drawer and . . . let’s just say that I’ve improved since I wrote most of this stuff. Deciding if anything beyond the elevator pitch is worth saving is the tough part.

  2. “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.”

    Thank you for showing me that I’m not the only person who has noticed this kind of thing: ‘This story is so badly written — the protagonist talks differently depending on where he is and who he is interacting with.’ Because, y’know, real people don’t ever do that, right? *rolls eyes* Inconsistent speech pattern/behavior may be characterization, not error… but newbies who are still parroting their high school English teachers may not understand that.

    Also, yay for the myth killing! I’ve seen too many potentially rich and intense novels reduced to hollow things by someone who believed that less is always better and that if the author likes something about the writing, it has to go.

  3. I will have my shovel at ready.

    But I’m currently thinking that my main problem is that I ended the story too soon.
    It’s a natural spot to end it, and I’d have to telescope time to extend it, but…

  4. For me, revision is not a time of cutting–I’m one of those who writes too briefly, and when I go back to an old work, I can see lacunae in thought, language, and plot. The bones are fine, but the ligaments are missing. Not to mention the poor thing’s stark naked, looking around wildly for a bit of description to cover itself.

      1. o_O

        I — uh — the comments in order in my inbox were the response regarding Natalia and then this one about being a putter-inner.

        I’m going to go read about machining now.

        1. Lathes are totally sweet.

          Let’s check the trouble ticket for that one story.

          ‘Certainly broke. Likely irreparable at this time. Go write more stories before again attempting to fix.’

            1. I’ve done a little bit on manual machines of both type. Sadly, I appear to be short a few things I’d need to be a decent machinist.

              I’ve seen a fair amount of nice work on manual and CNC machines over the years.

              1. ‘Twere I to win the lottery, I’d set up a manual shop for the hobbying. I’ve got a few of the wrong switches flipped to be a professional machinist. But I’ve seen some fascinating work done, manual and CNC both. Some of the cutting edge (hah!) stuff is wild indeed.

                1. One of my many projects that is probably never going to happen is my plan for building a CNC router table. For a while I was even active on a forum for same. It’s certainly technically possible for me to build one, I could even afford to.

                  I just don’t have the time.

                  Plus I realized I didn’t have any projects I wanted to use it on.

                  1. Ah, yes, those are cool. But I’m like you — I don’t really have anything I want to build on one.

                    Still cool.

  5. IF I do a novel workshop.

    Noooo! Ye cannae crush ma dreams!

    Or, you know, spend time on your real writing gig and ignore me. One of those makes sense.

    The “Finding the Pony” explanation was nicely chuckle inducing. Thankee.

    To the topic at hand: Thanks for the myth killing, definitely. The dichotomy of thought in best thing/waste of trees is giving me significant problems. While I have, once upon a time, written a lot of short stuff very near all of the critiques I received were academic by definition.

    It’s very hard to shake those voices when reviewing anything I’ve written. Despite knowing much of it is inapplicable if not flat damaging. It’s still a niggling little voice.


  6. This has been good for me. I’ve got my short story in the can. I know things I want to ‘fix’ but I’ll hold off and write something else first.

    I’m going to try a scene from a future novel that I’ve been slowly building in my notes file instead of a pure short story.

    Yes, please, a novel workshop if you have the time (don’t laugh). I’ve been in a rut trying to finish my fourth novel. I was at the 70 ~ 80% complete mark and it stalled. I don’t want to get into the habit of abandoning projects–I got three finished and I know the suck–but I fear my procrastination is trying to tell me that this story is broken.

    Triage and do the needed surgeries, or give it mercy and move on to something else? That’s exactly where I’m at this short story series has been exactly what I needed. Thanks!

  7. I betcha that with ANY more cutting, neither ‘Nightfall’ nor ‘The Cold Equations’ gets published today.
    My reason for saying so: the engineering in ‘Equations’ and the astrophysics in ‘Nightfall’ are big problems.
    ‘Nightfall’ only works if the suns are orbiting the planet. (If I’m wrong on this, don’t spit on me; I’ve tried to find a rational solution without success.)
    ‘Cold Equations’ falls down because there is NO FREAKEN WAY that a rescue ship gets launched with no reserves and without every compartment being checked and tripled checked and sealed long before departure.
    So, if Asimov or Godwin get picky with their re-writing, the stories get shredded; and just about everybody puts those on the TOP FIVE OF ALL TIME!!!! list, because they deserve it.
    So, I vote for not letting the facts ruin the story.
    I’m just sayin’…

    1. I heard that Godwin wanted to write the story with the girl living but Campbell wanted her to die.

  8. Timely advice on the “don’t cut the meat out with the fat”–even for someone who’s currently editing a novel. Putting my knife down now. Lived experience verifies the “get some mental space” and “go write something else” before taking on revision. The nice part of “write something else” is that it gives you something else to sell!

    1. Yes, I’ve come to the conclusion (and maybe it would be a good post for here or ATH) that part of what is blocking me is the mental transition between “write something else” and “REALLY I can sell it.” You see, for many years “write something else” was “waste your time. Just keep marketing ‘real’ stuff till they buy it” I’m having trouble breaking the conditioning. Maybe if I write about it, it will help.

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