Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Revision: Realizing the Full Potential of the Story

Revising a short story can be both challenging and rewarding. In a way, you have a lot more control once you've completed the first draft - our goal is to make the most of that control in order to refine the story.  Here's a look at how my approach to revision has changed over time.

As a writer, I've gone back-and-forth when it comes to revisions.  When I was very young (maybe seventh or eighth grade), I had this notion that I would write the "perfect" story.  My idea was simple: whatever I needed to do to make the story perfect, I would do it.  I would write it, revise it, refine it, "perfect" it.

The problem, though, is that no story is every perfect.  No matter what we write, we have those who love our work and those who don't.  One reader's favorite description may be "distracting exposition" to another.  And when we wrap ourselves up in the idea of perfection, we often never finish that crucial first draft.  And that's exactly what happened to me as I continued writing on through high school and well into college.  I would map out my stories, draw up character descriptions, and write chapter summaries.  I was also writing pages and pages of prose, but few of them went together.  I was so focused on "the perfect scene" that I didn't actually write a complete story.  I had, in fact, written my stories so many times in my head that they never quite made it to the page.

This changed for me during a writing workshop my sophomore or junior year of college.  I still remember the day clearly.  I had a story due, it was going nowhere, and so I went to our dorm's volleyball/softball/BBQ party instead.  Later, when I made it back to the computer, an entirely different story came out, one that I hadn't planned and hadn't expected.  And it was fun.  It was different.  It was exciting.

That quality there - the exciting unpredictability of a good story - is what we aim for in that first draft.  We want to let go and allow the zaniness to flow.

The trick, however, is capturing this spontaneity and then refining it.  This is where revision comes in.  And it took me years to appreciate this.  Graduating college and moving on to the army, I became enamored with the "first-draft/final-draft" mentality.  Rather than dwelling on stories, I felt I could train myself to write almost perfectly on the first try.  And I wrote a lot of stories with this approach - and still never finished most of them.  If a story wasn't working, I simply dropped it and started another.  As a writer, you'll never get bored with this approach - every day has a new story to work on.  And you can produce a great deal of text.  But you can imagine that this isn't the most productive approach to publication - as I said, most of the stories I started never made it to the finish line.

I actually received a good deal of grief from one of my writing teachers over this.  He told me - rightly - that I'd become a much better writer if I simply learned to revise.  And there was a large part of me that simply didn't agree.  Although I felt my stories could be improved, I always figured that the "first-draft/final-draft" approach was the best training a writer could have.  I compared myself to classmates in workshops who revised the same stories over and over, never moving on to something new, never treading the new ground that every writer needs to explore.

Ironically, it was treading in this "new ground" that led me to write a story that simply flopped in workshop.  I was very proud of the story - particularly all the heavy themes it hit.  And it was packed with conflict - one of my classmates counted seven unique conflicts affecting the protagonist.  And yet the story flopped.  It was a confusing tale - there wasn't enough description, and nothing was really resolved by the end.  Basically, the story was packed with promise that was never fully realized.  My professor saw it as nothing more than thirty pages of dialogue.

I'll be honest - one of the hardest things a writer must bear is the moment when a cherished creation is rejected by careful readers.  And yet this is often the best time to learn.  For myself, I was convinced that my story had potential.  I refused to believe my classmates or my professor.  I wanted to prove them wrong about the story.  And there was only one way to do this: revision.

There's a reason I've gone through this very long story before getting to the main point of this little essay.  For many writers, revision means simply going through a story and correcting the grammar.  Many will try to simply rearrange the sentences until they "sound right."  But revision is about far more than fixing the "look" or the "sound" of a story.  Revision is about realizing the full potential of a story.  Not just the full potential of that first draft, but the full potential of the story itself.

For that 30-page story that flopped, I had to find out what my story was really about.  Then I had to find a way to get that to the page in a way that would hold the reader's attention.  And it was hard.  I tried light revision, but that couldn't work.  My classmates were right - there was too much going on.  "Fixing" the 30-page draft by adding new descriptions would have required adding literally forty or fifty more pages of text, and that would have weighed down the story even more.  And I wasn't about to turn in another thick, boring tale to workshop.

So I went back to the drawing board.  I began new drafts of the story.  I began experimenting with the voice of the story, trying a switch to first-person, playing around with metafiction, shifting around the plot.  And this went on for about two weeks before I finally hit something I liked.  From there, it took about a day to write the new draft - a ten-page story that had the same core elements of the first story, but it was a very different story.

Now, I'd love to say my work was done from that point.  It wasn't.  The new story was better, but it still went through several layers of additional revision before going into my thesis.  But the exercise of rewriting the provided a certain kind of maturity for the story.  Because I'd already written the story once, I had a feeling for what had to happen.  I had a sense of the characters.  Unlike a true first draft, the rewritten work was coherent.  It packed twice the emotional impact into a third as many pages.  And that, I think, is a good return on investment.

Overall, this is how I'd like you to think of the revision process.  It's an investment.  Some stories need a lot of work - sometimes, they need more work than we can provide.  Sometimes, just a little bit of tweaking is enough to take a good story and make it great.  Either way, though, you have to judge just how much work to put in, and you have to decide in advance whether that revision will be worth it.  And then you have to decide whether you want to simply rearrange a few scenes, or if you'll go through line-by-line to tighten each sentence, or if instead it's time for a full rewrite.  As you begin to revise your stories, you'll find that each story demands a different approach.

Something I would like you to note, however, is that here we've kept the first-draft process entirely separate from the revision process.  Some writers prefer to revise as they draft, but I advise against it.  I feel that revision works best when you have a complete first draft to work with.  In a mature story, the beginning leads to the end, but it's impossible to revise that matched beginning unless you've already seen how the story ends.

But there's a greater danger to mixing revision with your first-draft writing.  Starting the revision process before a story has a complete first draft can make you second-guess your own best instincts.  "It would be cool if the hero does this...but does this jive with the previous chapter??"  You don't need that kind of worry, not in the first draft.  Instead it should be "wow, this chapter was cool.  Oh, hey, let's try this.  And then this.  Oh, look, the story just ended."  And after you hit the end, you might say "oh, that cool part doesn't work the way I thought it would."  You avoid the frustration that comes with trying to fit an entire story around one cool element that simply doesn't work.

If I can answer any questions on draft-writing or revision, please let me know.

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