Some Thoughts on Revising

I’ve been revising. A lot. I recently sold a short story I’d started in 2006 to an amazing anthology, and even though I’d rewritten the piece a number of times in the intervening years, it still wasn’t quite right.

Only I’d gotten too close to see what wasn’t working, and so had my critique partners, who’d read a few drafts. So enter the wonderful anthology editors, who got right to the point and showed me exactly what needed to go.

Once I got that story cleaned up and turned in, I moved on to another piece I’d written last year. The Sirens had critiqued it, but I’d never gotten around to revising. Now that I am, it’s amazing how spot-on and vital others’ comments can be in helping you fix your own story.

All that said, here are some thoughts I’ve compiled over the past few months.

Underwoodfive

  • You absolutely need others’ eyes. I don’t care if you’re a gigantic name splashed over the New York Times bestseller list for forty weeks in a row with rights sold all over the world. (May we all be so lucky.) You need others to show you where holes remain in your work, where you can tighten things, where you can and should cut.
  • Trust your own writing. In the anthology story, I’d repeatedly shown a character doing/feeling something and then gone ahead and explained it. (To be fair, a lot of this was holdover from previous drafts. See above about being too close to to the material.) If you’ve done your job right, you don’t need to explain these things to your readers. They’ll get it from context.
  • Sometimes even those of us who tend to write in more poetic voices can have the most impact by saving those poetic images for the actual magic/supernatural moments in our stories. Not always, but it’s something to consider.
  • One clear image is much sharper and more effective than a jumble of two or three. That undercuts their power.
  • You don’t automatically have to kill your darlings—you should like what you’ve written!—but you do need to make them work for you. If you can’t find a way to do that, then yes, cut them. I’ve heard it said that each scene should either develop character or advance plot or establish setting (ideally all three), but I’d add that this pertains to every sentence, too. Make your pretty prose/cool character/awesome idea hold its weight!
  • Sometimes the right elements are there in the story; they’re just in the wrong place. Moving them around and applying the putty of transitions, etc., can often be just the thing you need.
  • Wonderful, unusual ideas are exciting, but they need to be supported by an emotional payoff in some way. Not every character has to be likable, but the reader does need to be able to form some sort of connection to them. Basically, know what the emotional stakes underpinning your story are, and make them clear.
  • Your story doesn’t have to be absolutely linear, but for the most part, unless you’re doing something experimental, the reader needs a bit of foreshadowing and the suggestion of structure. You want them to think, Of course it would end that way!—not because it’s predictable, but because subtle clues were sprinkled throughout, creating a sense of inevitability. Otherwise, the ending feels unearned and confusing, and the reader goes away unsatisfied. Know where your story is going, and lay a path to get there.

So those are some of my musings on the process. Do you agree? Disagree? Have anything to add? Tell us in the comments.

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My Precious: On Killing Your Darlings

As writers, we’re often given the advice to “kill your darlings.” The general interpretation of this (in my mind at least) is not to get so attached to a sentence, plotline, or character that you allow them to take away from instead of add to your story. In short, nothing is precious.

Pic of Golem from LotR: http://cynicritics.com/tag/gollum/

I generally like this advice, especially when it comes to plotting. If one of my characters has a secret that will destroy my story if discovered, I make sure that secret comes out as quickly as possible. In my mind, it’s impossible to create something new if your mind is all cluttered up with your initial plot ideas.

That said, some people take this advice too far:

  • So you think it’s your best sentence – cut it immediately.
  • You think that subplot is important – EXTERMINATE!

This is how I ended up rewriting the first sentence of my very first novel (a 150,000 word monstrosity of magical martial arts battles and epic swordfights that will never see the light of day) over 20 times. One of the most difficult parts about (re)writing is knowing what to save and what to kill. And the harder truth of it is, this never gets easier. Well, maybe it does for some people, but it hasn’t for me.

For example, I’ve already scrapped two ideas for this blog entry alone. I even wrote three paragraphs about Nelson Mandela and they aren’t terrible…just wrong. The thing is, writing walks that terrifying razors’ edge of complete passion and necessary objectivity. This is why many (most) of us join writers groups. Sometimes we need someone else to tell us when an idea’s got to go.

But there are other things that we take on as precious that we don’t even think about. Stereotypes (the hero is tall, muscular and male). Assumptions (education will be the same 100 years from now, resembling a 21st century high school drama). Western ideas of plot structure and design. Which of these darlings should we kill or keep?

Image of Anissa Pierce aka Thunder: http://www.comicvine.com/thunder/4005-3407/

I’ve been thinking about killing darlings lately because in spite of the fact I’m well familiar with the concept of not letting my writing become too precious to me, I’ve managed to fall into that trap anyhow. In the past six years, I’ve drafted at least 10 short stories and a fair number of novels and novel parts, all of which are currently fossilizing on my hard drive. I keep saying “I’ll revise this” and “I’ll send that out when I get this thing done” but ultimately, I’m not doing anything. And so my work stagnates, precious and unread.

So I’ve decided I’m going to put one out there, for free, and collect the most salvageable of the rest for $.99c in a kindle ebook this month. By doing this, I’ll reduce the clutter in my brain so that I can create new things. And who knows, someone might even like it.