Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Revising short stories - science or art?

So, I've long subscribed to the theory of revising that says you need to do it with your "analytical" head on, that it's not a creative act, almost more of a scientific one. This is the type of revision I always felt I should be doing. But I rarely do and I feel guilty about that, as if I'm not a proper writer, or something. This week I took a first draft of a story and sat in my writing shed (yes, pictures soon!) for 2.5 hours, with NO INTERNET and did that kind of analytical revising, trying to "fix" or "solve" issues my writing group had drawn my attention to. Boy was I pleased, I had written some new scenes that did seem to do this, how wonderful!

Then I read it the next day, and felt that something was really wrong. I had put in more of this, less of that, plugged some gaps, but the whole nature of the story had changed. It had had a sort of magical and non-closed ending and now it was no longer magical, it was very harsh. I showed it to my writing group again and they all, without prompting, said the same: they preferred the first version. So, by approaching it analytically, I messed it up completely.

Since then, I've been canvassing opinion from writer friends about their processess. I don't even want to call it "revision" (which does remind me of school). Let's call it "working on" a short story. It seems that I should have asked sooner, because it might have saved me some guilt! Quite a few writers go back into that dreaming "zone", that creative space, to work further on a story, rather than switching hats and turning on some Editor with a capital "E". So, what do you do?

One friend looked through the Paris Review interviews and found this from Marilynne Robinson:
"If I write something and don't like it, I basically toss it. And I try to write it again or I write something else that has the same movement. But as far as going back and working over something that I've already written -- I really don't do that. I know there's a sentence that I need, and I just run it through my mind until it sounds right. Most of my revision occurs before I put words down on a paper."
What works for you? I think the message here - I assume - will be that different tactics work for different people. Let's share some!

24 comments:

A. J. Ashworth said...

I find it hard to explain because it's more about (warmly) feeling something is right on the page rather than (coolly) cerebrally ascertaining something is right. It's a difficult question to answer because our feelings are ultimately produced in the brain and so, even though I say I'm revising by using my feelings, it is actually the brain that is doing it. When I write or revise it definitely feels more like an intuitive act rather than something that is consciously being controlled or directed. I also tend to revise as I write (as well as after I've 'finished' something) so the writing mode/editing mode are not too different for me. I hope this makes sense!

Vanessa Gebbie said...

"Most of my revision occurs before I put words down on a paper..." Thats the way! Maybe we get closer to that state with experience?

Tania Hershman said...

Andrea, I love your difference between the "warm" and "cold" aspects or attitudes, it's a lovely thought to feel warm about ones work rather than chilly. Yes, it all happens in the brain but it's which part of the brain we use. The scientist part of me craves rules and equations, but actually I love the other, looser, more experimental (forgive the pun!) part of me, would rather be there most of the time. I need to stop being so influenced by how various books have told me I "must" revise"

V - I am coming to that conclusion too, that after you've put in a certain amount of time at this thing, what gets onto the paper isn't actually a first draft at all, it's much further than that. I know that an enormous amount happens in my head first.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Precisely - we internalise, to a certain extent, the craft stuff, and like driving, just do it. When the wind blows in the right direction, of course.

But - re the story you think you've ruined - maybe try it out there. Writing groups are lovely support structures, but they dont like change.

Tania Hershman said...

Thanks V, but I knew I'd ruined it before they gently mentioned it. I'd turned it into a completely different story, and not one I like. I'd lost the magic in it.

Anonymous said...

I've recently learnt the power of rewriting... reading what I've done, putting it aside and starting again. The rewards have been tremendous, just incredible. I know my characters and the scene so well by the time I begin my rewrite that I know how they are likely to react in situations, and some amazingly unexpected things occur!

Rachel Fenton said...

I sort of think that if there are going to be changes then the whole thing has to start again - else, it's all a bit like trying to untie veins and plonk them somewhere else - the circulation gets messed up, and worse!

litrefs said...

For me, some stories begin with an idea or mood. Words develop around that, but the original seed has to stay. Other pieces begin as bits but gradually acquire a heart. Others begin with a character in search of a plot. I don't think it's always right to re-trace one's steps when re-writing (a story can start on one track and end up on a completely different one) but it's worth remembering what made you want to write the piece in the first place. And not just remembering - keeping those early sketches and drafts.

In the Times Higher Education there was an
article
which partly deals with this (and with some other teaching issues too). It mentions some habitual rewriters, and the difficulty convincing some students that famous writers re-wrote in the old days - "Andrew Motion, echoing Larkin, has told how an edition of Wilfred Owen's poems with a facsimile of a corrected draft of the sonnet Anthem for Doomed Youth changed his life as a teenager by vividly showing a poet in the act of revision."

Tania Hershman said...

Anon- so glad you've found a way that works for you! When you say "starting again", do you mean you literally rewrite the whole story again?

Rachel, this is very interesting, seems like there's a theme here, I've never tried starting again, rewriting the whole thing.

Tim, yes, excellent point about keeping drafts, I had done, thank goodness. Lovely about Andrew Motion and the revision, I will check out that article. yes, don't we all believe when we start out that it should come out perfect or not at all??!

Alex said...

Because of my sporadic writing schedule I tend to write in short bursts and can sometimes rewrite a paragraph twenty times from scratch. It always boils down to whatever works for you though I guess. One time I wrote a novella and after an edit I got a 3000 word story out of it (that one still stings a little) but as long as you get something you're happy with at the end I don't think it matters how you get there. I don't mind working for months to get perfection.

Claire King said...

I'm rubbish at working on/revising short stories. There's something in me that insists on the flow of the piece in its entirety, so every time I edit a part of the story I go back to the beginning and read it through again until I hit another part that 'doesn't work' according to the vision I have for the piece. Edit, and repeat. It takes far too long I'm sure, there must be a better way.

Nahno McLein said...

I'm surprised about that comment at the end. I was taught in a creative writing course that practically no one can skip the editing process.

I believe a story can be good at first write (though it normally isn't that good), but it needs the editing stage to erase mistakes (not grammar), and add sensibility as well as structure and flow.

Sometimes big changes can make it much better. But going back and seeing an earlier version was better is also a good thing, I believe. At least you now what's right, then. And maybe you just change one small thing from that exercise.
Nahno ∗ McLein

Tania Hershman said...

Alex, a 3000 word story out of a novella ain't bad! And yes, months is not long on a short story.

Claire, it seems that we all think we are rubbish but when I hear what other people do I realise that everyone has their own way, there isn't "one "way".

And on that note, David Vann just said this in a Q&A over at Thresholds: "I should also say that my final drafts are almost identical to my first drafts. Ichthyology had one paragraph cut and one added. Caribou Island had only a few paragraphs of background info added, and line edits. I was always told writing is mostly revision, but for me, the work lives or dies in the first draft." So there!

Tania Hershman said...

Hi Nahno,
I think what you've just said is very important, we are all told in creative writing classes about the importance of revision. BUT what we are not told is that this means completely different things to different writers, there is no one way of going about it. Some people revise in their heads before even writing a sentence, some people write a little, then rewrite, then rewrite, some get down a whole flawed first draft and rework and rework... There are no rules!

Nahno McLein said...

Yeah Tania, you are right, there are many different kinds.
I've been considering the in-your-head-pre-revision method a lot lately. I do believe in it, but for me it's not the only thing.

Luckily, we are not told how to revise in our course, we're just given ideas and input about the revision process, so that is good. Everyone should develop his own style. All our tutors want to see is a carefully thought-through process, no matter how.

dan powell said...

Just had the comment form eat my original comment to this thread, so rather fittingly, this is a second draft of my comment.

I am very jealous of anyone like Vann who can write a first draft as a final draft. My process tends to involve writing in excess of what the story requires and then a trimming back to a shape that best fits the story revealed in the first draft. This can mean cutting out a third to a half of what I've written, shaping the rest as I polish.

This not to say that extra writing is wasted. The extra work gives me a deeper understanding of the characters, while the trimmed sections go into files for use later. I trawl through them from time to time for character stuff and description that will serve the story I am drafting or as a spring board for a new piece.

A little time consuming but the whole process is kind of like writing a block of text then scuplting it into shape, knocking chunks of it off as I go.

An interesting method of editing is Andrew Cowan's, I have heard him in interview explaining that he writes his first sentence, then redrafts that until perfect then writes his next and redrafts that until perfect and he continues this process for whole novels. Now that's what I call time consuming.

If my original comment does turn up, please delet as this second draft is almost certainly better for being a second draft of my thoughts.

Diane Becker said...

My method of revising/editing is as chaotic as my creative process. I was taught that you write (the first draft) for yourself, and revise with the reader in mind. But (for me) it's not that simple and there may be many drafts because it's in the process of writing, that I find a sense of my story and the revision process is about making sense of that story. Even if it's a short story, this often turns out to be a long process, especially when my thoughts on what I've written shift, which is inevitable over time. On my blog, I've been likening the process of revising/rewriting/editing to knitting; being prepared to unravel, pick up dropped stitches, rework the pattern, but really I think it's more instinctive than that, more like the creative process involved in painting. I know it's right when it feels, looks and sounds right.

Louise Halvardsson said...

What works for me is leaving it for a long time and then entering the text in a new creative headspace, almost rewriting it even if I might just change one paragraph to get it right. Dreamy creative is better than analytical in my world ... You have to leave your FEELINGS in even if you're clutching the red editing pen at the same time ...

Tania Hershman said...

Nahno - it is interesting that your tutors are interested in your processes, that sounds very forward-thinking of them.

Dan, your method is something I've heard a lot of writers talk about - writing far "too much" material, scaling it back, but the excess is something you need to know but not the reader. It sounds very logical to me. Andrew Cowan's approach is something that I simply cannot imagine doing myself - but if it works for him! It sounds like the way i've heard poets talk, writing one word, getting it right, then the next... Wow. And - nicely done for turning Blogger's chewing up of your first draft into an apt metaphor for this blog post!

Diane - talking of metaphors...Well, first, when you say "I was told", that is the main reason I wrote this blog post, because I feel we all "got told" the ONE way to do this thing. And the knitting/painting metaphors sound interesting, sounds like for you it is some combination of the two: painted knitting? Layers, things dropped, redoing the baggy bits.

Louise, that is most definitely something that is alwaus useful, leaving something aside. I just am too impatient to do that for long enough! I just can't, am always too in love with it and want to finish-finish-send-it-out. Must chill out! I like "dreamy creative", very nice...

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Ah - popped back to see discussion (great stuff, by the way - such an important topic) and my highly articulate long, and drivelly second post has been eaten by the machinery.

I think what I said was something like - appreciating the strength of analysing the craft and applying that analysis to the editing process is fine. However - I do think we need to be flexible - and not slaves to any method at all. I think we need to embrace as many ways of doing this thing as we can, and understand that what will work one day, on one piece of work, may not be right for another, on another day.

I guess that when we get a way down the track, our understanding of our own drafting process can encompass some of the 'revision' process, as we go. So what comes out, has already been subconsciously smoothed.

I also think that might work for short fiction, flashes, shorter short stories - but the more complex a piece of becomes, the less likely it is to work well. So consideration of structure, how far it is working to deliver the end product you want, arches over the craft elements within. Thats how I approached revising my longer work recently. I think...

Emma said...

Hi Tania. This thread has been really interesting and I think emphasises the fact that people write differently. The received view seems to be that you are in a creative/right brain state for stage one (writing) and in an analytical/left brain state for stage two (revising) – there should be an unconscious creative burst followed by an analytical going over. But I think in reality it's more complex than that, as this discussion shows. To be honest, I don't feel such a big difference between the two stages. Maybe I'm just doing it 'wrong' - but when I write and also when I evaluate what I've written, I try to think it and feel it at the same time.

Emma said...

Hi Tania. This thread has been really interesting and I think emphasises the fact that people write differently. The received view seems to be that you are in a creative/right brain state for stage one (writing) and in an analystical/left brain state for stage two (revising) – there should be an unconscious creative burst followed by an analytical going over. But I think the situation is reality is more complex than that, as this discussion shows. To be honest, I don't feel such a big difference between the two stages. Maybe I'm just doing it 'wrong' - but when I write try to think it and feel it at the same time.

Kirsty Logan said...

I used to be all about the emetic first draft – I just got it all out on the page, beginning to end, before I edited a single word. Then I'd look at the thing as a whole and make big changes. Then the next rewrite would be smaller changes, and smaller and smaller until I'm just fiddling with individual word choices.

I've slowed down a bit over the past few months, both in terms of my overall output and how quickly I write each sentence. Now I find that my first drafts are slower, but with each draft I change fewer things. Maybe one day I'll get to the point where I perfect each sentence before moving on, but I doubt it. I prefer to find my way through the story as I go, rather than plan it all out beforehand.

That said, I love editing and rewriting. The blank page still scares me a little, and there's comfort in knowing that I have the framework of a story already there.

popsicledeath said...

Cool blog, I like the discussion (though haven't gotten to read everyone's posts).

The last few years I've had the pleasure of being a student and teaching assistant with an amazing writer (Alan Heathcock, debut just came out and is amazing). The one thing he's been hammering away at the last year is all the intangible stuff (or that which SEEMS intangible), like relevance and basically just maintaining the entertaining storytelling in a story.

I've had experiences too, where like you, I basically killed a story because I was trying to make it 'right' and 'correct'. Now, I also don't believe writing is just some mystical thing that happens and can't be explained, but there's an art to being able to trust all the technical crap will come out passively, once learned, and doesn't need forced.

So now, when I revise, I just read and go with my gut, see if I'm moved or not (and my last few stories still move me each reading, while earlier ones are just technically pretty competent)... It's hard, but trusting my gut is passively listening to my head and the years of analysis and lurnin has been what's helped my revisions (especially because drafts come out pretty whole, because I 'just' write and don't stop to worry if I'm doing things right, but am more skilled than when I just wrote and it came out in a spontaneous overflow of gibberitic crap.

So, my method is to pretend I've forgotten all the things I've learned, that I know I haven't forgotten, and know it's all just to trick myself into not killing my manuscripts with over analysis. It's like being my own kid and manipulating myself with cookies!