Strategies for Revision
By Becky Tuch
As much as I love me a good writing workshop, there is often a point where feedback from peers falls short. Here’s the scenario: You write a story, you present it to readers, they tell you what they think. “I wasn’t sure what this character’s motivation was,” they say; “I wanted more tension and conflict”; “I was confused,”; “None of the characters change here”, and on and on and on.
This, of course, can be extremely useful feedback. But how do you, the workshopped writer, then implement the changes that will improve your story? How does one amp up tension? How do you clarify settings and relationships which to you seem perfectly clear? How do you, dear hardworking writer, roll up your sleeves and scrape your ego off the floor and take apart that story or novel so that you can, at last, put it back together again and make it great?
Here are some strategies for revision that I have found helpful. If you have some of your own, I do hope you’ll share them.
Write a synopsis of the story as it currently is. Then, rewrite your story.
This is a strategy I learned from Stephen Koch’s Modern Writer’s Library Workshop, and I have found it extremely useful. The deal is that you take your story, with all its warts and hiccups and stumbles, and you just write down the basic elements of the plot. What’s crucial here is that you write the story as it actually is, not as you wish it would be. The latter is a different sort of exercise. So your synopsis might be something like this: “A young girl in Ireland sits at a window and smells the street. She thinks about running away with her lover to Buenos Aires, leaving her family behind. She goes to the train station. She realizes that she can’t leave her family behind and that perhaps she will never leave Ireland.” Cut and dry and nothing else.
Once you’ve written this synopsis, you’ll likely see that there are all sorts of unnecessary bits getting in the way of telling this story. It is then time to remove or better shape those bits so they work in service of the plot you’ve described. Then, rewrite—and I mean rewrite, not tweak or polish—your story so that it presents the scenario you have just laid forth.
Cut-up the scenes and tape them to the wall.
This is one I learned in a fiction workshop with James Scott, who learned it from Pamela Painter. Here, you cut up your story by its scenes. Then you tape each scene in a straight line across a wall. When the scene is backstory, you tape that scene higher or lower than the others. This helps you see concretely what portion of your story is backstory, what portion is in the present.
Keep a pack of Post-Its handy so you can make notes for each scene like, “Introduce Bob here,” and “More of Jane’s thoughts here,” and also to place between scenes with notes like, “Add a scene describing how they met,” or “Need something here--??”
This is a great method that lets you see how the length of scenes measure against each other. You’re likely to see that you have waaaaaay too much backstory. Or that the climax of the story is incredibly short in comparison to the opening pages. This method allows you step back and see the structure of the work clearly. It also allows you to move scenes around without losing your mind in a Microsoft Word maze. Also, it’s pretty awesome to enter a room and see your story up on the walls.
Read your work out loud.
Zadie Smith has said that the best time to edit one’s own work is while waiting backstage to read at a writing festival. In my Novel-in-Progress class at Grub Street, where the format hinges around students reading their work out loud to one another, students make incredible progress.
There is just something about reading your work out loud, either to a real audience or an imagined one, that allows you to notice every misstep and false note. Plus, it sharpens your reading-for-an-audience skills, which you may soon need if you keep revising your work.
Have someone read your work out loud to you.
This can be a bit excruciating, especially if the piece in question is a first draft. But wow, is it useful to hear all the places where people trip over names, where a reader’s voice becomes dull and monotone, where a reader sounds bored or disengaged. It’s also supremely wonderful to hear places where a reader laughs or where s/he reads faster to see what’s going to happen.
If you want, you can have that reader give you on-the-spot feedback, like, “Wait, what? I’m totally lost.” Or you can just have them do a read-through while you take notes on where in the text they sound like they’re having fun and where they sound like they’d rather be stabbing pins into their eyeballs.
Put your work aside for a few days.
Our own perception of our work can be accurate sometimes, grossly distorted other times. We can think we’re John Updike one moment and Stephanie Meyer’s kitty litter the next.
It’s important to gain critical distance from your work, even if it means taking a wee bit longer to finish a project. In fact, it might facilitate the finishing of a project if you air it out and let it breathe. Read other writers. Start a new story. Put your mind elsewhere for a spell so that you can come back to your work with a clear head.
Then, when you do finally look at your work, pretend that you are a reader who has just been handed this story in a workshop, or an editor at a literary magazine. Be cool, fair, and objective. Are you pulled in? Are you confused? Are you engaged? Try not to mark up the work too heavily. Use post-its. You will likely need to practice putting this story aside and coming back to it many times over.
Don’t settle for ‘good enough.’
I know this sounds like a TV ad for sporting equipment. But it does apply to your work. The temptation to send out a story just to see what happens can be great. We’ve all had moments, or at least I have, where I’ve thought, “Maybe my workshop is wrong. Maybe this story is just fine the way it is. Maybe I should send it out just to see what happens.”
Well, two things can happen. In the best case scenario, if the story is not as good as it can be it will be rejected. In the worst case scenario, your story will be accepted and published and you will read it six months later and think, “Oh damn, I could have made it better.” Such a fate is even worse when the story is online because, as we all know, online = 4ever!
When you send a story out for publication, you should feel really good and excited about it. You should know that you gave it the very best of your entire being, which means that you rolled up your sleeves and interrogated every word as to its usefulness in the story, you asked every scene to do work, you brought your characters to life as much as you possibly could. In short, by the time you’re done with your story, it ought to be panting, sweating, and doubling over in exhaustion from all the work you’ve made it do. Not because this is what editors or agents or even readers want from you. And not because you want it for yourself. Rather, because you owe it to your characters to give them the best possible world in which to shine.
Becky Tuch is the founding editor of The Review Review.