A Few Things About Revision I Wish I’d Known Sooner

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I used to dread revision.

The more I’d try to fix my story, the more lost and frustrated I’d become.

After dozens of rewrites, convinced my story was an irreparable mess, I’d shove my story into the drawer and move onto the next new draft.

Which would lead to more revision. More confusion and frustration. Utter despair.

Fast forward to today:

Rewriting is not only manageable, it is, hands down, my favorite part of the writing process.

To quote Bernard Malamud, revision is for me, “one of the exquisite pleasures of writing.”

What changed?

My misconceptions about the writing process. And some gradual, steady realizations.

Writing is Rewriting

I used to get discouraged whenever I found that my first, second, or third draft needed more work. I thought rewriting meant my work was a failure. Or that I lacked talent.

I’d look at a story from workshop, or read a magnificent novel and think, Wow. I wish I could write like that. Writing must come so easy to him or her.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

Every piece of literature we love and revere has been written under incredible doubt, frustration, confusion, and many, many, many rewrites.

Hemingway rewrote the last page of Farewell to Arms 39 times before he felt satisfied.

Dorothy Parker said it typically took her six months to write a short story.

And John Irving says that more than half, maybe even two-thirds of his life as a writer is spent rewriting.

Once I banished the misconception that there was a distinction between writing and rewriting, I was able to stop chasing the result and just flow with the process.

I learned to embrace chaos. To trust that some kind of shape, order, and relevance would, in due time, emerge from an inchoate mess of imagery, episodes, memories, abstractions, and so forth.

And I stopped berating myself for not having produced a brilliant draft right out of the gate.

Our First Draft is the Raw Material

It flows. It’s cathartic. Exhilarating. It feels brilliant. And it is.

But rarely do we get to write a first draft and say we’re done.

That’s because our first draft is for telling us what our story wants us to say.

Revision is where we dive back into our material and see what the work needs. It’s where we expand, enhance, refine, and crystallize what’s inherently there.

Revision is an Investigation

For years, my biggest misconception about revision was that it was about “fixing” my story. Doing it over.

My job was to alter, amend and correct all that my teachers and peers had prescribed as “problematic.”

But the harder I tried to improve my story, the more disconnected I felt from it. And the farther away I strayed from the internal impetus that had driven me to write it in the first place.

Once I understood that revision wasn’t so much about changing my story — that it was more about giving it air and letting it breathe — I gained much more control over my material.

Revision isn’t just about retooling sentences and paragraphs, changing words, fine-tuning grammar, cutting and adding scenes. That’s an essential part of it, sure.

But revision is also about probing what’s already on the page, however submerged it might be at the moment. It’s about digging deep, learning not just what we’re writing about, but why it matters to us.

Because if we don’t know the what and the why, all the changes we make to structure, word choice, description, and so on, don’t bring us any closer to the story we were meant to tell. They might even lead us farther astray.

Revision Is a Receptive, Intuitive Act

Listen to your draft. Our work is smarter than we are. Embedded inside it are clues to what our story is trying to become.

Consciously or unconsciously, all those disparate images, symbols, objects, and memories you dialed up made it onto the page for a reason.

When reading your work, tune in to the recurring elements, images, and so forth that strike thematic chords. Which of these have an emotional or psychological charge? Unwrap them. Even the most seemingly random detail can unlock the emotional essence of a scene. Examined closely enough and from enough angles, a single image can bear the meaning of your entire story.

Rewriting is Essential

That’s because we evade our material more than we realize.

We’re often motivated to write because of certain memories, emotions and events that are far too powerful and complex to be fully grasped or articulated in our early drafts.

As memoir writer Larry Sutin says, “We rewrite because we didn’t have the courage to face it the first time.”

Each time we revisit our material, we gather more courage and momentum to dive a little deeper.

And if we stick with it, we come out on the other side with something coherent, unified, artful, and above all, moving.

 

Creating Drama Sentence By Sentence

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Drama. Conflict. Surprise. It’s what we all want in our writing.

So when I recently revisited a very old novel draft of mine about a twelve-year-old girl corrupted by her career criminal father, I despaired over how flat it read.

At face value you might think such a story would have drama in spades. There’s grand theft, wiretapped phones, prison, betrayals and power reversals.

The story itself is inherently dramatic. Yet there’s nothing to tug the reader from one sentence to the next. The drama is not yet alive on the page.

Drama involves conflict.

And the standard advice for generating conflict goes something like this:

Give your character something to want passionately, throw some heavy hitting obstacles in his/her path and there you have it: conflict and, as a byproduct, drama.

Solid advice. Without conflict, you have no drama.

But conflict isn’t just about what happens in a story; it’s the contradictory responses it creates within the reader.

So what if instead of manufacturing conflict in the broad strokes of our work, via action and plot, we provoked conflict within the reader instead?

We can do this right on the sentence level, using contradiction as the lever.

Contradiction

Contradiction happens when two opposing ideas occupy the same space, and both are right. This creates conflict on the page, but more important, it complicates the reader’s reaction, creating an insatiable reader.

In my Writer Unleashed course, we examine our own contradictory responses to fictional characters. Why, for instance, in Andre Dubus’s story “The Killings” do we feel more sympathy for the murderer than for his victim? Can a character who does an abhorrent act simultaneously gain our admiration?

We’re often drawn to a story that’s disconcerting in a way that sneaks up on us. The author has orchestrated that response by consciously layering complexity, opposites, juxtapositions and paradox into his sentences.

Here’s a technique I learned years ago from Douglas Glover, one that I only recently fully grasped thanks to his brilliant essay, “The Drama of Grammar” in his book, Attack of the Copula Spiders: Essays on Writing.

His essay drives home the point that we can create drama, mystery, and exciting juxtaposition right on the sentence level using what he calls a “but-construction.”

The idea is to take any declarative sentence and add a “but” at the end.

For example, take the opening line from Denis Johnson’s story, “Dundun”:

I went out to the farmhouse where Dundun lived to get some pharmaceutical opium from him

Look happens when Johnson adds a “but.”

but I was out of luck.

The “but” embeds conflict within the sentence. And it sets the story in motion.

Glover defines a but construction as “…any use of the conjunction “but” or synonym, also any functionally similar punctuation marks including line-breaks, in a sentence of a paragraph to set up an antithesis, surprise, reversal, contrast, paradox or comparison.”

Turn to any passage in a book you’re reading and you’re bound to see this in action.

Here’s an example from Elizabeth McCracken’s, Niagara Falls All Over Again, a novel rich in but constructions.

In the following passage, Mose describes the second time he meets his vaudeville partner Rocky, drawing contrasts between his stage persona and his private persona.

Said partner, I had thought, was a dark-haired clown in makeup up and baggy pants. A patsy. An overexcited fat man. I looked around the Busy Bee, and all I saw was a blond guy in a good suit, puffy from drink but handsome, who waved at me. Then he waved a little harder.

When people ask me what he was like, I always want to say the one thing they won’t believe: he was good looking. They have eyes these people, and they’ve seen the party in question plenty. Dark hair sticking up, sloppy fat, useless with this hands and feet, squeaky, breathless. With rare exceptions, if you wanted to make it in the movies you had to choose between funny and handsome: Fred Astaire and Stan Laurel could be brothers, but which one’s the heart-throb? Even a voice makes a difference in how good-looking you are, and Rocky’s real voice was knowing and slow. He could have made a living off of it, if things had gone differently. The stuff he colored his hair with washed out. (Rubbed off, too, I learned later. I was the one who told him to either dye it or give up: I was tired of finding boot-black on my good clothes.) He was handsome the way Babe Ruth was handsome, a combination of confidence and being glad to see you. A backslapping man. A handshaker. A kisser of babies and pretty girls.

Note the contradiction and contrasts built into the structure of the sentences.

Mose thought Rocky was a dark haired clown in makeup, “a patsy,” an “overexcited fat man.” But no, he’s a blond guy in a suit, and he’s waving at him. He’s fat and sloppy, squeaky and breathless, but he’s also good-looking. He dyes his hair “boot black” for the stage. But off stage, he’s sandy-haired. He’s flirtatious, charming, a “kisser of babies and pretty girls. He’s puffy from drink, but handsome.

So there’s an implicit “he’s this, but he’s also that” woven throughout the passage.

The “but” creates what Glover calls mental drama “…the clash of ideas, motives, expectations and outcomes.” “It is the mental drama,” he says, “the element of surprise and mystery implicit in the plot of every sentence we write, that contributes to the feeling that a piece of prose is alive, and further contributes to that density of action, interest and delight which we expect from good writing.”

As a reader, this mental drama is irresistible.

And as the author, the “but” creates space for your story to breathe. Your imagination is forced to fill in that empty space. So you’re not just delivering a static statement: Rocky was fat and sloppy, squeaky and breathless. You’re ushering in possibility, depth and surprise. But…he was a heartthrob. Conflict and drama right on the sentence level.

Try this:

Go through something you’re working on. Take any declarative sentence (for example: It was raining.) and add the word “but” at the end. This two millimeter shift in your sentence can create conflict and drama, and may even help you shape the content of your story, spinning it in directions that surprise you.

The Essential Rewrite

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We all have a story.

Yours might be of loss, confusion, or upending heartbreak, a crisis that brought you to your knees. Maybe you lost your child, or your marriage fell apart. Maybe you’re a survivor of the most brutal abuse.

Whatever your story is, it continues to have you in its grip. It’s the one you may have been writing for decades.

Part of the privilege of being a writer is the exquisite urge to excavate our experiences, to knit the disparate fragments together in a tapestry that results in something redemptive and beautiful.

We strive to make meaning of grief, transgressions, confusion, disappointment. We wrangle order out of the messiness of our childhoods, reconcile all the ways our parents in covert or overt ways abandoned and engulfed us.

This is the writer’s impulse – to probe significant events that demand to be looked at over and over, ever more deeply, from many different angles.

It doesn’t matter if we’re writing fiction or memoir. Ultimately, through the writing – and the re-writing in particular – we are all trying to move towards self knowledge and wisdom, some radical self acceptance, a place of salvation and healing. To arrive at some sublime truth that is wholly, inviolably our own.

But here’s where some of us go wrong.

We write only about what happened.

We write from a place of rage or grief.

And while we may be justified in having those feelings, it makes for a story that readers don’t care about. Because nobody is interested in reading about some disempowered person. Maybe your Dad left you when your were five. Yes, you should be angry. But that anger is not empowering you in the least, even though it may be potent start up fuel for your story.

Anger, grief, even love on its own has a numbing effect on your reader.

That doesn’t mean you should let whoever wronged you off the hook. It’s not about forgiveness so much as trying to understand what happened. And then finding your own culpability in what happened to you.

This is challenging, gut wrenching work. It’s why writing our story is so challenging. It’s easy to point the finger at the person who hurt us and say, “Look what you did!”

It’s harder, and ultimately more enriching to explore what part we played in that story. To plumb the depths of that pain and examine the crazy and self destructive ways we reacted to whatever happened.

Voice emerges from penetrating attention to what it all meant.

We can dwell all we want on how someone betrayed us. But the more painful thing to come to terms with is how we betrayed ourselves in the process.

That’s why it’s always more comfortable to blame the other for the demise of a romantic relationship. And while your partner might have behaved horrifically – she cheated on you, let’s say, or left you to marry someone else six months after you sold all your possessions and moved from Canada to Kansas to live with her – the onus is still on you.

To write the most fascinating story, you need to discover how you co-created the dynamic, the covert ways you played out your childhood story and cast that person in the co-starring role. It’s the reckoning of how you reacted to what was done to you, or even how you unconsciously courted those events to happen in the first place. It’s the actions you took to rise from the ruins of that experience.

Here’s where your story gets really compelling.

Because until you look at how you participated in what happened to you, or how you self-sabotaged as a result of what some one else did, nobody is going to give a damn.

Because you are still denying your story. You’re giving someone else carte blanche to write the story for you.

As Brene Brown says, “When we own our stories, we get to write the ending.”

It’s not about what happened. Better questions to ask of your story are “What have I learned about myself through this heart wrenching experience? How did I grow?”

You won’t discover any of this until you’re deep in the throes of revisiting your material over and over. This is the pain and the pleasure, the surprising reward of rewriting.

We rewrite because we didn’t have the courage to face it the first time.

Your story matters because by writing and rewriting it, by turning it this way and that, by going to the heart center of that pain, you come out on the other side with wisdom, open heartedness, and compassion. Compassion for the people that hurt you to the core – for surely, they’re hurting, too – and most important, compassion for yourself. When you radically accept yourself, you’re free from the shackles of that limited story. You get to write a different story from a place of empowerment.

As Vienna Pharaon says…

“There are going to be some tragic parts to your story. Some details that just don’t shine on their own. But what there will always be is an opportunity to grow from them. To rise up. To rise to the occasion. To write the story of “this is what tried to keep me from stepping into my greatest self, and this is how I told it to ‘sit down.’”

This is where your story gets irresistible to your reader.

This is what elevates your story to a work of art.

Writing For Emotional Impact

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We want our reader to feel our character’s joy, pain and everything in between.

But one of the surest ways to sever the reader’s emotional connection is to be overly direct about how a character feels.

How many times have you read something like this?

Susan screamed with terror.

His heart palpitated as he climbed the attic stairs.

My heart plummeted with grief.

Flannery O’Connor once said that as writers, we can’t create emotion with emotion. We have to provide it with a body; we have to create a world with weight and extension.

In other words, before an emotion can take on imaginative weight and substance, it must be embodied in the world of the real. A world the reader can see, hear, smell, touch, taste and inhabit.

We’re hardwired to respond emotionally to the world via our senses.

This is just as true for the world you create on the page. When you appeal to your reader’s senses, you blast through his intellect to his most primitive emotions.

The Biology of Emotion

Neuroscientist Paul MacLean says the human brain “amounts to three interconnected biological computers”, each with its own “special intelligence” and neural machinery. For now, we’re just going to focus on two of those: the outer brain known as the neocortex, and the deeper layer, the limbic system, which resides in the spinal cord.

The neocortex allows us to reason, to contemplate, to reach intellectual insights and process abstractions. To this brain words like fear and love mean something. But while the neocortex can understand the concept of fear or love, it cannot feel it. This top layer is not capable of producing a physical response, a gut reaction.

It’s the limbic system, the most ancient layer of our brain, that generates “strong or particularly vivid emotions.” This brain takes in information through the five senses, then produces a wide variety of sense responses within the body. It’s capable of feeling anger, fear, desire, love, exhilaration, awe, grief and a host of other subtle emotions.

When a reader feels heartbreak for your character, or anger at another, when she dreads what might happen in the near empty parking lot of the mall at night, it’s a limbic response. It’s irrational. Instinctual. Physical.

Surely this is what Vladimir Nabokov meant when he said:

“Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle.”

Bring your characters’ emotions out of the analytical, away from the general, beyond the abstract.

Slip inside your characters’ consciousness and render a world for them to inhabit. A world full of textures, colors, odors, sights, sounds.

Take a look at this excerpt from Elizabeth McCracken’s novel, Niagara Falls All Over Again. In this passage, Mose is grieving his young daughter’s tragic death.

The baby had wandered out of the house. Look: a beautiful shimmering heart in the backyard, glittering romance to a baby girl. There were always little wavelets in our pool, the water holding coins of light between its fingers. The baby doesn’t know the difference between water and light, unless it’s on her skin: one is cold, and the other warm, but how can you tell if you don’t touch? So she tries to touch. She is a magpie; she steals all the shiny things in the house and hides them in her bed, butter knives and costume jewelry and the foil from packs of cigarettes. She walks to the edge of the pool. She doesn’t look around. She doesn’t know this is forbidden. She leans over the water, and now the flash is beyond her reach, so she leans farther, and she is so small there is no splash, and she is so round that she floats, and she is so surprised that she does nothing, nothing at all, and when her mother finds her — only minutes later, says the doctor — she is still floating, little jellyfish, greedy little jellyfish, her hands empty and her face, when they turn her over, disappointed.

Let’s unwrap this passage to see what it can teach us.

1. Resist Telling Us How Your Character Feels.

Saying Mose is sad or grief stricken tells us virtually nothing about how he feels. And it short-circuits our natural urge to fill in the unsaid. The author never directly states how Mose feels. Instead she creates concrete images which our limbic brain translates into an alchemy of emotions. We don’t need to be told Mose’s heart is breaking. Ours is breaking. And that’s all that matters.

2. Avoid Emotional Cliches.

McCracken doesn’t give Mose rivulets of tears, a sinking heart or guttural cries. We expect him to weep, to feel agonizing loss. Which renders it unnecessary on the page.

Instead she juxtaposes the tragic circumstances with images of dappling light. She also spares us the potentially melodramatic moment of the little girl’s death by having Mose imagine the event through the little girl’s perspective. It’s a tender moment full of glitter and baby girl romance. It’s not grim or dark, something we might expect.

So when writing your own emotional moments, rather than use a gray rainy day to convey sadness, or a sunny day full of birdsong to mirror happiness, try flipping it around. How might a grieving father interpret birds?

3. Think Large. Write Small.

Mose’s grief is embodied in the small details. Not large dramatic displays of emotion. What raises this passage to an emotional pitch is the attention given to small specific details – butter knives and costume jewelry and the foil from packs of cigarettes, all the particular objects his little girl stole and stashed in her bed. Notice how emotionally restrained this passage is. It’s the details that give us access to Mose’s interior. It’s what brings us beyond the facts and surface events directly into the world of emotion.

4. Recreate Your Character’s Experience.

One of the things that’s so striking about this passage is the sudden switch to present tense as Mose imagines the unimaginable. The sentence rhythm also modulates between short and long sentences. The last sentence in particular is breathless and urgent. This all correlates to the shock and trauma, a masterful way of showing, not telling.

The takeaway here: filter emotion through your characters’ consciousness. Recreate their experience and you’ll draw the reader directly into that experience.

When we draw the reader into the experience, we create more intimacy between reader and story. We don’t just convey the emotion, which is a great feat in itself, we instantly transfer that emotion to the reader. Hopefully with a little spine tingle thrown in.