Story Surgery

A week or so ago, I re-read one of my short stories I hadn’t looked at in a while. I have to confess I’d felt a little smug about this one. (I almost never feel confident about what I write.) It’s unlike anything else I’ve written—a little edgy, playing around with POV and dialogue. Tight. Or so I thought. But I’d submitted it a few times with no luck–a sign the story isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s not as good as it could be.

I had never been truly satisfied with the ending, so I started there. I agonized. I lost sleep. I worked on the last two paragraphs for days (yes, sometimes that’s how long it takes), and finally, the ending seemed to gel. No small victory, that.

Then I read the entire story again—one last time, I told myself. I looked at white space, checked for typos. I had already read it for clichés, sentence variety, scene/narrative summary balance, tension, character arc/change, “flow” . . . If you’re a fiction writer, you know the drill. As I read, though, I realized the story was still heavy with gratuitous details and phrases, even whole sentences that didn’t contribute much.

Cutting Room Floor

"Possible Cut" by patpitchaya. Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
“Possible Cut” by patpitchaya. Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

So I started cutting. By the time I was done, the story was almost 500 words lighter. Tighter. Stronger. Why had it taken me so long to see what it needed?

Sometimes, time and distance give me perspective. I agree with the advice to “put it away for a while,” then reread with a sharp, critical eye. I often puzzle over a story for a long time before I figure out what it really needs. (Occasionally, I never figure it out, but that’s another post.)

Someone—surely more than one writer of advice on story craft—has said that nothing should go in the story that doesn’t advance it in some way. Nothing.

That, I believe, is the crux of revision whether you’re writing short or long fiction.

Ask yourself: Does this scene/ paragraph/dialogue/sentence/image/particular word (yes, word choice) move the story forward and/or grow the character? What does it add? Strike it out and read the passage aloud without it. See if you miss it, not because it was a brilliant turn of phrase but because without it, something absolutely essential has gone missing from the story. If not, cut. Cut. Cut. Painful, but necessary.

Be wary of language that calls attention to itself. In this story, I threw away a metaphor I loved. It was a beautiful image, but it didn’t do anything for the story. Sometimes we do indeed have to “kill our darlings.”

Granted, it’s possible to chop the life right out of a story. I know. I’ve done it. But sometimes, if we cut a story to its bones, we find a better way to tell it.

Before and After

I want to share a couple of examples. This story, “Miracle of Doors,” is about a woman recovering from breast cancer. Out of context, these passages won’t mean much, but they illustrate the kind of cutting and refining I’m talking about. (Her cat, Miso, plays an important role in the story.)

Here they are, side by side:

Old_new_best.pdf
Before, after

This gives you an idea of my “tightening” process when I’m down to the last passes through a story. Sometimes it’s not the number of words but the words themselves that matter most. Maybe you’re able to write concisely or revise as you go. I tend to discover as I go; I write long drafts and whittle them down.

A story draft is the easy part. Revision is key to a polished piece of writing you can be proud of. Before you send the story out into the world: Refine. Make every word count!

Do you have favorite revision strategies? Share one with me!

30 thoughts on “Story Surgery

  1. Ah, great points on cutting out the glut and clutter. I really enjoyed seeing your before and after pieces, too.

    It makes me wonder what I have in my stories that could be left shredded on the office floor.

    1. I try to think about what’s essential; if a detail (or a sentence or paragraph or scene) doesn’t add anything to the story, then it should go, or it should work differently. I have been known to cut the heart right out of a story, though! Like with a lot of other things, there’s that critical balance. Thanks for reading/commenting, Andrea.

  2. I like your revisions Gerry. Sometimes when I’m reading I get so frustrated with miles and miles of writing. (Like Anne Rice…she drives me crazy) And then there are some authors where I have to stop and reread because I’m sure I missed something, because their writing is too tight. It’s hard to get the balance just right, and it’s so much a personal style, isn’t it? 🙂

    1. I’m reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. At first it nearly drove me crazy–*so much* description, all of it vivid, but it seemed distracting. Now that I’m some 350 pages in (committed, I would say, to finish the book), I’m enjoying it. It’s a great read, and the description doesn’t bother me as much now. It is hard for me to strike a balance in my own work. Thanks for reading and commenting, Veronica!

  3. Gerry, I’m with JLynn on the second revision excerpt. The first held more mood. The second got the job done, but the sensitivity and spirit was all in the original. Sorry, JMHO.

    I have a hard time cutting sometimes. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m too close to my character and his/her story or just enjoy how I expressed myself the first time through. I struggle with it, but I’m also learning new processes to help me eliminate the need for so much cutting. I’ve learned how to give a more objective read after putting it away. I’m working now on how to be objective when a distance of time isn’t possible. That’s much different.

    I’m so glad to have read this post, Gerry. Thanks so much for sharing it with us.

    1. Interesting responses! I’ll revisit this story before I send it out to be sure I haven’t cut the heart out of it. I generally do that after a “slash and burn” revision like this one! I loved what you said: “I’m working now on how to be objective when a distance of time isn’t possible.” Would love to hear more about that. Thanks so much for the read and comment, Claudsy! I appreciate it.

      1. You’re more than welcome, Gerry. I don’t know that I do anything differently than other writers. It comes down to creating a mindset over a day or two where I can look at each individual paragraph as a tiny scene of its own. Sometimes one sentence shows an entire scene and can stand in strength without having to surround itself with more descriptors and narrative. Those are the gems I look for while making sure not to lose them.

        Hope that makes sense. At this point in the day, I get a bit punchy.

        I’ll be back to keep up with your personal challenge experiment.

      2. Not punchy at all. I do something similar, really. “They say” not to revise as you go, but I often do that. If I’m writing a scene I feel isn’t working, I tend to dig into it right then. If it’s terribly frustrating, I leave it and come back later. We all have our little bags of tricks, and it’s fun to share!

      3. I agree, Gerry. I’ll allow myself a rough draft and one revision of a section. Since I work with a really good crit group, I don’t belabor anything. They get the rough, make suggestions, tell me where it’s weak or needs clarification, and once I do that revision it goes back to group for one more slug-fest. Then that one gets left alone–with all of its notes, until the end. When I get there, I do a full edit, down to the last detail. At that point, I know what will work and what won’t.

        It’s very handy having such a diverse crit group as the one I’m in. I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

      4. You’re fortunate to have that. I don’t have access to a writers’ group. I do have trusted readers, though. I think you need the feedback from one source or another. It’s interesting, though, that in the case of this story, my readers had given me great feedback, and I thought I was done. Whether I go back to the “old” versions I included in this post, I’m convinced the story is stronger overall for having revised it one more time. This exchange has been fun and worthwhile! Thanks so much.

  4. Thanks for sharing this, Gerry. I find the parts I am glad to edit are the segues and transitions and anything explainy to get from one part to the next. In an extreme version, I was reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans and found myself editing out a sixth of his words: too many explanations to get into scene, or how the character would have known. With my own work, I’m most confident to edit down to the sparest words when the images, details or words are distinctive enough to stand on their own.

    1. Exactly. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? : ) I’m reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and having the same reaction you had to Ishiguro’s book. Goldfinch is absolute genius in places, and in others, I’m wondering where her editor was re irritating repetitious phrases and overwritten description that gets in the way of the story. I’m enjoying it now, though (25 pages in, I wasn’t sure). Thanks for the read and comment, Elissa.

      1. I was just having a parallel conversation elsewhere about Goldfinch. At Christmas, my mom (my reading role model) kept picking up Goldfinch like she was determined to get it read despite it being slow (she wouldn’t give spoilers but the end redeemed it). With Ishiguro, I was literally wondering if it was the 1st novel he’d ever written, the excess explanations felt so amateurish. It gets high ratings, though, so I should make myself keep reading to see if it pays off. In the meantime, he lost out to Carol Rifka Blunt’s Tell the Wolves I’m Home, which has won me over — and it’s a rambler.

      2. My time to read is so precious that I find it hard to stay with something that doesn’t completely draw me in. As I said, I’m into Goldfinch now and enjoying it. Whether I’ll make it through the 750+ pages–I don’t know!

  5. Gerry, I’m in the middle of doing the same thing with my YA manuscript. Spending just a few weeks away helps give perspective- I’m not afraid to cut. Just this morning, I decided I’d better cut a metaphor about a house of cards that I love. I realized, what teenager talks about “houses of cards”? It’s going, and I think the scene will be better without it.
    Thanks for including these instructive examples in your post. I like the second version of the second snippet. The first one focuses on mundane details- the panties, the bathroom. The revised version hones in on the point of the scene- Eric’s kisses, his words.
    Well done!

    1. Thanks, Julia. Sometimes I cut too much and wind up re-writing, adding back, but the realization that something is *not quite right* is significant. I’ve been known to ignore that nagging feeling! It’s not so much a matter of cutting as finding how to say what the story needs to say. Yes, I love a great metaphor, too, but I have to look hard at it. If it doesn’t fit the story, it has to go. Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  6. I kinda liked your “old” versions, the first time I read them. But you’re right, the new ones, probably are better.:0) I crack up when I’m writing and typing away on the computer and just zinging along…thinking I’m led by the spirit. ;0) Then I sit on it. Come back to it later. And think to myself, “huh? Wow. Too much. Blah, blah, blah”. And so I delete away. Just love that delete button on the computer. Sitting on something does help to clarify my writing. One thing I do also, is read what I’ve written out loud. It helps me to cut down, especially if my throat is getting dry while I read. ;0) Thanks for another great and interesting post!

    1. I read aloud, too. I think it’s essential. There’s something about *seeing* the words on the page and hearing them at the same time that makes them more vivid (and it makes the excess stand out, I think). Some of my trimming comes down to semantics. Sometimes, it’s more substantive. I think it’s hard to take a paragraph out of context and judge whether it really works or not, but I wanted to try this. Thanks, Beth, my faithful reader! : )

  7. I have come to understand that I like 2 forms of writing. The fast draft (similar to what Kristen Lamb does) where I just get the story out. If it’s long and drawn out, I get bored, and I just want the story out of my head. And it works because I come back to it later, and I like to spend the time rewriting after some distance. Making sure the characters grow and plot makes sense. I haven’t gotten to the refinement stage yet, but it will happen, and that’s where the looseness of the writing will go.

    1. “Looseness” is such a good word for it. I envy people who can plot an entire novel before they begin. I’m trying to do some of that with the next project, but so far, it’s hard for me to get my head around it. Thanks, Heather, for the read and comment.

    1. That’s interesting, J.Lynn. I thought some readers might feel that way, especially about the second excerpt. but I wonder if it has something to do with having *read* the first one, so you know what’s coming. I’ll take that under advisement! (Want to read the whole thing, give me feedback?) Thanks!

  8. My instructor called excess words “weedy words”. When I write I too do long drafts and hoe my words. It is harder to talk without “weedy words” though!

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