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
“Possible Cut” by patpitchaya. Image courtesy of

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:

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!

The Five Stages, Or Facing Up to the Re-write

Hi there.

After completing the October Memoir and Backstory Blog Challenge, I’ve been absent from this space for a while. I wrote twenty-five posts during the challenge, many of which were emotionally grueling. (Here’s a sample post, just about in the middle: Age Twelve: The Great Void.) I’m glad I finished, although I wish I’d done what a friend of mine did. She’s stretching her memoir posts (way to go, Lara!) out over a number of weeks. Smart blogger, that one.

Anyway, I’m back, and I hope maybe you missed me a bit.

I’ve been busy re-writing–for what I hope is the final time–a 300 page novel. The bones of the novel are strong, I think, but there is this one subplot, you see, that needed to be fleshed out. And flesh I did, for several hours every day for a week.

“Child Crying And Lying On Grass” by imagerymajestic
Image courtesy of

It occurred to me during this process that facing up to a major re-write is a little like Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief. Let me explain:

First, Denial: There’s nothing wrong with this character. (Substitute subplot, setting, dialogue, structure . . .) It’s certainly not bad. Maybe it’ll squeak by if I’m lucky enough to have someone read it. Like an agent.

Then there’s Anger: How dare my readers suggest that the book needs more work! I poured my heart, my brain, my sweat and tears into it! I have carpal tunnel syndrome. I’ve had to get stronger glasses. I’ve sacrificed two years of my life! It’s done, and nobody can tell me otherwise!

Next? Bargaining: If I move this one scene about the preacher, then the problem with the flashback within the flashback within the flashback will surely go away. That’s fair, right?

Ah, Depression: “I can’t do this. I’ll never pick up a pen again. I’m worthless and stupid. Why did I ever think I could write a book? I can’t even put a decent sentence together. I can’t even spell. I don’t know a cliche from a bon mot.” Destroy the files. Shred the backup CDs. Go to bed with a bottle of wine and a good book. Somebody else’s book, of course.

Finally? Acceptance. I will go on. I’ll never be the same (poor little bruised writer-ego), but the work has to be done.

I would add a stage of my own, one I experienced over the last few weeks, and that’s Determination: I will tackle the problem, and over time, I’ll solve it. I’ll have a eureka in the middle of the night. I’ll dream the answer. I’ll write it over and over again until I get it right. Whatever it takes, I’ll get it done because it’s necessary. It’s what a writer does.

From helplessness to empowerment: yes, that’s the ticket!

Obviously, dealing with a re-write is nothing like dealing with real grief. We all know that. But in the moment, when all seems lost and the book (or story or poem or memoir) seems impossible to save, haven’t we all felt these emotions? Those who grieve eventually get on with life, and we’ll get on with the book. Won’t we!

How do you cope when you get discouraged with your writing? What or whom do you rely on to find the energy and the will to press on?

Futile Seeds

The seed stealer

My husband and I are novice gardeners. Last year, he built raised beds and put in tomato plants, peppers, squash, eggplant, and sugar snap peas, and I planted herbs and a single heirloom tomato in a smaller patch behind the arbor in the back yard. For our efforts we harvested two or three small bell peppers that we figured cost us about $40 each.

This year, we were less ambitious. We planted basil and artisanal lettuce seeds. We’d read some good gardening books, and we scattered the seeds generously, thinking we would cull the weaklings and save the stronger seedlings and transplant them. No cold frame starts for us! We waited until there was no danger of a freeze and put those seeds right into the ground. In about eight weeks, we figured, we would start to have homegrown salads, no more of that store-bought “spring mix” that’s already going bad by the time you bring it home. That was six weeks ago.

At this point we can’t tell the tiny lettuces from the clover that threatens to take over. If we were into clover salads, we would be all set. Something has been enjoying them; there are holes all over the little plot where some little critters—maybe the one at left, or one of her many offspring, or maybe the birds—have dug up the seeds and wrought havoc of my neat little rows.

Futile seeds, I call them. Poor babies . . .

My backlog of story ideas and drafts seems something like those seeds. For whatever reason, some stories don’t flourish. What seemed like a good idea falls on infertile ground. It goes nowhere, or sometimes, it goes on for pages and pages. Maybe it even gets finished. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t work.

So what to do? Consign it to the story compost heap? Move on to new ideas?

Well, new ideas are always good, but never underestimate the power of a failed story! I used to advise my writing students when they were “workshopping” each other’s pieces to look for positives before they raised any questions or negatives. That’s not a bad idea for most of us. I look for what’s working in a piece. Maybe it’s a scene; maybe it’s a paragraph or a sentence or an image. I think about other stories that have succeeded. By succeeded, I don’t necessarily mean they’ve been published, although some of them have been. They feel complete; they’re satisfying; there are no “holes.” They’re tightly woven, without excess. They move along. I still get emotionally involved with the characters when I read the story, even though it’s mine, and I’ve read it a hundred times. They surprise me. They make me cry or laugh, or they make me ashamed or angry. I can read them without getting that feeling in my gut, however vague, that something’s wrong. That gnawing feeling always, always tells me I need to go back and have another close look.

So what nurtures a “good” story into print?

Ah. Luck, you say! There’s some of that, certainly—the trick of finding just the right niche for a story. But mostly, it takes perseverance and the courage to keep trying, to keep getting better. It requires openness to doing things differently and learning the craft. It requires picking yourself up and dusting yourself off. It takes the willingness to swallow hard and turn a rejection, sometimes multiple rejections, into possibility.

When I revise, I ask myself two very simple but crucial questions:

1)   What doesn’t belong? I prune unmercifully; after all, nothing, absolutely nothing, belongs in a short story that doesn’t advance it in some way.

2)   What’s missing? I try to read like a stranger to the work. Will it make sense, will it resonate for another reader? A story can be much clearer in my head than it is on the page.

I also get somebody else to read it–two or three people, if I’m lucky. It’s always interesting what someone else sees, or doesn’t see, in a story. That’s crucial, too.

And I read. I read short fiction by writers I admire. I analyze what they do and how they do it.

So, poor seeds of stories, poor wilted ones—maybe you have a chance after all. I’m writing this post mainly to me, of course, to remind me to get back in there and get my hands dirty. That’s what it takes.

What are your favorite revision strategies? How do you bounce back from rejection? Please share; I’d love to know!