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
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:
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!
Here’s my response to the first writing prompt: a photo of an elf. (You’ll find him below, hiding in the story!)
Maria’s husband, Jack, brings the elfout every Christmas and nestles it in the branches of the tree, like it’s hiding. Jack had this elf when he was a kid. Its green felt body and legs have faded. Its face is chipped. But its eyes are bright, and Maria feels it watching her from its perch, tucked back against the trunk of the tree.
Every time their two-year-old son, Eric, catches sight of it, he screams and runs to Maria.
“Take it off, Jack,” Maria says. “It scares Eric.”
Jack laughs. “It was my Christmas elf. I love this thing. He’ll love it, too. You’ll see.” Jack takes the elf out of the tree and starts toward Eric, who bursts into tears and reaches for Maria. She picks him up and he buries his face against her neck.
“Come to Daddy,” Jack says, but Eric clings to Maria, his arms tight around her neck. Jack plays peek-a-boo with the elf, pops it up behind Maria, hides it again. “Peek-a-boo!” Jack says in a high-pitched voice. “I see you!” Eric looks up, his face crumples. He howls.
“Stop it, Jack. Leave him alone.”
Jack looks, what, forlorn? “Okay, okay. But I’m putting it back on the tree.” He goes in the living room and Maria hears the tinkle of ornaments, moving.
While Jack’s at work, Maria hides the elf in a drawer. “It’s gone, baby,” she tells Eric. “See?” But Eric still cries and refuses to go in the living room where the tree is. Maria is miffed. Jack’s ruining the first Christmas Eric might possibly remember.
It’s not just the elf, though. There’s something else, something bigger. Maria has read that men are sometimes jealous of their own babies. When women become mothers, they change. It’s hard being a mother and a wife.
When Maria and Jack agreed she would stay home for a couple of years after the baby came, Maria was glad. She hated the thought of leaving her baby in day care. Doing without her salary would be a sacrifice, but she could freelance from home, once the baby got a little older. And she has done that.
The trouble is, Jack comes in, kicks off his shoes, gets a beer, turns on the TV, drops on the couch, and doesn’t do a thing to help Maria. He plays with Eric, but mostly he gets the baby revved up so he has trouble going to sleep. Jack makes Maria’s job harder. And the sex—oh, God, it used to be so good. Now, most of the time, she’s too tired to think about it, but Jack won’t let her alone.
She can’t imagine her life without the baby. She can imagine it without Jack.
Most nights, Jack gets home late, after Eric is asleep. Maria puts the elf back on the tree before he comes in. The night before Christmas Eve, Jack says, “Where’s my elf?”
“Isn’t it on the tree?”
“You know it’s not, Maria. What’d you do with it?”
She shrugs. “I didn’t do anything. Maybe it fell. Did you look?” She goes back to the kitchen. Her heart is racing.
Jack is opening and closing cabinets and drawers. He yells, “This isn’t funny. Where’d you hide it?”
“I didn’t. Please be quiet. You’ll wake Eric.”
The elf made a smelly, smoky little fire in the back yard that morning while Eric was taking his nap. Maria burned it in an old metal garden bucket and scattered the ashes in a flowerbed, almost ceremoniously. The plastic face melted in the most grotesque way. She buried it. Only the jingle bell was left. She threw it over the fence.
Jack heads out the back door. She hears him rummaging through the trashcans. When he comes back inside, he’s flushed and winded. His eyes are unnaturally bright. Maria holds her breath until he stalks past her, through the kitchen, down the hall, into the living room. She imagines him looking at the blank space in the middle of the tree, looking deep into its branches, trying to see what isn’t there.
I’m thrilled tobring to The Writerly Life an interview with Lynne Barrett, an extraordinary writer, teacher, and editor whose stories I’ve admired for many years. I asked Lynne about her most recent book of stories, Magpies (which won the Florida Book Award Gold Medal for General Fiction), her writing process, and her very busy life.
For some remarkable insights, read on. Welcome, Lynne!
Gerry Wilson: Steve Almond calls Magpies a “stone cold triumph,” and I agree. These stories encompass such a broad range of styles, from the fun structures of “Links” and “Cave of the Winds” to noir—“The Noir Boudoir” and “When, He Wondered”— to a marvelous touch of surrealism in “Gossip and Toad.”
Do you sit down to write with a well-formed idea of what the story is and where it’s going? Or do you “write to discover” and then shape it? How do you decide what form a story ultimately takes?
Lynne Barrett: Writing is a process of discovery that begins before I “sit down to write.” At odd moments phrases, situations, or maybe just a word that resonates will occur to me. I jot down what I can. I usually carry small pads, but I’ve been known to write on a dollar bill when desperate. Very early in the morning, when it’s quiet, I often begin my day sitting somewhere comfortable and un-work-like, writing free-floating notes in a sketchbook, and that’s when I’ll go through my accumulated bits of paper and transcribe them. I read around in what I’ve done before and add details and questions. Then I get coffee and go to my desk to work on some much more developed project.
Over time, some notes accumulate towards a story, and I’ll find a simple name (not a title, yet) to mark them and to head new pages where I’ll add bits of dialogue, details about characters, or sketches of locations. So when I’m ready to take the story to my desk, I know a lot. It’s not “well-formed,” but it has a feeling of promise and abundance, so that I want to make the story happen. Still, where I start drafting may not be the beginning, but rather some intriguing angle that I want to explore or a scene I think is going to prove difficult that I want to take a shot at.
Gerry Wilson: Can you give an example?
Lynne Barrett: I knew that “When, He Wondered” was going to include a man trying to fake his own death, and that this would make some use of a Florida sinkhole. I’d made up place names and worked out a history of my invented town. The first scene I wrote showed this man taking his most dramatic action. I didn’t worry about the writing being polished—my aim was to reveal who he must be and how such a character would affect others around him. In the final story the reader never sees this scene, though details from it emerge. I’d already thought that I’d like to use another character, Tom, as protagonist and point of view. As I moved into writing Tom, I saw—and I think I could only have seen this because of what I’d written already—that an ongoing question he asks himself about their friendship would spiral through the story and shape it.
Though I might describe the circumstances that led to it, nothing can ever truly “explain” an idea: writing is full of imaginative leaps. For me the point is the process: once I’ve written something, it becomes a steppingstone to other parts of the story, even though it may not make the final draft. I think it’s important not to confuse the writer’s need and the reader’s. There are lots of detours I’ll take in exploring my story, while the reader wants something that seems to have been always certain and complete.
Gerry Wilson:Please talk about “Gossip & Toad,” which I saw as surreal.
Lynne Barrett: It’s interesting how many terms there are for fiction that has an element that’s fantastical without being wholly fantasy: “slipstream” is the current one. I’d use “magical realism” for “Gossip & Toad”: the story has one move that’s magical, which is handled as if it were absolutely real. The professional gossip in my story has exercised her talent for nastiness to the point where what she says begins to bring out with it spiders, lizards, and a toad. This image comes from a fairy tale (“Diamonds and Toads”), but I think externalizing an aspect of character in this way goes back into myth, where metamorphosis makes visible something psychologically true: sometimes ugly things come out of our mouths. Other stories in Magpiesare set against a background of booms and busts, and it occurred to me that the market in celebrity gossip is a boom that shows no signs of ending. One of gossip’s hunting grounds is Miami Beach, where I’ve seen the sideshow atmosphere of the celebrity world, so it seemed natural to me to set this leap into the grotesque there, as the character has to confront the fact that she’s in the situation of those she talks about, with a secret she must conceal.
Gerry Wilson: In Casey Pycior’s interview at The Story Is the Cure, you talk about the differences between short and longer fiction and your love of story in particular: “[It] helps to think about what the short story is equivalent to: a painting, say, that is small enough to be taken in at once, yet that rewards more looking. Even the choice of where the edges are, the framing, has an effect. What can the painting do that the mural can’t?” I like the image of a story having “edges,” or “framing.” How do you find the “edges” of a story? How do you know when it’s done?
Lynne Barrett: Any narrative has edges, but a shorter work can make us more conscious of them. Because the short story is ideally read in one sitting, its compression adds power (or so Poe argued and I agree with him). I think it is worthwhile always, after reading anything good, to look back to see how the beginning and end speak to each other: how much has changed? How far have we traveled? Edges to me include where the text starts and ends, but also how far into the past you reach and how much of the future has been implied.
I like to play with form, as part of the meaning of the story. In Magpies, “Links” covers about a year, beginning near the peak of the dot com boom and continuing a bit beyond its collapse. Pasts that reach as far back as the 19th century are pulled into it, and, since the story borrows the form of a website, there’s an implication of a future from which the narrator is writing. “One Hippopotamus” covers a short space of time—an hour or so—on a stormy summer night when the power goes out and one character tells another about an event in his past, so there is a story within the story. By the end we see that the telling and the listening are going to alter both characters’ futures. The possibilities of form are infinite.
As to when a story is finished—there is just no simple answer. But as a teacher and editor I find that often the part that hasn’t gotten enough work, that’s underdeveloped or slack, is the middle. The middle should be interesting in itself. Well, everything should be interesting and feel necessary. Easy to say, hard to do.
Gerry Wilson:All the stories in Magpies are suspenseful—rife with secrets, twists, mysteries, tangled relationships. Would you talk a bit about the role (or necessity) of suspense in your stories, or in fiction generally?
Lynne Barrett: Suspense comes from anticipation. The reader has to know that there is trouble and that something is at risk. Everyone understands it’s necessary in a crime story, whether the threat is of physical danger or punishment or the consequences of accusing the wrong person. But in other situations, the reader must be made to grasp what the stakes are, for instance that the balance of a marriage can change forever because of something revealed, as in Joyce’s “The Dead,” to name one great example. I think it’s a mistake to think “literary” means “no suspense.”
Gerry Wilson:Your essay “What Editors Want” went viral when it was published last year in The Review Review. Every writer looking to publish (and who isn’t?) should read it. I’ve read that you were surprised by the response the essay received. In hindsight, why do you think “What Editors Want” took off the way it did?
Lynne Barrett: The editor of The Review Review (which is a great online magazine that covers the world of literary magazines) was surprised as well as she saw the count of readers mount into the thousands while I was getting contacted by editors who liked it and teachers who were assigning it to all their students. We could see online that it was being blogged about and commented on. Within two days it was written up in the L.A. Times book blog. Glimmer Train, whose editor wrote to me at the very start, republished it in their Bulletin, last fall. The system by which the Internet can slingshot links around is much clearer to me after this, but the response was spontaneous.
I think my piece was both fun to read and met a need. It tries to dismantle the stereotype (which is damaging both to editors and to writers) of the editor as a scary curmudgeon—editors work very hard and are never happier than when they find something great—and to re-explain the relationship as one in which being organized and professional and polite matter. (That’s true on both sides, of course.) It has been read so widely that I got Twitter followers from as far away as New Zealand. I’ve also been in conversations where the subject of publishing comes up and someone will recommend the essay to me, not realizing I wrote it.
Gerry Wilson: You wear many hats: writer, editor, teacher, not to mention wife and mother . . . Would you offer some tips about juggling the writer’s life with other demands? How do you prioritize?
Lynne Barrett: I say yes to too many things, no doubt, but they’re things that attract me. I get up early and write, first—even if I can only give it a short time. I’ve always written in the morning, but once I had a child it became more of a necessity to start very early. My son is now 20, but I’ve stayed on that schedule. To me it means I’m telling myself writing comes first, and what I do will stay in my mind all day as I do other things.
Not mentioned in your list is the public side of writing: I give readings, speak with book groups, and teach at conferences. These—even just the arrangements for them—take a surprising amount of time. I had made what I thought was a fairly sane calendar for this spring, but when Magpies won the Florida Book Award, a lot of appearances were added and my time got very jammed up. There simply was no choice. It’s hard for a book to get visibility, and you must do your best. But I have blocked out a long stint this summer with no events, when I’ll be hiding and writing.
Tips? I have found that it’s good to put things on my calendar that are, in effect, appointments with myself. I add reminders for pieces I am writing, not just deadlines, but I’ll block off days or half days for particular projects. Somehow when it’s written down, and my computer is nagging me about it, the commitment is easier to defend. I think it helps to bunch types of tasks. I try to corral advising and appointments and meetings into teaching days. And I might designate a “travel arrangements afternoon” or “research Friday.” That way every day isn’t chopped up into a lot of bits and pieces. I get more done and I am not chafing, too much, at the fact I’m not writing every minute. Well, I do chafe. But in the early mornings I restore my serenity.
LYNNE BARRETT’s third story collection, Magpies, was recently awarded the Gold Medal for General Fiction in the Florida Book Awards. Her other books are The Secret Names of Women, and The Land of Go, and she co-edited Birth: A Literary Companion. Barrett has received the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for best mystery story. Her work has appeared in One Year to a Writing Life, Miami Noir, Delta Blues, A Dixie Christmas, The Written Wardrobe and many other anthologies and magazines. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, she received her M.F.A. from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. She is a professor in the M.F.A. program at Florida International University in Miami, and teaches at many writers conferences. Learn more at her website.