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!

Writers Tell All—Blog Hop

Thanks to Jennifer Chow for tagging me in the Writers Tell All Blog Hop challenge, where writers talk about their process! Please visit Jennifer and the other writers I’ll tag below the post.

Question 1: What are you working on?

Does nail-biting over query responses count as work? It should. There’s a novel “out there,” being read.

I’m writing short stories right now; three drafts in various stages need to be finished and sent out. My most recently published story, “Book of Lies,” is here, in Prime Number Magazine.

There’s also that pesky novel start that won’t cooperate but won’t leave me alone, either.

I’m dreaming. A lot. When I wake and remember a dream, I’m pretty sure it has something to do with story.

Question 2: How does your writing process work?

Work in Progress / Gerry Wilson
Work in Progress / Gerry Wilson

So maybe what I said about dreaming should go here instead. But fiction ideas can come from anywhere; often, for me, they come from memory, but the memory has to be altered  to work as fiction. Sometimes it’s a remembered incident or a place or a person, or even one particular characteristic of that person. No “real” truth, but story. Stories also come from people-watching, accidental encounters (like a guy who came to our house the other day to do some work–what a story there!), images.

I’m a pantser, no doubt about it. I don’t outline, although I realize I could probably save myself a lot of work if I did. The closest I’ve come to outlining is a rubric Ann Hood shared in a workshop back in January; it’s not an outline, exactly, but I did have to address plot points, create a one-sentence summary/pitch, that sort of thing—helpful exercises for me. I’ve been known to use index cards to plot out story lines and character development, but only after I have a draft. Sometimes I know the end of the story; often, I don’t. I have to go there.

Once I have a decent draft of a story (or a chapter), I ask my husband to read it. He’s usually my first reader, and he’s a great one. I also send it to a few other writer-friends I trust. These readers are my lifeline to the reality of the work; they often provide the “aha” moments I need to revise and polish.

Then I rewrite, as many times as it takes. Sometimes, my readers read again. This goes for novel drafts as well as short pieces.

I send the manuscript out, wait, and hope. And once in a while, there’s that affirmation: “Yes, we love your story, and we’d like to publish it.”

Question 3: Who are the authors you most admire?

As far as classics go, I’m a fan of William Faulkner and Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor, all great Southern writers on whose work I “cut my teeth.” As for contemporary writers–I’d have to say Ian McEwan, Marilynne Robinson, Anne Tyler, Elizabeth Strout, Ann Patchett, Jane Hamilton . . . There are many others, of course. In addition to the pure pleasure of reading, I never fail to learn from what I read.

Now it’s my turn to tag three writers. Please visit their blogs and see what they say when Writers Tell All!

Jane Ann McLachlan

Jeannine Everett

Elissa Field