This began here...and it's become such an interesting discussion, focussing mainly on revising short stories, that I have been mulling it over and reading more about how different writers "do it", a kind of informal survey. I've asked members of my writing group, and there are brilliant comments on the first blog post, and I've been reading Paris Review interviews. I think what results is that there is no one way to do this. Revising/ reworking/re-dreaming your story is as much art as science.
Here's a selection of views on the subject - it's a long blog post but incredibly useful, for me at least. I am going to try a selection because I haven't found the way for me yet. I'd love to hear more from any of you - what works, what doesn't, any other ideas!
Here's what various writer friends said, on this blog and elsewhere:
I think too much and usually want to incorporate everybody's comments and suggestions, and the process becomes too analytical instead of heartfelt. I actually end up becoming sick of the whole thing and losing whatever emotion or soul I initially had, going into it ... I myself find that my best work are always written in white heat and rarely need to be tinkered with after the first draft. White heat...writing in the zone...lucid dreaming...starting with a fresh page...seems all very "right brain" to me. Left brain = editor head, while right brain = creator head? (Michelle Tandoc-Pichereau)
There is a state that I have on occasion got into (not very often, I wish I could) in which the words just flow: I come up with a sentence and it just leads to another and another and I look at the words on the page and think, where did that come from? Like I said, writing doesn’t often work like that for me. But when it does, I find it really hard to revise what I’ve written. It is what it is: either it comes out perfectly formed (I wish!) or I find myself completely at a loss as to how to fix it. The thing I can’t get back is the voice, the fluency. I also have a different way of writing, much more usual for me, which I don’t especially recommend, which is tortuous and painstaking and slow. But when I write like that rewriting is not a problem: getting the first draft out is the hard bit, and after that I feel like I know what I’m doing. (Emma Martin)
Robert Olen Butler does suggest that before revising anything substantially one should go into 'lucid dreaming' mode. I do do this before I put even one word on a first draft following an impulse of a story, and also before revision. Especially if something struck me as very off during a read through. I don't know if my experience revising a novel is of any value...perhaps it will open up the discussion, but since I am revising in chunks, perhaps talking about process might demystify it a bit.
E.g. I just went through one of the chapters in my novel yesterday. It's about 11,000 words. It's a very long chapter. There are some huge problems with it. The altercation between father and son sounds 'off', stilted, a little unreal. Also, I wanted to work in a couple of other threads that had been swimming and surfacing in various other sections and which I wanted woven more tightly in here. The chapter hadn't remotely done that.
In the past, a read-through with these many flaws engendered an overwhelming disgust, which I was then unable to swim past. It usually ended up with me partially chucking the story. For me, I'm not sure there's much of a difference between revising for a short story versus novel, except that in a novel, you can't afford to chuck it away. That would mean chucking away almost two years of consistent work!
The difference now is perhaps that I do make immediate mental notes as to the concrete things I think are not working. Then I go away. Let those feelings of disgust fade away. Usually takes about a week or so, during which I do other things. Read, chase my kids around, that sort of thing.
When I go back to read through again, if those same mental notes I made still ring through, I trust them. I revise based on that map. I almost without fail never think about craft elements. I don't do the checklist of plot/voice/structure etc. that there's some inordinate slippage into when I read someone else's story. So I think this is one fundamental difference between being a reader of my own work versus others. Having said that, I don't think craft elements don't work its way into revision. I think they become an organic part of a flaw. They are manifestations of a disease, not the underlying cause. Fix the underlying cause, the manifestation through 'voice' or weak plot etc. also goes away. (Elaine Chiew)
Early on in a serious writer's life, the taking apart of a piece and reassembling it, following advice from peers is absolutely crucial. It's key to developing an instinctive grasp of craft, and allows us to be analytical in our stride rather than stop-starty, editor head v creator head. We need to learn to prevent those two modes of approaching work from being at odds with each other.
After a while I've found they work alongside each other invisibly, and when they do, that pulling apart and adding here and there will make a story less fluent, because when it was first written, the two were engaged, and if we revise with one head on, the story gets lopsided. ...So there comes a time when this is no longer the best mode for reworking pieces. It may work for some stories, but others need to be written again from scratch, to achieve that fluidity and unity.
There's one story in my collection that I rewrote, from scratch each time, about twenty times - different settings, different story telling modes. The version I ended up with was the only one that didn't feel clunky though it didn't get half way towards what I wanted it to say. But fiddling around with early versions led nowhere. It just had to come from a new sheet of paper. (Susannah Rickards)
Oh goodness, I absolutely know what it is to write a story - a decent but still a little saggy story - and post for critique, come away with lots of useful, thoughtful suggestions and then use said thoughts and suggestions to KILL my story forever....Revision takes away the heart beat, the life of the story, and replaces it with coldness. But it shouldn’t have to meant that. It's to do with lightness of touch maybe. So as not to disturb the magic that's there whilst cleaning/shining lightly? (Sara Crowley)
I am really into walking ... as were the Surrealists, because it concentrates your thoughts, focuses them, and frees them up at the same time, your head has space and there's a rhythm.I find myself dipping in and out of ideas while I'm walking, I get so tuned in that ...I am practically a danger to myself and I don't notice anybody! It's all very routine, I choose virtually the same route every day, and I feel like it's just me and my creative process. I am not great when it comes to revision, I can get it all down on the page to begin, and then I go through and edit all the basics and then I get stuck. Very stuck.
And I'm so glad this has all been brought up here because I thought I was on my own with this. The more I dilute a piece with unsparing editing (which I something I am not averse to with my poems) the more I can't be bothered with it anymore. I have so many stories that I've done nothing with and probably never will, or maybe even can't do anything with, it's a shame. And ... I've had work taken apart by peers and haven't been able to mould it back together... it is weird, with the poetry I absolutely brutalise it sometimes. And that feels ok, maybe I have better instincts with poems because I'm more confident with them? I think a writer's main strength is instinct, trusting instincts and intuition, editing as you go along, getting caught in the heat of the moment. After that, there's a sober period where you look back on what you've done and doubts creep in... I think that by avoiding that hangover period after a first draft maybe that's key to seeing again with fresh eyes.(Melissa Lee-Houghton)
I find it hard to explain because it's more about (warmly) feeling something is right on the page rather than (coolly) cerebrally ascertaining something is right. It's a difficult question to answer because our feelings are ultimately produced in the brain and so, even though I say I'm revising by using my feelings, it is actually the brain that is doing it. When I write or revise it definitely feels more like an intuitive act rather than something that is consciously being controlled or directed. I also tend to revise as I write (as well as after I've 'finished' something) so the writing mode/editing mode are not too different for me. I hope this makes sense! (A J Ashworth)
I sort of think that if there are going to be changes then the whole thing has to start again - else, it's all a bit like trying to untie veins and plonk them somewhere else - the circulation gets messed up, and worse! (Rachel Fenton)
For me, some stories begin with an idea or mood. Words develop around that, but the original seed has to stay. Other pieces begin as bits but gradually acquire a heart. Others begin with a character in search of a plot. I don't think it's always right to re-trace one's steps when re-writing (a story can start on one track and end up on a completely different one) but it's worth remembering what made you want to write the piece in the first place. And not just remembering - keeping those early sketches and drafts. (litrefs)
Because of my sporadic writing schedule I tend to write in short bursts and can sometimes rewrite a paragraph twenty times from scratch. It always boils down to whatever works for you though I guess. One time I wrote a novella and after an edit I got a 3000 word story out of it (that one still stings a little) but as long as you get something you're happy with at the end I don't think it matters how you get there. I don't mind working for months to get perfection. (Alex)
I'm rubbish at working on/revising short stories. There's something in me that insists on the flow of the piece in its entirety, so every time I edit a part of the story I go back to the beginning and read it through again until I hit another part that 'doesn't work' according to the vision I have for the piece. Edit, and repeat. It takes far too long I'm sure, there must be a better way. (Clare King)
I am very jealous of anyone like [David] Vann who can write a first draft as a final draft. My process tends to involve writing in excess of what the story requires and then a trimming back to a shape that best fits the story revealed in the first draft. This can mean cutting out a third to a half of what I've written, shaping the rest as I polish.
This not to say that extra writing is wasted. The extra work gives me a deeper understanding of the characters, while the trimmed sections go into files for use later. I trawl through them from time to time for character stuff and description that will serve the story I am drafting or as a spring board for a new piece.
A little time consuming but the whole process is kind of like writing a block of text then scuplting it into shape, knocking chunks of it off as I go.
An interesting method of editing is Andrew Cowan's, I have heard him in interview explaining that he writes his first sentence, then redrafts that until perfect then writes his next and redrafts that until perfect and he continues this process for whole novels. Now that's what I call time consuming. (Dan Powell)
My method of revising/editing is as chaotic as my creative process. I was taught that you write (the first draft) for yourself, and revise with the reader in mind. But (for me) it's not that simple and there may be many drafts because it's in the process of writing, that I find a sense of my story and the revision process is about making sense of that story. Even if it's a short story, this often turns out to be a long process, especially when my thoughts on what I've written shift, which is inevitable over time. On my blog, I've been likening the process of revising/rewriting/editing to knitting; being prepared to unravel, pick up dropped stitches, rework the pattern, but really I think it's more instinctive than that, more like the creative process involved in painting. I know it's right when it feels, looks and sounds right. (Diane Becker)
What works for me is leaving it for a long time and then entering the text in a new creative headspace, almost rewriting it even if I might just change one paragraph to get it right. Dreamy creative is better than analytical in my world ... You have to leave your FEELINGS in even if you're clutching the red editing pen at the same time (Louise Halvardsson)
Appreciating the strength of analysing the craft and applying that analysis to the editing process is fine. However - I do think we need to be flexible - and not slaves to any method at all. I think we need to embrace as many ways of doing this thing as we can, and understand that what will work one day, on one piece of work, may not be right for another, on another day.
I guess that when we get a way down the track, our understanding of our own drafting process can encompass some of the 'revision' process, as we go. So what comes out, has already been subconsciously smoothed.
I also think that might work for short fiction, flashes, shorter short stories - but the more complex a piece of becomes, the less likely it is to work well. So consideration of structure, how far it is working to deliver the end product you want, arches over the craft elements within. Thats how I approached revising my longer work recently. I think...(Vanessa Gebbie)
The received view seems to be that you are in a creative/right brain state for stage one (writing) and in an analytical/left brain state for stage two (revising) – there should be an unconscious creative burst followed by an analytical going over. But I think in reality it's more complex than that, as this discussion shows. To be honest, I don't feel such a big difference between the two stages. Maybe I'm just doing it 'wrong' - but when I write and also when I evaluate what I've written, I try to think it and feel it at the same time. (Emma)
I used to be all about the emetic first draft – I just got it all out on the page, beginning to end, before I edited a single word. Then I'd look at the thing as a whole and make big changes. Then the next rewrite would be smaller changes, and smaller and smaller until I'm just fiddling with individual word choices.
I've slowed down a bit over the past few months, both in terms of my overall output and how quickly I write each sentence. Now I find that my first drafts are slower, but with each draft I change fewer things. Maybe one day I'll get to the point where I perfect each sentence before moving on, but I doubt it. I prefer to find my way through the story as I go, rather than plan it all out beforehand.
That said, I love editing and rewriting. The blank page still scares me a little, and there's comfort in knowing that I have the framework of a story already there. (Kirsty Logan)
And here are quotes from other writers and an editor, most from Paris Review interviews, about what they do - and don't do:
If I write something and don't like it, I basically toss it. And I try to write it again or I write something else that has the same movement. But as far as going back and working over something that I've already written -- I really don't do that. I know there's a sentence that I need, and I just run it through my mind until it sounds right. Most of my revision occurs before I put words down on a paper.
I am a completely horizontal author. I can't think unless I am lying down.... I don't use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also i longhand. Then I type a third draft on yellow paper, a very special kind of yellow paper. No, I don't get out of bed to do this. I balance the machine on my knees.... When the yellow draft is finished, I put the manuscript away for a while, a week, a month, maybe longer. When I take it out again, I read it as coldly as possible, then read it aloud to a friend or two, and decide what changes I want to make and whether or not I want to publish it. I've thrown away rather a few short stories, an entire novel and half of another. But if all goes well, I type the final version on white paper and that's that.
I always rewrite each day up to the point where I stopped.... I rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Jorge Luis Borges:
Interviewer: When you wrote your stories did you revise a great deal?
JLB: At first I did. Then I found out that when a man reaches a certain age, he has found his real tone. Nowadays I try to go over what I've written after a fortnight or so, and of course there are many slips and repetitions to be avoided, certain favourite tricks that should not be overworked. But I think that what I write nowadays is always on a certain level and that I can't better if very much, nor can I spoil it very much, either. Consequently I let it go, forget all about it, and think about what I am doing at the time.
Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. ...
Sometimes technique charges in and takes command of the dream before the writer himself can get his hands on it. That is tour de force and the finished work is simply a matter of fitting bricks neatly together, since the writer knows probably every single word right to the end before he puts the first one down. ... The quality an artist must have is objectivity in judging his work, plus the honesty and courage not to kid himself about it. Since none of my work has met my own standards I must judge it on the basis of that one which caused me the most grief and anguish, as the mother loves the child who became the thief or murderer more than the one who became the priest.
Adjectives, adverbs, and every word which is there just to make an effect. Every sentence which is there just for the sentence. You know, you have a beautiful sentence - cut it. Every time I find such a thing in one of my novels it is to be cut.
Interviewer: is that the nature of most of your revision?
GS: Almost all of it.
Interviewer: It is not revising the plot pattern?
GS: Oh, I never touch anything of that kind.
Gary Fisketjon, editor-at-large at Knopf. He has edited the works of Raymond Carver, Bret Easton Ellis, Patricia Highsmith, Cormac McCarthy, Jay McInerney, Tobias Wolff, and Haruki Murakami.:
[I]t all starts with the editing, which is when I see most clearly what distinguishes this particular book. […] In my comments, what I hope to do is akin to giving the author a fresh look at something that has been labored on so long that certain things have become invisible. Countless thousands of decisions factor into the writing of any book, and it defies mathematical odds that each and every one was the best decision; but after someone has rewritten sentences and chapters or whatever God knows how many times freshness is hard to come by[… That] can occur when the book is finally set in type, as opposed to whatever computer typeface was used on earlier drafts: suddenly a writer will say, Well, that looks funny, or doesn’t read right, or whatever. This is another means—though merely visually—of getting a fresh or different look at something one has looked at so many times before.
It takes me six months to do a story. I think it out and then write it sentence by sentence - no first draft. I can't write five words but that I change seven.
Often I shift things from the very beginning to the very end. Small things - one fact, one word - but things important to me. It's possible I have a reverse mind and do things backwards, being a broken lefthander. Just so I've caught on to my weakness.... I do [rewrite considerably.] Some things I let alone from the first to the last - the kernel of the story. You know enough not to touch something if it's right. The hardest thing for me is getting people in and out of rooms - the mechanics of a story. ...I find that very challenging, especially to describe an action that I don't do very well myself, like sewing.
I don't grasp it very readily at all, the "it" being whatever I'm trying to do. I often get on the wrong track and have to haul myself back... I could be writing away one day and think I've done very well; I've done more pages than I usually do. Then I get up the next morning and realize I don't want to work on it anymore. When I have a terrible reluctance to go near it, when I would have to push myself to continue, I generally know something is badly wrong. Often, in about three quarters of what I do, I reach a point somewhere, fairly early on, when I think I'm going to abandon this story. I get myself through a day or two of bad depression, grouching around. And I think of something else I can write. It's sort of like a love affair: you're getting out of disappointment and misery by going out with some man you really don't like at all, but you haven't noticed that yet. Then, I will suddenly come up with something about the story that I abandoned; I will see how to do it. But that only seems to happen after I've said, No, this isn't going to work, forget it.
...The whole process might take up to a week, the time of trying to think it through, trying to retrieve it, then giving it up and thinking about something else, and then getting it back, usually quite unexpectedly, when I am in the grocery store or out for a drive. I'll think, Oh well, I have to do it from the point of view of so-and-so and I have to cut this character out, and of course these people are not married, or whatever. The big change, which is usually the radical change...
I don't know if it makes the story better. What it does is make it possible for me to continue to write. That's what I mean by saying I don't think I have this overwhelming thing that comes in and dictates to me. I only seem to get a grasp on what I want to write about with the greatest difficulty. And barely. ... I can see the ways a story could go wrong. I see the negative things more easily than the positive things. Some stories don't work as well as others, and some stories are lighter in conception than others. They feel lighter to me.
Just in compiling all this I feel better, better about not knowing what I am doing, how I do what I do when it works, how to fix something when I feel it just isn't working. I especially feel heartened by that last quote from Alice Munro. I think perhaps it in some way this and other people's comments validate my feeling that I need to not focus too hard at the thing I am working on - although I "look away" by playing online scrabble rather than going for a walk or to the grocery store! Well, I am still working this out. Anything that you do that no-one's mentioned? Let's keep this discussion going.
I was pointed towards Wells Tower's revision process, here's a quote from an interview in the Iowa Review:
Sarah Fay: You revised these stories for eight years. Is that right?
Wells Tower: Something like that. I did such violent revision to the stories that my editor started to worry about me. To some extent the revisions were informed by trying to make the story better, but it did get to a point where I would just keep revising and revising and revising not out of any real editorial intelligence but just because I wanted to be a better writer than I am. My feeling about revision is that we don’t really know what our stories are about even after the fifth or sixth draft. It’s not until I’ve got some distance from a story that I can look at it and see that there is actually a real emotional problem that the story is hinting at. Then the process of revision is about choosing characters, and scenes, and moments, and style that will get at that emotion in the most effective way.
SF: You’ve said you revised the story “Retreat” kamikaze-style.
WT: It was originally published in McSweeney’s from the point of view of the younger brother. The younger brother is this smartass who is pretty sympathetic, and his older brother is this terrible blowhard. The older brother behaves badly and continues to behave badly and is ultimately punished for his bad behavior by ingesting a possibly lethal bit of rotten moose meat. To me, that seemed like a flat line on the moral complexity curve. When I revised it, I thought it would be such a better story—a more interesting assignment—to try to tell it from the standpoint of the unsympathetic character. So that’s what I did.
SF: Do you treat all of your revisions as “assignments”?
WT: I did similar things with a lot of the stories. Often I didn’t look at the first draft when I went back to revise. “Revision” was writing a new story, trying to germinate a new story from the initial bit of inspirational DNA.