I recently tried a revision experiment with a short story of mine, and I believe the results have implications beyond the piece. So here’s a case study on revision from my writing life…
A few years back, I wrote this short story I really loved. It felt complete, had a cool time-travel concept, and an interesting ending. I researched speculative fiction journals and started sending it out a year ago. I sent it out a lot. A lot. And it was consistently rejected via form e-mails. I know that rejection is a big part of the writing game, but I was legitimately confused about why no one seemed to want the piece.
I watched The Shining for the first time about a month ago. I know, I know, I really should have seen that one already. I’m just now starting to get into the horror side of speculative fiction, H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King and etc. I’m super behind. (All book/author recommendations welcome below!!)
The point is, as I was watching, I realized that without ever having read or seen The Shining, I had it ripped off in this short story. Not the plot, but the setup: guy takes care of ski lodge over the winter. Things happen. Etc. The similarities were undeniable.
Of course no one wanted the story. Every single person who screened it has seen The Shining. I’m like the only speculative fiction in the world person who hadn’t. And I was mad about it. How was I supposed to know I had ripped off a movie I had never seen?
I stewed about it. I didn’t want this piece to die a slow death in my Dropbox folder for such a ridiculous reason. I’ve been wanting to write some speculative flash fiction for a while. This seemed like a good opportunity. On a whim, I decided to cut it down to a flash fiction piece. I’d turn a 3,000 word short story nobody wanted into a 750-word flash piece no one would be able to resist.
I was a little intimidated. But I was also frustrated. And I love de-cluttering. #minimalism.
I slashed 1,000 words without breaking a sweat. It was amazing how much bulk the story had been carrying it didn’t need. The story could do without so many of the paragraphs I had slaved over. Without all the excess, I could see the heart of the story in a deeper, clearer way. I even came up with a new ending, one that fit the story so much better than the one I had.
At 1,800 words remaining, I started doing a lot less backspacing and a lot more staring at the screen. How on earth could I cut 1,000 more words? I’d be amputating essential limbs, cutting out organs the story needed to survive. As a last resort, I tried condensing two scenes. It didn’t work.
I left the piece alone for a while, came back to it, ready to try to squeeze it down to at least 1,000 words. It wouldn’t squeeze. So I stopped trying. I decided some stories aren’t supposed to be flash pieces.
That might sound like surrender. I didn’t meet the goal I set for myself, after all. But I learned so much about the story I had been trying to tell and so much about what is essential to it. I’m confident in sending it out again, reincarnated and slimmer.
We writers think through words. As we think, we leave them behind on the page. A great majority of this mental processing flotsam isn’t for the story. It’s for us. Terry Pratchett once said,
The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.
I might add that sometimes we need more than one draft to tell the story to ourselves. But this is a necessary step. If we don’t know the story, we can’t tell it to anybody else. So we write, telling ourselves the story on the page. This is the fun part for me. But in revision, we have to figure out what is there for us and what the reader needs, which parts of the work exist to lead us to the real story and which parts are the real story.
For example, in the piece I slashed, I originally started with a phone conversation in which the protagonist is interviewing for the job taking care of the lodge. That scene functioned to get me into the story. It helped me understand who my protagonist was and how he got to the place where the story could start. But it wasn’t the heart of the story. I cut the whole conversation.
It’s not often easy to figure out what parts are for you, and even if you have, it’s not often easy to cut them. Annie Dillard devotes the beginning of her gorgeous book The Writing Life to throwing work away.
The part you must jettison is not only the best-written part; it is also, oddly, that part which was to have been the very point. It is the original key passage, the passage on which the rest was to hang, and from which you yourself drew the courage to begin.
The part you must jettison is not wasted. Getting caught up in that mindset can be dangerous and disheartening. No work is ever wasted. It served its purpose.
In her best-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo says something similar to give clients permission to give away unused gifts. It’s acceptable to give them away because that item has already served its purpose: you received it, and along with it, the love or appreciation it conveyed to you from its giver. Be thankful, and then let it go.
Work you jettison has served its purpose. It got you to where you are. So appreciate it, thank it out loud if you need to, and throw it away.*
*It can be easier to delete if you save a backup copy of the document in another file. That way, you know you can go back to an old version if what you cut turns out to be a horrible, horrible mistake. In my experience, something once cut never finds a place in the work again. You decided it could be cut for a reason, after all…