the red pen chronicles

The #SixteensBlogAbout topic for the month of April is “revision” and friends, let me tell you, I have a few things to say about revision. The things I have to say can be summarized like this:

  1. I love revision.
  2. There is no difference between revising and writing.

I know there are writers out there who don’t have a revision process prior to editorial input. They put words on the page, they proofread those words for mistakes, they send them off to magazines or agents or editors. I know these writers exist because they talk about their writing processes and that is what they describe and it works very well for them and how nice that must  be.

Well, no, it doesn’t sound nice. It sounds awful, because I love revision and I don’t ever want to skip it. But it’s probably nice for them, in the same way being a football fan or drinking Bud Light or having a career as a wedding planner must be nice for somebody, or any other life choice that is perfectly reasonable for other people but wholly incomprehensible to me.

In any case, it’s pointless to talk about people who don’t revise while talking about revision, so never mind them. “No revision” is not a writing goal. A writer’s job is not to write a story that comes out exactly right on the first try. Nobody cares how many drafts preceded the final version. A writer’s job is to write the best story they can possibly write. How that happens, whether it’s one draft or ten thousand drafts, is something every writer has to figure out for themselves.

I can’t write one draft and send it out into the world. I write one draft, then I put it in a dark hole for several months and don’t think about it, then I dig it up again and revise it approximately ten thousand times, then I revise it ten thousand more times. Then I send it out into the world. That’s my process. It works for me. I wouldn’t expect it to work for anybody else, but I like it. I love it, in fact. I write a first draft, let it stew for a few months, print it up and go at it with a red pen. Then I do it all over again. And again. And again.

But what does that mean, revising a story ten thousand times? Okay, in truth, it’s more like 6-8 times. Not ten thousand. Not yet. For me it works in stages. I don’t have a checklist; I don’t follow a procedure. But I do the same basic thing every time, and these are the steps:

  1. Finish the story. Nothing matters until there is a complete shitty first draft.
  1. Go back and rework the story so it makes some semblance of sense. That means finding obvious plot holes and fixing them, making sure all of the characters’ actions make sense, looking for some vague outline of a character arc, moving bits around so they’re in the right order.
  1. Repeat step #2 ten thousand times, give or take. In a happy ideal world full of unicorns and chocolate, it makes a little more sense with each pass. The characters become more real, their actions more organic. The plot starts to feel like a series of things that were always meant to happen. The beginning and the ending become fixed points, and everything in between starts to settle as well. It starts to feel like maybe there’s a reason to tell this story.
  1. Go through the entire story scene by scene, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, to polish the language until there is nothing that feels awkward or out of place and everything is as beautiful as I know how to make it. This usually does involve deleting a lot of excess words, but I don’t think anybody would ever accuse me of being an efficient, minimalist writer. I like adverbs. I like detailed descriptions and weird lengthy lists and repetitive emphasis. I like the occasional flight of narrative fancy that does not advance the plot with brutal efficiency. I like long, long sentences. I do all of those things on purpose. That doesn’t mean I’m not revising and editing and polishing the hell out of them too.
  1. Repeat step #4 ten thousand times, give or take.
  1. When I get to the point where I am spending hours deleting and replacing the same comma because I can’t decide how I feel about it, and that’s the only thing I want to fiddle with in the story, I figure it’s more or less as done as I can make it on my own.

This all seems very time-consuming, and it is. It’s not a fast process. But, well, I’d rather be good than fast, and I don’t know how to be both, so that’s fine with me.

It’s also very complicated, sure, but it can all be summed up with one helpful descriptive word: writing. This is writing. This is what writing looks like, the way I do it. The initial word count is only the beginning. Writing doesn’t stop once I’ve got a complete story on the page. The point where I switch from blubbing out new words as fast as I can to going back and reworking, rewriting, and revising those words is not a switch from “writing” to “not writing.” It’s the progression from “writing” to “more writing” to “oh look more writing.”

I save all the drafts of my stories, so I generally have a nice long history of the revisions I do. Here is an example from my short story “No Portraits on the Sky,” published in Clarkesworld in April 2013. I am proud of this story. I am fond of it too, which is not quite the same thing as proud, but both are important. It has giant trees, and I think we can all agree that literature needs more giant trees. According to my file history, it took me two years to write. Two full years for a story that’s not quite 6,000 words long.

From April 2011, the earliest version I have, here is the opening paragraph:

The funeral procession floated down the canal beneath the sagging arch of long-branched trees and swaying bridges. From the boats themselves there was no sound except for the lap of water on the hulls and slice of oars through the quivering black surface, but overhead the forest murmured with spectators. A shout of laughter in the distance, quickly hushed, and low whispers all around, questions and answers, and everywhere faces peered through gaps in the rich canopy, pale spots of curiosity against the deepening night. Lanterns hung on high bridges and torches marching along the edge of platforms filled the nightly forest mist with a warm yellow glow, shimmering in brief glimpses on the rippling surface of the water, but the banks of the canal and the levels immediately above were dark.

The clever reader will notice that that opening paragraph bears no resemblance whatsoever to the opening paragraph in the published story. It’s not even the same story, really, or much of a story at all. It’s a description of an event. Later paragraphs reveal the characters’ names are not the same, nor are their relationships. There are two women with a daughter, but their daughter is young and right there beside them, not grown and gone.

I don’t even remember what I thought the story was going to be; this version peters out half-finished. I couldn’t figure out where it was supposed to go, so it didn’t go anywhere for a long time.

This scene barely even appears in the published story–but it does appear, briefly, as a flashback that forms only a part of a single paragraph. It was the scene that once motivated me to write the entire story–one incredibly vivid image that caught my interest and convinced me to put words on the page, made me want to build an entire world around it–but it didn’t deserve its central story-starting place. It worked better shuffled down and aside. It’s still there, but it’s definitely not where the story begins. It never should have been but, eh, who cares? It’s a first draft. It doesn’t matter if it starts in the wrong place.

Nearly a full year later I figured out where the story ought to start. From February 2012:

The stranger fell from the sky just after dawn, as the mist was retreating from the highest branches of the forest and the trees below took on a fleeting golden hue. Rela was in the highest part of the aerie, weaving lines of flashing blue light along a new rope bridge. She heard the snap of branches above her first, and a moment later the panic slammed into her. She reeled back and looked up; the tree above her, a monstrous old beauty that towered over the forest canopy, was trembling, something very small and very dark was tumbling downward, a black speck against the blue-gold morning sky.

I can tell you exactly what happened here. At some point during that year I remembered and relearned the notion that you’re supposed to start a story where the story actually starts. That’s not always easy to figure out, but it was stupidly easy in this case. The story clearly, obviously, inarguably starts with the stranger falling out of the sky. Duh. Double duh. That is the only place the story can start, no matter what else is going on in the background or in the characters’ lives. People falling out of the sky is fucking weird. It upsets life. It ruins a nice morning. It changes things. It makes you notice. That’s where a story begins.

Once I figured that out, I wanted to work on the story again, and this time I wanted to get it right. I was now able to write a complete first draft.

This first draft is roughly the same length as the final story ends up being, which is unusual for me. Usually my first drafts are about 30% longer, because I overwrite first drafts like words are going out of style and I have to use them all up by tomorrow. The reason my first drafts tend to be so overly long is because I will often say the exact same thing multiple different ways–describe the same thing several times, explain an action or emotion from several angles, go into excessive detail for something I know is significant but haven’t quite figured out how. All of this would be tiresome beyond belief in a published story, but it’s not a published story. It’s my playground, where I figure shit out, and I can put whatever the hell I want on the page and decide what to keep later.

The next few versions of the opening paragraphs are built around the same structure, and the same obsession with mist, because whatever, I am obsessed with misty mornings and I do not deny it. (Oh, you think there’s another reason for it? Ha. No. I just like misty forests. They’re pretty great, right?) But they’re not identical. There is tweaking and revising and polishing. Sentences get shorter and broken apart. One paragraph becomes two becomes one again then two again. I shifted from focusing on solely describing the setting in detail (which I always do anyway, it’s a thing) to trying to figure out what world-building information was necessary.

Meanwhile, farther down the story, I took out several extraneous characters–neighbors, friends, people in positions of power–and with them went a lot of detail about how this world functions. I first put in and later removed an entire subplot that stretched out the story timeline by several days. I think there were villains at some point; I have no idea why.

All along I knew there was something missing, some layer to the world and the story that didn’t work yet, but I didn’t know what it was. A lot of trial and error went into figuring it out, but it’s the fun kind of trial and error.

From March 2012:

The stranger fell from the sky just after dawn, as the mist was retreating from the highest branches of the forest and the leaves shone with a fleeting golden hue. Rela was collecting silk in a remote corner of the aerie, her spiders scurrying behind her, swarming over the cords of a swaying rope bridge. Dew clung to the draped white webs, cool to the touch and glistening, and her sleeves were damp from the elbow.

Spiders. It was spiders. That’s what was missing.

The spiders weren’t there from the start. They don’t appear in the first two or three drafts. This is where they show up. When I thought, “Ah ha! Spiders!” I had to go through and do some pretty major rewrites to work them in, and it took a while to figure out exactly how they fit. And putting in the spiders meant taking out a lot of other stuff, stuff that wasn’t needed or didn’t carry any weight anymore, but that was fine.

From July 2012:

The stranger fell from the sky just after dawn, as the mist was retreating from the highest branches of the forest. Rela heard the snap of branches overhead and she looked up, holding tight to the bridge with both hands.

A dark figure tumbled downward, growing larger with every jolting bounce from every branch. Rela watched with her breath caught in her chest and he spiders chittered in panic, nipping at the bare skin of her arms, trailing threads of wire and silk over her fingertips.

Now that I have decided that Spiders Are Cool, I really want everybody to know that Spiders Are Cool. With this draft I also decided to expand the narrative role the spiders play in the story. This is the point at which the memory-transfer-via-spider-bite comes into the story. I had An Idea and I decided to go with it, see where it lead, see what it did to the main character to have this new experience open to her.

Also note: the person falling from the sky is both tumbling and jolting.

From February 2013:

The stranger fell from the sky just after dawn. Rela heard the snap of branches overhead, and she looked up, holding tight to the bridge with both hands. The mist was retreating from the highest branches of the forest, and dark figure tumbled downward. Rela watched with her breath caught in her chest. But the figure grew larger, jolted through the branches, and the she could see him well enough to know he was no skywarden. No tools, no ropes, no soft sticky gloves the color of fresh silk. The spiders chittered in panic, nipped at the bare skin of her arms, trailing threads of wire and silk over her fingertips.

Wait, no, shit, now he’s just tumbling in one sentence, jolting in the next. Make up your mind, dude.

Also: the main character has some context for people falling out of the sky, and this person does not fit that context. It’s not much–it’s a tiny, tiny world-building thing–but it belongs here in the beginning. It was always part of the story, even from the very earliest draft that began with the funeral, but this is the first time I moved it into the opening.

From later in February 2013:

The stranger fell from the sky just after dawn.

Rela heard the snap of branches and her spiders chattered in alarm, nipped at the bare skin of her arms. She looked up. The sun was rising in a gray haze beyond the forest’s western edge and the night’s mist was retreating from the aerie, and a dark figure tumbled downward through the canopy and fog, bouncing from branches, narrowly missing a rope bridge. Rela watched with her breath caught in her chest, her heart stuttering, but as the person fell closer she could see he was no skywarden. He wore no tools, no ropes, no soft sticky gloves the color of moss.

And now he’s tumbling and bouncing! What the hell. Why not? A bounce is a very different thing from a jolt. What does a person actually do when they fall from a great height and crash through tree branches? I have no idea. Never seen it happen. I imagine it’s pretty ugly. But the words–the words don’t have to be ugly. Jolt is a very difference word from bounce. It looks different, it sounds different, it brings different images to mind. Jolt is violent, electric. Bounce is soft, gentle. Falling through a tree isn’t gentle at all. I like the word that conveys a feeling somewhat at odds to what’s going on.

And finally the published version from April 2013:

The stranger fell from the sky just after dawn.

Rela heard the snap of branches and looked up. The sun was rising in a gray haze beyond the forest’s eastern edge, and the mist was retreating from the aerie. In the canopy above, a dark figure tumbled through the fog, bouncing from branches and whipping past leaves. Rela watched with her breath caught in her chest, her heart stuttering. But as the person fell closer she could see he was no skywarden. He wore no tools, no ropes, no soft sticky gloves the color of spider silk.

Now we’re tumbling, bouncing, and whipping. Whatever, man. I do what I want, and what I want is more verbs. I am coming to your house and I am stealing all your verbs.

And look: the spiders have made a reappearance in the opening, if only as a brief mention. When I was at the Clarion workshop in 2010, my friend (and fantastic writer) Tom Underberg presented for workshopping a story about giant spiders. Our instructor that week was George R. R. Martin, and when it was his turn to talk about Tom’s story, he flipped through the story talking about how he was reading along not really knowing what was going on until he got to page six and realized the story was about–and I quote–“GIANT FUCKING SPIDERS,” and why weren’t the–direct quote, I swear–“GIANT FUCKING SPIDERS” on the first page rather than buried on page six?

That is the entire reason I put a mention of the spiders in the opening again.

There’s nothing very fancy going on here. I revised out most of my fancy. (Not all of it. I am who I am.) I moved a lot of unnecessary info to later paragraphs. I overcame my urge to describe literally everything about the setting and described just a few things. Softened the jolts to bounces because it felt better that way, adding in some whipping because I wanted the impression of speed. Broke up the sentences. I didn’t get rid of the mist. I didn’t get rid of the description of the setting. (I will never get rid of the description of the setting. Ever. They’ll have to put that on my tombstone: “She described her settings a lot, and also fog, and now she’s dead.”)

Is it perfect? No. I don’t know. I don’t even know what that means. I would probably delete the word “above” now because where the fuck else would the canopy be if she was looking up? I’m not sure it matters. I want the things I write to be affecting, and I want them to be beautiful, and I want them to flow to a rhythm I can hear but can’t quite explain, and I want them to vividly convey the images I have in my head. I think it does that. I like it.

Here’s a secret about revision: perfection is irrelevant. It’s a word that has no real meaning in writing. Powerful, beautiful, interesting, clever, engaging, painful, vivid, fun–those are words that have meaning when it comes to writing and story. Those are good things to work for. Those are excellent writing goals. But perfect? Perfect is nothing. Write a perfect sentence today and tomorrow you’ll change it. Write a perfect story today and in five years you’ll cringe to look at it.

Perfect implies there is one right way for a story to be–for every sentence to be–but storytelling is so much more flexible than that. Stories can be be shared in countless ways, with countless nuances, countless meanings. You have to start somewhere, so you start with “good enough not to set on fire,” and you work it, you play with it, you throw things at it to see what sticks, you pick it apart and put it back together, cut it and pad it and play with it some more. The story changes, and what you want out of the story changes too. You do the best you can with the tools you have, and you learn, and next time you do it better.

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One thought on “the red pen chronicles

  1. Pingback: #SixteensBlogAbout Revision | The Sweet Sixteens

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