Aja Gabel's stories can be found in New England Review, New Ohio Review, Southeast Review, Glimmer Train, and elsewhere. She has won fellowships from the Sewanee Writers' Conference and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and has an MFA from the University of Virginia. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Houston and a fiction editor for Gulf Coast.
Revision Cheat Sheet for the Perennially Lazy
Nov 26, 2013
I don’t make New Year’s resolutions.
That was the last resolution I made, two years ago, never to make a resolution again. I always set myself up for disappointment with grand ideas of “starting over” or “doing better.” In case you’re wondering, no, I did not write every day in 2011. No, I did not cut out sugar during the weekdays in 2009. No, I did not read one book a week, ever. And in all the years, I dated men I shouldn’t have. And then I felt bad about all of it. So me and resolutions, they don’t really mix.
This year, though, I feel the need for something to get my manuscript out of a slump, hunger for a kind of change. And yes, perhaps celebration of the New Year is a random milestone, merely a trip to CVS to buy a new calendar (do people still have physical calendars?), an excuse to get bubbly-drunk in sequins. And historically, for me, a reason to feel bad about things I didn’t do and won’t do. But perhaps it can be used for good.
What if we called it New Year’s revisions? As in, I’m just going to attempt to revise this thing I’ve been doing in 2013 and make it better. And if one revision technique doesn’t work, then I’ll just try another.
So, let’s talk about revisions.
First I did what any lazy, socially savvy girl does: I crowd-sourced (2014 revision: be less lazy.)
And here, from the mouths of a few recent Gulf Coast contributors, pearls of wisdom Re: Revision
Deb Olin Unferth On Rewrites
"Sometimes I type the whole thing over again from scratch. Sometimes I do that five times."
Celeste Ng On Reverse Outlining
"Look at your story/novel draft and make a long list of every scene or ‘chunk’--Narrator gets into college. Chinese students association and mah jongg. Narrator meets boy at McDonald's. First date at Chinese restaurant, etc.--so that you can see the rough shape of story all at once, on just a page or two. This is especially useful for a novel, I think, where can be virtually impossible to keep the whole book in your head at one time. For me, the outline is like taking ten steps back and looking at your whole piece; it gives you a different perspective. I can look at each scene and ask myself, 'What is this scene actually doing for the story? How does each scene lead to the next?' And it makes it easier to see some other issues too, like if I have ten sections in a row in one characters' point of view, or if almost all the sections are flashback, etc."
"The second is writing off the page. The more I read over a draft, the more immutable it seems to me--I can no longer see the cracks where I can pry the story open and insert new material. So I will often open up a second document and write a chunk of story there. Somehow the fact that it's not actually IN my story document allows me to generate new material more easily, without worrying about how I'm going to transition into it or join it up to what's already in the draft. Once I actually *have* a new piece of story, it's easier to find a place to put it in. This barely even feels like a tip to me--does it count?"
Maggie Shipstead On discovering "The Bad Sentences"
"With both my novels, after a suspenseful, silent period of some months, I've received a giant envelope in the mail containing a letter from my editor (about three pages, single-spaced) and a marked-up copy of the manuscript with a billion post-its sticking out of it. The letter outlines her larger concerns, and I usually convert that into a list of bullet points for myself. Then I go through the pages and deal with the simplest post-its, like ones that mark sentence or paragraph excisions. Occasionally my editor marks a larger cut, like even a whole chapter, which I usually enjoy because then I never have to deal with that chunk ever again. The remaining 700 million post-its are usually more open-ended, substantial criticisms that take longer to address. Here are some examples from the first round of edits of my novel that's coming out in April:
'Would you consider substantially expanding this section?'
'When? Why? Where? This is a major life event. Why not pause here to develop more thoroughly, providing texture and nuance, as well as drama.'
'Stronger ending above, no?'
'Again, too abrupt, and (forgive me!) lazy. Need a little more artistry and invention.'
Fortunately, I appreciate a little tough love. Then I revise on both a large and small scale for a couple months and send the new draft back, and a few months later we do it again. I find that, each round of revision, a new layer of sentences floats to the surface as The Bad Sentences. They're never fully eradicated, but at some point, you just have to give up."
This all got me thinking: what do I usually do? Well, when I’m not feeling bad about not revising and actually doing the work of revising, here are some tactics I’ve found useful.
Once, I cut up with scissors every scene in a non-chronological, non-linear short story, and put them on the floor and rearranged it until it made sense.
Once, a professor of mine laid each page of the story out on the workshop table and made everyone stand on the chairs so we could see exactly how much physical space each scene took up (too much exposition, virtually no dialogue, etc.)
Once, I saw someone write single key sentences from scenes on separate pieces of paper and then hang them with string in his studio, so he could understand how to “move” through the novel. Okay, he was eccentric.
Once, a professor made me go through each scene and underline a few sentences in each scene that were important (in whatever way I defined “important.”) Then I had to throw anything I hadn’t underlined away. I may or may not have cried.
More than once, I re-wrote the story from the beginning, without looking at the original. This has been, by far, my most successful strategy: simply starting over, and trusting that I knew what I wanted to say in the first place.
Did I just make a case for starting over? And now it occurs to me: revision tactics are just ways to trick yourself into throwing away things that don’t matter and being thankful for the things that do, which is actually what you should be doing all the time, anyway. So if you don’t throw away everything that doesn’t matter by February 1st, 2014, don’t worry. The thing about revisions is that you can make them any time.
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