Episodia 1.15: Revising with Sherlock

SherlockI don’t know about you, but when I write my rough drafts, I’m staggering around in the dark. There are plot holes, dropped story lines, and unanswered questions—all the good, gnarly stuff that goes into the early part of the writing process. The key for us writers is—when the time is right—to find the answers to our own riddles. Easier said than done, right?

That’s why I love watching Sherlock Holmes crack a case. Even the smallest details never evade him, and he never fails to detect the pattern within a sea of chaos. So let’s take a few tips from this master of problem solving. The BBC adaptation of this well-loved character and his sidekick John Watson isn’t only entertaining to watch, it’s surprisingly insightful when it comes to the labyrinth of revision. Here are my favorite quotes and inadvertent writing axioms, Sherlock-style.

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Revising Like Alice(s)

Alice MunroeThere has been a flurry of praise for Alices lately—Munro for her much-deserved Nobel, McDermott for her highly-praised new novel Someone—and it has me thinking about why these two authors are having a cultural moment.

They write about women, often small domestic lives, the kind of characters and plots deemed deeply unsexy by literary tastemakers. They’re not churning out Big Important Books or doorstop-style great American you-know-whats. (Though if Charming Billy isn’t a great American you-know-whats, I don’t know what is.)

They’re going small, peering over shoulders, into hearts and minds, showing us what it means to be alive. Munro claimed her prize for short stories, hoping that readers would no longer see them as mere weigh stations on the road to a novel. McDermott writes longer, but her novels are still lithe and compact, an act of condensation and concentration. Both women intensify the ordinary, finding the meaning we all see in our lives.

The Alices perform this magic through precision of word, sentence, and story, and they achieve this breathtaking correctness, this fictional poetry, because they are brave enough to write shorter, to compress until every image resonates. In short, they are brave enough to revise. How else could they achieve such power? Cutting out, paring down, making essential: these daring acts are what make stories sing. But they’re often the hardest ones to perform.

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Writing Lessons: Brendan Mathews

In our Writing Lessons series, writing students—and this month, writing instructors!—will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying and teaching writing. This week, we hear from Brendan Mathews, a writing and literature instructor at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. You can follow him on Twitter @Mathews_With1T—Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

mathews2One observation I try to impart to my undergraduate writing students is this: you have never read a first draft. Not in any book or magazine. Not in the books assigned for your literature courses. Not in any of the novels or stories you loved growing up. Nothing published between two covers was a first draft. All of it has been revised, reworked, rethought, reimagined, re-everything’ed since those first words were scribbled in a notebook, scratched on parchment, banged out on a typewriter, or trilled on a laptop keyboard.

I tell them this as a way to overcome their sometimes wildly self-critical/self-satisfied outlook on their own writing. They often think they have to “get it right” on the first try—that once the muse speaks to them, the words will flow, perfect and exact. If that doesn’t happen, the story is a bust. If it does, then it’s eternal literary glory.

This belief in the Perfect First Draft has at least two major drawbacks:

  • Reason #1: “I can only write when I’m inspired,” which often means not writing at all, since the muse seems to be otherwise occupied inspiring Zadie Smith. But the muse doesn’t visit those who don’t respect the process—who don’t value their own art. Inspiration, I say, is a reward for hard work. And more practically: if you don’t have the skills to write a good story, inspiration will be wasted on you. You’ll have the will but not the way.
  • Reason #2: “It is what it is,” or the inability to revise. When the muse’s words are sacred and unalterable, you’re trapped with your first draft. Changes come only the form of tweaks—copyedits, essentially. But the best work, the work that turns a draft into a story, occurs after the first draft is written. You pull the scenes apart, change the tense, switch the point of view. You allow yourself to be inspired by what you’ve already created—a first draft with real potential—and you experience subsequent rounds of inspiration as a reward for your deep engagement with the possibilities latent in your own work. This is how first drafts become second drafts become third drafts become…

I have seen students paralyzed by the thought of revision. They contemplate their story like it’s a shaky tower that will collapse, Jenga-like, if one piece is removed. But what if you start pulling pieces and it stands, more breathtaking for its gravity-defying audacity? And what if it does collapse? What else—what better, truer, more interesting structure—can you build with these pieces?

These are the questions faced by every writer in the anthologies, novels, collections, and magazines we read in workshop. The first draft is the necessary statement. But revising it into something great allows you to keep asking the questions that motivate any writer: what if? And what then? And then what? And what else?

To submit your own essay to Writing Lessons, read our guidelines here.

Episodia 1.7: Lost Novels and Love Triangles

Photo by Dave Nakayama

Photo by Dave Nakayama

Lately I’ve been thinking about beginnings, endings, and that terribly murky time between a writer completing one project and starting another. After recently finishing a memoir, I’ve been itching to write a novel. I have a strong start to a new one—it’s always thrilling to be at the beginning of something, when all you see are possibilities instead of flaws—but there’s just one problem.

There’s this other novel I wrote five years ago, lying dormant in my computer files, taking up space in my writer’s psyche. It’s finished; I revised it steadily over a period of three years. But however “complete” it might be, the sad thing is systemically flawed. The plot is static, the themes are too forced, the melodrama too ever-present. So what to do?

My puritanical pride demands that I fix my drawer novel, dammit. Surely if I re-read it, re-think it, and re-work it, I’ll be able to turn it into the book I always dreamed it would be. Right? But as was written in the holy scrolls from “Battlestar Galactica”—which I watched obsessively during the hand-off time between my two projects—All this has happened before, and all this will happen again. No less than three times, I have taken this novel out, dusted it off, and gave revision the old college try. All three times, I arrived at the same end—and with a few nods to BSG and its eponymous spaceship, I’d like to share with you the process I went through to determine that my novel is better left in the drawer.

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Weekly Roundup: Revision

As we look forward to updating the Ploughshares blog for the new year, we’re also looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009.  Our weekly roundups explore the archives and gather past posts around a certain theme to help you jump-start your week.  This week’s theme: revision.

If you are still a young writer, like me, revision may be intimidating.  More experienced writers may struggle with when to stop revising.  Fortunately, our guest bloggers are here to help!

  • For those just learning to revise or any who would would like to take a fresh look, Eric Weinstein posts about his introduction to revision (re-visioning a piece) and discusses the inherent pros and cons in “Which a Minute Will Reverse”.

Gatekeepers (Part One), in which I play my flute in a meadow and lament The Death of the Editor

Gordon Lish

Editors aren’t what they used to be. I admit that I don’t have much authority to say so: I’m young(ish), my editorial “career” spans a whopping four years, and I didn’t grow up with a quill-pen in the days before simultaneous submissions, hand-delivering my poems in the snow, up-hill both ways.

Still, it seems obvious that being an editor today is nothing like being one a century ago, and shifts in the editorial landscape have been given too little attention, compared to shifts in the larger literary landscape. So how has editing changed, apart from the technological advances we can’t ignore? And what do those changes mean for future writers and editors?Continue Reading

The Black Hole of Revision

You can potentially revise forever, as there’s always something that can be improved in your story. You could’ve added another dimension to a major or minor character. That word you used in paragraph 14, the third sentence…was that the right word? Or is there another one that is more precise? Did you give enough description of the physical attributes of the main character’s love interest?

I never know for sure when I’m done with a story. Before I send a story out to literary journals, I get that nervous “Wait, just one more read…” feeling, even if I’ve read it over 300 times already. After it is accepted for publication, I never re-read my work, because I know I’ll see something I wish I had changed. Reportedly, some famous authors have revised books years after they were first published because they re-read it and saw things that they didn’t like. I am afraid of that happening to me someday.Continue Reading