Sunday, February 13, 2011

Chopping Up An Old Story

I needed a science fiction story for a particular project, so I looked back at the work I'd done before that I had yet to sell, and selected what I thought my most suitable piece. I liked the concept quite a bit, and the story had done well enough to be a quarterfinalist in Writers of the Future (quarterfinalists are now known as Honorable Mentions).

Having reread the story I found I still liked it, but there were obvious weaknesses; portions of the story told in summary instead of as an actual scene, an unsatisfying ending, and given advances in technology part of what happened in the last third didn't seem probable anymore.

So I took a hacksaw to it. In the process the opening scene was truncated, the conflict between the protagonist and her friend was enhanced with an additional scene and the summary expanded into an actual scene, the ending was revised, and in total an additional thousand words were added to what had been a 3400 word story.

I was pleased.

I also could not have done this kind of edit back when I originally wrote the story.

Back when I was a younger writer I would write a draft, and I might do a bit of editing while I write (bad behavior!), but on the whole of it what I wrote was what went out. In extreme circumstances I might cut a paragraph or two, but on the whole editing tended to be limited to clarifications and rewording things. Line edits.

I took a story to my first face-to-face workshop that was not a college creative writing class, and I remember my instructor, Mark London Williams, suggesting that I rewrite a scene I brought into class a different way. It may come as a shock to some, but my initial unvoiced reaction was: "But I already wrote it this way!"

What Mark had suggested was a drastic change that could not have been accomplished through a line edit. Paragraphs would have to change. Maybe even the plot. The scene would be different.

It took me about a year to realize he was right. When I took that same story back to the workshop a year later, it was much better, stronger for the revisions. It was the story was that really taught me that it's okay to throw away chunks of text. About two-fifths of it was removed and replaced. The scenes that did nothing were gone. New scenes were added to replace them and better move the story along. The story also grew.

It was after the revision of that story and "Living Rooms" (which also went through the same workshop) that I realized my revision process involved cutting out dead weight and expanding what I wrote earlier. My writing grows with revision.

This also taught me that if I have to write for a particular word length, that I need to undershoot it on the first draft because my second will be longer.

It's can be difficult to understand what needs to change and what doesn't, and I think that was part of my problem as a younger writer. That and inertia.

For the particular story I came back to this week, I realized that I needed to trim the opening where the protagonist gets out of bed, eats her breakfast, and heads out to work. Since she's not an ordinary human, her getting out of bed and eating breakfast is a little different from ours, but I decided the details were unnecessary and made it take longer to get to the interesting stuff.

The protagonist's time spent doing research was originally done purely through narration. Since weeks if not months were going by and this was a short story, it did not seem prudent to go into detail. I interspered bits of dialogue that happened over the course of the research just to break up the narration, but they were without context since they were more for flavor.

When I came back to do my revision I decided to break the research up into smaller scenes (now there are actually quite a few very short scenes) to showcase more of how the protagonist's society works and her relationship with her friend, who is also involved in the research. The disagreement that had originally been done in summary I fleshed out with actual dialogue. Finally, I added a completely new scene to emphasize what these people thought their heritage was as well as the growing disagreement between the protagonist and her friend.

And finally, I changed the ending. I remembered that I'd had a heck of a time finding a good note to end the story originally, and when I reread the story I didn't like it. I found it dry and unsatisfying, more like the story had ended because it was a good stopping point rather than a change had been made.

In the new draft the protagonist's discovery is more animated and there's more at stake for her personally than there was before (since her friendship may now be on the line, whereas the friendship had not been as defined before). While we still don't learn what the full outcome of her discovery will be, she has enough information that she can feel vindicated choosing the path she has.