The types of revision that are not a waste of time (for me)

revisionFor the past few days, I’ve been revising last year’s stories and sending them out into the world. (Although…actually…I might need to stop for awhile, because I’ve run out of places to send them.) The revising hasn’t been too extensive. Actually, I’ve made a conscious effort to start doing less revising.

Before I finish the first draft of a story, I usually put it through 3-5 (and, in some cases, many more) rewrites. During these rewrites, everything is up for change: the setting, the characters, the motivations, the order of the scenes. But once I write the final word of a story, I rarely feel the desire to change much of anything.

This isn’t because these stories are perfect. I’ve put enough “finished” stories through workshops to know that sometimes I can be very satisfied with what is actually a very flawed story. And it’s not uncommon for me to get a revision request from an editor that makes me smack my head and say, “My god. Of course. This makes so much sense.” For instance, the story that I recently sold to GigaNotaSaurus was one that I put an incredible amount of effort into. I rewrote it several times and put it through a workshop and then revised it significantly again. And then I spent the better part of $2,000 to send it out to a number of MFA programs as part of my application. But after I got a revision request from Ann Leckie, its flaws seemed so intuitively obvious to me that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed them before. I took a long walk, hatched a plot for revision, spent a day rewriting the story, and significantly improved it.

But I’m also not disappointed that I didn’t put more time into it a year ago. I had worked on it for long enough that I no longer saw any flaws in it. And I don’t believe in putting a story through critique too many times. I notice that the stories I am most tempted to revise again and again are the ones that I love the best. There’s a talismanic quality to this desire: by revising it over and over, I try to forestall all possible objections to the story and to ensure that editors will buy it.

But that doesn’t work. No matter how much I revise a story and no matter how much I love it, I can’t make editors buy it. Stories don’t succeed by being perfect. They succeed by being startling and thought-provoking and beautiful. And my belief is that most of the aesthetic goodness of a story is pretty much sealed into it from the moment that I finish the first draft. I don’t mind revising a story, but I don’t really see the point of it unless I am doing something to the story that, somehow, fundamentally alters its nature in a way that substantially affects its aesthetic qualities. And, usually, that’s not what I’m doing when I revise. Usually, I’m just polishing sentences or cutting words or adding a few explanations. It’s all silly stuff, and it’s pretty much just a time-waster.

I think there are only three kinds of revision that are really worth my time:

  • Cutting 10% or more of the words in a story – I don’t do this often, but I should probably do it more. It’s a very good exercise. When I’m just idling through a story, I rarely cut much of anything. However, when I go into a story with the specific intention of cutting its word-count, I usually manage to find a number of things that could go. This might not improve the story as much as I think it should, but it’s definitely a good exercise, in terms of writing future stories.
  • Changing the ending – In my first draft process, I usually write the beginning about 5-10 times, but I rarely write the ending more than twice. Because of this, sometimes my stories fall down at the end. If I’m dissatisfied with the ending, it’s not a terrible idea to change it to something that clicks a little better.
  • A complete rewrite – Start with a blank page and start retyping it over again. However, if I’m going to do this with an already-drafted story, I usually need to start with a clear conception of what exactly is going to be different (how I’m going to change the characters, the situation, etc), or it usually ends up being mostly the same, which, to me, feels like a waste of time. Usually, I only rewrite completed stories if they’ve gone through a workshop, since workshop critique tends to reboot my vision of the story.

All the other kind of revising—the puttering and the polishing and the tweaking and such—seem, to me, to be of limited utility. It’s worth making one pass through the story to see what words you might want to add or change or what sections could use a little more description, but, mostly, these changes are invisible. They’re not going to affect whether or not the story sells.

I suppose it’s dreary of me to be concerned with stuff like “whether the story sells” rather than with aesthetic issues, but I do think that the aesthetic quality of my body of work is best served by limiting some kinds of revision. For whatever reason, some (most) stories are never going to sell. It doesn’t matter what I do to them, it’s just not going to happen—I don’t have the skill or vision to make that story work (or it’s so utterly ahead of its time that the marketplace is not ready for it). There’s really no point in spending all kinds of time working on these stories. It’d just be an exercise in frustration.

It’s tempting to stay back here with the stories I’ve already completed. I’m not one of those writers who is always dissatisfied with his own work. Sometimes I read a story I’ve written and am struck by its genius. I think, “My god, how did I ever manage to write something so amazing? I don’t think I will ever be able to match it. If this doesn’t sell, then nothing will.”

It takes effort to remind myself that this is false: the stories I am writing this year are better than the ones I wrote last year, and the ones I write next year will be better than the ones I am writing now. Now I just need to go ahead and write them.

5 thoughts on “The types of revision that are not a waste of time (for me)

  1. sunscald

    This is very useful, thank you. I struggle to let stories go, and I’m still working out how best to revise without making myself nuts. I’ve known many prosthelytizers of Heinlein’s Rules, but they’ve never worked for me; I end up with unsaleable dreck when I don’t revise at all. Your list of 3 feels like a saner version of Heinlein.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Agreed. I definitely need to do a little revising. I found that doing all my rewriting before I finished the story meant that I ended up with what were, to me, much cleaner and nicer stories. I guess if you spent enough years not-revising, you’d eventually get to the point where your unrevised stuff was salable. Pretty much anything works, so long as you’re comfortable with it. But it is also a relief to find the things you’re uncomfortable with and give yourself permission to stop doing them.

  2. Ben Godby

    I agree that some stories are doomed from their inception. I tend to hang on to those stories and look upon them longingly from time to time, wishing I knew how to make them magical. Alas.

  3. debs

    I don’t revise my stories once they’re baked. I just can’t bear it. Except I did once. Cutting a story down from 2K to just under a thousand words. And what do you know, it sold, and it sold big.

    You’d think I’d have learnt something from that.

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