Revising and Revising and Revising

A third way of not allowing the story to be finished is by diving immediately into endless, destructive revisions that tear the story up by its roots and hack away at its branches.

New scenes! New climaxes! Wonderful new dialogue muttering inside your head!

As long as you're working on it, you tell yourself, it's not really over. And you really don't have to send it out or risk the trauma of somebody else looking at it and (horrors!) maybe not liking it as much as you do. It's all for the story's own good, you tell yourself, after months or years have passed and you're still revising. After all, it's not done yet.

With any luck at all, it never will be, either. It will sit with all your other mangled fragments and drafts and redrafts on the desk where somehow nothing ever really gets completed.

Partly, it's like what I warned you about in regard to beginnings: rushing into revision. Don't try to rework your story while it's still hot from your handling. Let it cool and set into its own form. Let yourself get a little emotional and intellectual distance from it. Let it be over, and be happy with it: a finished thing, one whole first draft.

But partly this problem has another cause. Some writers, losing the vivid excitements of first-draft writing, mistakenly believe the story has died. Because it's no longer interesting in ex actly the same way as when it was growing and changing, they think there's something wrong with it. They start on an endless autopsy or, worse, refuse to look at it anymore and send it out the way it is with no revisions at all, in lieu of a funeral.

There are probably things in it that can be improved, but what's happened is normal and necessary. There's nothing wrong with the story—not wrong that way, anyhow.

That it now seems solid, dry, and definite, rather than flowing quicksilver in your fingers, just means it's grown up. It's started to become its own thing, rather than beingjust an extension of your living imagination that can't be severed and survive. But it's only started. It still needs your help, your care, your craft to become fully itself.

Love the child it was. Love the adolescent it is. Help it become the independent living thing it ought to be, free of you, able to stand on its own and ready to meet its readers.

Revision has its excitements and its pleasures too, though they're different from the pleasures of first-draft writing. They include seeing buried connections you can bring out, strong scenes you can make stronger, ideas or intentions you now see ways to embody in character, scene, and action. There's also the delight of seeing the symmetrical patterns of the story you've made, with all its interconnectedness, which you couldn't discern while originally writing the story because you were holding it too close.

But these very real and legitimate joys of revision have nothing to do with procrastination or refusing to let the story have a final shape and be what it is, even with a few flaws of characterization or narration that, maybe with ten years' more experience, you might be able to improve. The story doesn't have to be perfect. Itjust has to be the very best story you can write now. That's all you have a right to expect of it, or of yourself.

Once it's cooled, let it sit for a reasonable time. A week or two. Then set about your second draft. After that, maybe try it out on some readers, as long as you ask them specific questions and get specific answers you consider yourself entirely free to ignore completely. ("Did you like it?" is not a specific question; "Where did it get confusing or slow?" is.)

Third draft next, working with what's there, notjust yanking things out and jamming things in haphazardly. And when it all fits together the very best you can make it, type up a good clean draft (remember to keep a photocopy) and send it out to the first appropriate market on your list.

If it comes back, don't retreat into anxious tinkering. Make a fresh copy, if the original has coffee-cup rings on it, but send it out to the next market that same day, barring illness or accident. And do the same a dozen times more, if it's needed. Do it like clockwork, as if the story were no more than a bill you're paying.

And then, if it still comes forlornly back, then look over the accumulated rejects for any insights they may offer, reread the story, and find out whether you can see it with fresh eyes. Then revise once more, if you can see a way to make the story better, stronger, as the story it is, not as some other story you might try to wrench it into becoming. It has a right to be itself.

If it's a true story, true to people and their experience, and if it's constructed with at least moderate narrative craft, it will be published, sooner or later, somewhere.

Stories are for sharing. Not for gathering dust in pieces on your desk or hiding in some bulging file. Let this story be done and start thinking about the wonderful next one you can't wait to get started on, bringing to it all the craft and insight you've developed and will develop still further as long as you're writing.

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