I’ve just submitted a short story to a competition and I wanted to record here some of the elements of revision I picked up when editing. As regulars to my blog may know, editing and I struggle with our relationship. I find it challenging to pick my own work apart and create enough distance from it to break it down into single sentences, or even individual words, that need scrutiny. However, I also wanted to share how I got to this story in the first place. Whilst writing short stories started as a medium to practice my editing skills, creating them isn’t always as easy as it seems.
This particular story was one written for Harper’s Bazaar short story competition on the subject of ‘spring’. It took me a long while to identify a decent enough storyline to apply to this theme. Initially I began with an image and, somewhat unfortunately for the topic provided, it was of a woman grieving for a loss. How to tie that in with spring? Well, it had happened just as the earth was beginning to burst with new life, as all the flowers of spring were about to bloom.
I liked the parallel there. The thought that death still occurs even in a season so tied with beginnings; it felt right. But my first draft was terrible. I had the essence of the characters I wanted, but the link to spring was weak. I knew that I wanted the pace to be somewhat slow, to fold back on itself by starting with the scattering of someone’s ashes and then explain who this person was. But I needed to develop the themes. I needed to really understand what my protagonist wanted from this relationship with the dying woman and why it becomes so important.
Fortunately, I took my first draft to my writing group. They were complimentary but honest. They told me all the things I feared about it as a first draft but reassured me there was potential in the piece. How could I craft this story with more depth and really explore the links to spring that would make it suitable for this competition? With a few changes, including altering the old woman’s passion from food to flowers, I had something I thought could work.
In lieu of my writing group I posted my updated draft onto Scribophile – an online writing community that is geared toward critiquing. My first two critiques were harsh – the readers did not like the story, couldn’t imagine the characters and thought it was being ‘too clever’ for its own good. Fortunately, I got two more reviews that disagreed and could see the positive elements of the story that others appeared to have missed.
Using these comments as a basis for editing suggestions, I then went through the story and made changes accordingly. After another read through with my writing group (who all agreed it had vastly improved and could have winning potential) I felt I was at a stage where I could stop making structural changes and begin tinkering with the piece on a line by line basis.
I found some very amusing faux pas – my favourite being ‘I let my eyes wander around the room’! Hmmm, eyes should be in my character’s head, not wandering about the room on their own. It’s this type of up-close editing that I have struggled with in the past, often glossing over it because I think readers should ‘know what I mean’. This time though, I painstakingly went over the text five or six times, with a couple of days between some of these to get some distance.
On occasion I would change something and then, on another reading, change it back to the original phrasing. If I did this more than once or twice with a sentence I’d really consider if I needed it and, if it was so vital, try and find a way around the particular elements I was unsure of, sometimes completely changing the surrounding sentences to take account of this. I checked the meaning of various verbs, trying to identify the strongest ones that matched with what I was trying to say to ensure there couldn’t be confusion. I think searching for the right actions, or adjectives, to make the writing precise has made a big difference – even if this did seem to take up the most time.
All in all, I think I’ve spent around 15 hours with this story, not including the initial ideas phase and all the thinking time when not physically working on it. I’m quite pleased with it now. I think it’s as strong as it can be and I feel confident entering it into the competition. As I mentioned in my previous post, even if this story does not win this competition I have learnt a lot just from the process of writing, revising and editing it as a standalone piece of work. It might fail in the ultimate goal of winning the competition it was written for, but it’s still progress of sorts because it’s taught me the art of editing.
[As an example of editing here are a few changes I had to make to this particular post:
– change complementary to complimentary
(although the group do complement my writing ambitions also)
– deleted ‘came away with my lips pursed in contemplation’
(how can lips contemplate?)
– deleted the word ‘very’ from the phrase ‘very precise’
(the word precise already implies ‘very’)
There are probably ones I missed – feel free to correct them in comments!]