— Jennifer Porter (@Journeybooks) August 26, 2015
There is a two-word term out there in the Readerly/Writerly world, an ethereal and challenging thing: revision strategy. Jennifer Porter, co-founder and fiction editor at The Tishman Review, suggests leaning a keen eye toward “hangers-on” and “riff raff” that do not serve the story in any way–narrative, character development, or otherwise.
I try to keep this sound advice at the core of my own revision strategy.
As with many writerly things, there does not seem to be a singular, foolproof answer. One obvious approach is the employment another set of eyes. Beta readers. Critical thinkers who will read a story with a more objective and editorial eye. Though readers can be hard to find, the good ones seem to have the nose of a police dog on an Amsterdam train platform. They will, on the first read, identify blindspots the author overlooked each of the one-thousand times she read the manuscript; they will know, at first blush, when something is overwritten, then find some more overwrought prose the second time around.
With talk of beta readers comes to mind the writing workshop, another approach that brings more eyes to the story, each set with its own terministic screen(s). Personally, my experience in workshops is limited, though I do not doubt their usefulness in the revision process. Maybe it is better for MFA graduates and regular workshop attendees to elaborate on the advantages and disadvantages of this strategy (there are plenty of think-pieces out there, some in support of, some unequivocally opposed to writing workshops).
Still, when approached with an open mind and a willingness to accept feedback and critique without blowing a gasket, I believe that both of these approaches can be fruitful.
Set it down
Another approach, one I have grown increasingly reliant on, involves setting a story down, spending time away from it. That is to say: I resist the urge to immediately begin revision (or god forbid, submission) of recently completed drafts. Instead, I set the manuscript on my desk and walk away from it. It gives me time to refill my vial of blind-spot antidote–to recharge the battery on my bullshit detector.
It is often more of a feel than a concrete timespan. Things start to bubble up the longer I spend away from a draft. When I return to it, it is often with fresh eyes and new ideas. Though I cannot say breakthroughs have been the most forthcoming over the past few years, the times I have experienced a breakthrough (a sensible revision of the ending that makes the story work much better, for example; or a resolution to some problem I was stumped on) occurred after I let a draft alone a while. A considerable while.
The longer the better, as I have found.
Submitter’s remorse. I love writing; it is dopamine kick number one on my pleasure scale. Like many writers, I am awash in my own glow the moment I think I have “completed” a story. The glow is blinding. It crowds out circumspection; it obscures the normal vectors by which my bullshit detector makes headway; it puts me under a spell that urges me to submit my work for publication and to make haste while doing so. And, almost without exception, the times I do submit this work, I immediately regret it.
I have found that putting distance and time between me and my drafts serves as a kind of reset button–a return to cognitive center. During this time, the rosy shade to my writerly lens fades, returns to stasis, and I see my work with sober eyes again. Maybe, during my time away, I read some books, generate new ideas about how to revise my work (an approach to eliminating wordiness, for example, or to sharpening my first paragraph) or smooth out a sticking point (which for me tends to be the very end of the story). This has become an absolute necessity.
Because the story has to be very good
TLR by the numbers: For issue 5 we rec’d 60% more short story submissions than for issue 4. Thank you, writers! -jp
— Tahoma Review (@TahomaReview) September 4, 2015
Whether I like it or not, this is a numbers game. Magazines and journals receive an inordinate number of submissions, many of considerable quality, and mine is just one grain of sand among them. Giving my stories the time they need gives me better odds at, if nothing else, making it past the first round of consideration.
(And it seems, nowadays, that I need them.)
Even a well written, structured, and nuanced story rich with dialog, setting, and strong characters, faces difficult odds when it comes to making to the next step of the editorial decision process. This slush reader might have no interest in stories about a bus drivers; that slush reader might make flash judgments based on the first paragraph; those editors might have read one hundred manuscripts in the morning, and yours comes next, right after a two-pint lunch. Who knows? But I do know that I want to eliminate any easy excuses to discard my work.
Compared to our last call, so far: a 70% drop in submission volume but triple the number of positively-voted pieces. http://t.co/8dg6qbbSl8
— Structo (@structomagazine) August 29, 2015
This iterative, “set it down a while” strategy has freed me of feeling bound by submission windows and deadlines. Now, I send out my work when I feel it is ready, a process that I avoid rushing. As a result, I come to the table (I hope) with well-rounded stories, full stories, stories with fewer gaps and blindspots.
It seems to me the meat I cook continues cooking on the inside after I take it off the grill.
So I let it sit.