Writer in Residence · 07/26/2012


A linked list of all posts from Revision Month can be found here.

A few of the writers who answered my call for revision thoughts chose to directly address the questions I had mentioned I was thinking about. Below we have Nicolle Elizabeth and “Jimmy Lo“http://jimmylorunning.com/.


Nicolle Elizabeth on Revision

I think that revision doesn’t mean editing down it can mean editing up such as adding, better explaining, better exploring, better writing. I think that editing gives a writer a chance to really better parce out what they’re doing, saying, meaning, taking out, leaving out, putting in, what they’ve forgotten and just remembered at like 4 in the morning when they wake up some rainy night and pull up a .doc and realize they meant to add two sentences while it lightning bolts around them out the window.

I took a class once with a writer who didn’t let us edit anything out the entire semester. She wanted us to build and build and build and it was actually an incredibly painful process because nowadays I edit also while I’m writing like as I go along, in addition to later later. Here was this writer and she was all write it on write it on stack that and I was like oh this hurts. What ended up happening was that I then had all these words like a regular notebook of jots to harvest from but except this was in extreme neon dense intense mode and I still try to pull from it now and then.

Like the word oracle who even uses that without it sounding horrendous and annoying yet I just saw it written in on page 4 and went maybe if I change it to orca that could be tiiight. Which I think was editing, via changing some letters around. I think that editing is like peeling a cucumber except it doesn’t smell as good and takes more time and is annoying and totally sucks yet is comforting if you like pain and coldness and being clinical. Editing is not about our artistic expression it is about what serves the story best. Which, I’m an aquarius, so this really upsets me I like to be a glutton when doing anything and mostly making my art. Cha-cha darling, feel the music, sometimes it is painful music, but feel it either way because who are you?

I love fun exercises because I am an odd girl.

Such as: Write a story of 5 paragraphs with every paragraph having 5-10-5-10-5 sentences in that order and every sentence in each of those paragraphs can only be five words long.

Or take out every other word of an entire story and see what it reads like.

Or flip your last paragraph and first paragraph and see what happens. These are things to do which are fun and helpful and also I think a part of the fiction revision process. I also take the comments of whoever I am in a workshop with who seems to hate me or my writing the most and I listen to their comments the most. I do this because it seems like then I will better be able to understand what isn’t coming out right.

Matt here are answers to your questions specifically:

1. What was the best revision advice you’ve ever gotten?

— Don’t ever throw away any of your drafts.

2. What was one thing you learned about your own work from workshopping others’?

— Well, I don’t like to talk about the inside of any camp I’m working in secretly or publicly as an editor it’s not my style to leak other than to say it’s awesome, but I guess as a writer I would say one thing I learned from two kinds of college degrees in workshopping writing is that there are a lot of really talented writers out there.

3. What is the first thing you do when you revise?

— Fix a drink. Listen to good music. Emotionally prepare myself to delete out probably my favorite sentence of whatever the story is. Try not to cry.

4. What is the last thing?

— Read it out loud, see how she walks.

5. How has your revision process changed over time?

— I used to be really annoying to whoever I was dating or hanging out with at the table in the room at the time I would look up and go, “Can I read you this?” to whoever. I stopped doing that though. Which is sad in a way.

6. How do you know when a story is done?

— I actually never feel like it is. Which is unsettling and also painful.

7. How do you find the heart of the story?

— It finds me.


I especially like the exercise here of flipping the first and last paragraphs. I like the idea that even the most crucial parts to the order of a piece (is this true?) are flexible. I like the way flipping those two paragraphs might make you rethink how a story breathes in and out, the rising and falling action, the shifting expectations of the reader. Even if the exercise resulted in the middle changing and the beginning and end restored, as I think it most often would for me, or in throwing out the beginning and end altogether. Again, it is about re-seeing.

I have moved on from my novel opening now, at last, to later sections, and what I am facing is the change I have made in pacing and tension. The scenes I added to the beginning now make what happens later seem anticlimactic. In other words, the earlier scenes add tension earlier but take away from the tension already in place. Some of what can help, I think, is cutting. Getting rid of what has been hinted at or shown in the additions. Some of what I need to do is rethink and rewrite.

A friend of mine had mentioned that a crucial point in the story felt anticlimactic to her. Everything pointed to that it would happen. I tried to combat this with less knowing, less zooming out, more scene, more doubt. But I ended up writing almost variations on some of the events that happened later. In a way, this has been helpful. I see that I was trying to create the same tension in the previous drafts as in this revision, except over a larger space, drawing it out. Now the tension builds earlier, quicker. But what that means is that I need a way to keep it building higher and higher. Imagine a series of mountains, each taller than the last. You’re climbing these one by one. Then an earthquake grows the first mountain, making it harder to climb (and maybe more fun to climb) than the next, but ruining the order. Climbing a shorter mountain after the taller one is boring. What I need is for all of the mountains to get bigger, for the earthquake to hit them one after another.

Fault lines make mountains.

Back to work. Back to work. Back to work.


Jimmy Lo on Revision

what was the best revision advice you’ve ever gotten?

USE/TRUST YOUR EAR! Read everything out loud. Many times.

what is the first thing you do when you revise?

Read it out loud.

what is the last thing?

There is no last thing. I just work it til it’s done.

how has your revision process changed over time?

I don’t really have a process. Every poem is different. I just go by feel. I usually write a draft, then immediately revise several times.

Then I wait a week or so (time provides distance/objectivity) and see if it’s still good, or worth saving after a few more revisions, or if it should be thrown away.

At some point I might show a trusted friend to get another opinion. I rarely show more than two or three people, as that creates chaos in the brain. Too many opinions is a bad thing. You need to know what you want/like, not expect others to tell you.

how do you know when a story is done? how do you find the heart of the story?

Don’t over-revise. Remember the original impulse for writing, if that starts disappearing, you’ve over-revised. Rough edges are sometimes good, don’t lose that tone/feeling.


If you’re reading along and have your own answers, please please share them.


posted by Matt Salesses