Writer in Residence · 07/03/2012

More Money (Where the Mouth Is), More Problems

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

When I asked writers to chime in with their revision thoughts, I also asked some of The Good Men Project fiction authors to say something about how much I bothered them by making them revise/edit their stories. Only the super-honest Mike Meginnis took me up on it. (Even though I offered a public forum for people to call me names, get revenge, etc.)

Like a lot of writers, I try to contribute to the community as an editor. The Good Men Project publishes a story every one or two weekends, which means a lot of content. It is great to be able to share the work of so many deserving writers. But it is also difficult to find so many good stories and get them ready for publication. I am the type of editor who likes to take a piece that I see potential in and work with the author on it. This means a lot more work. But it’s necessary. I’m thrilled to accept stories that are already exactly what they want to be, their best selves, but this is rare. For one, we don’t get as many submissions as writers think. (Submit, people!)

One side effect of editing other people’s work, of course, is that it has a wonderful effect on your own. It seems to me that a writer’s ideas on revision become clearer when he has a chance to critique other people’s work in progress. This is one of the ways that workshops are so helpful. Who was it who said that the writer that benefits the most from a workshop is the one commenting, not the one workshopped? I find this easy to believe, at least for writers just beginning to take workshops. Because I also believe that if you find people you trust, later workshops between friends can be enormously beneficial to your own work.

As an editor, I find myself making the same kind of suggestions again and again. Some of these suggestions have informed my 20 revision tips in my introduction. Writers often over- or underwrite. This is clear most often in beginnings and endings, not only of entire stories, but also of scenes and paragraphs. Often, I will find an introduction that explains everything that is set-up more immediately and compellingly by what directly follows, or an ending that tries to lay out the meaning of what could have been a beautiful final image. We need to have trust in our readers.

I tend to favor subtlety, but sometimes, our writing is unclear. This is part of why, I think, so many writers recommend fresh eyes. What is in your head does not always make its way onto paper. Fresh eyes, yours or another’s, can help us see when this is the case. Fresh eyes can also call into question things that interrupt the logic of the story, or that don’t make sense, or reactions that characters have that are too much in service of the story and not true enough to the character’s personality. Another piece of handy advice from Margot Livesey: if your reader might question something in the story, then have a character question it. Often, it’s not how unbelievable an event may be that is breaking us out of the story, it’s the fact that none of the characters in the story think it is unbelievable.

Readers know that the world is a strange place. We only expect characters to point out how strange it is. At least in a certain type of story.

I also do a lot of line edits: cutting the intermediary actions are the most common. I try to stop myself from changing every dialogue tag to “say” or “ask,” though I do believe these are the best to use, since they are the most “invisible” to readers. I’m not trying to piss the writer off, and dialogue tags are not the end of the world or the point of a story. In my own writing, though, I subscribe to: every little bit helps.

The most important thing we can do as editors is to be true to the story’s intentions. I never try to make a story my own. What I love about other people’s writing is that it is other people’s writing. Who would want to read book after book by himself? I want to retain all the uniqueness that made me want to publish a piece in the first place. I’m not remaking the train, I’m just rearranging the track so that the train is sure to get to its destination. Or something like that. And this is also, I think, what we want to do with our own stories. Sometimes it can be harder to see what a story is really about when we can’t get our mind away from what we think the story is about. This is when we need other readers.

Here’s what Mike has to say about first drafts and revision after acceptance. Even in a war, I’m willing to question myself. Every writer is different, is the lesson. If there is one.

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On Letting Stories Fail, and Indirect Collaboration

I. BEFORE ACCEPTANCE

When I talk about revision with other writers, I am certain they will call me lazy. I think they will take me less seriously. I think they will judge my next story harshly, if they read it — if they bother.

In terms of sentences, I revise ruthlessly and constantly, usually between writing new sentences. I remove commas and add them back, rearrange sentence structures, split and combine, extend paragraphs, and delete frequently. Much of the time I think of myself as spending on writing new material I am really using to refine what I’ve already done.

But — and this is the embarrassing part — before finding a publisher, I mostly don’t revise my fiction much at all beyond the sentence level. I don’t change the plot much, I rarely add new scenes (though I do sometimes remove them), and I don’t reorganize. I never try revisions just to see how they’ll work. This is especially true in the case of short fiction, where I believe I am less talented and therefore less likely to achieve much by revising alone. (I think I am much better and much more in control of my work as a novelist, and so I feel more qualified to make significant revisions without editorial guidance.)

It’s not that I think every word I write is worth reading. It’s just that I can’t finish a story unless all the pieces feel exciting and beautiful to me for every minute I spend writing — and once something’s passed that test, I’m not sure how much more I can ask of it without an outsider’s perspective. I am, keep in mind, bored by default.

After I finish a story, I let my wife read it if she wants to. I beg her to read it if she isn’t in the mood. My wife is an under-appreciated, excellent writer who publishes under the name Tracy Rae Bowling. She is an excellent reader, and she is honest with me. If a story bores her, then usually I abandon it. If she likes it, then usually she can suggest one or two small-but-vital adjustments that will clarify the events and characters of a story. She can help me avoid disastrous misreadings. Mostly she says my stories are very good. Mostly she doesn’t suggest many changes. If a story has her interest, then it doesn’t need much work. If it doesn’t have her interest, it usually loses mine too.

(Most of my friends, by the way, consider me ridiculously prolific. They should see how much I write and never share with anyone but her!)

Sometimes I don’t even feel like sharing the story with her. Then I really know it’s bad. Those stories languish on my hard drive only because I don’t have the conviction to do what I should and delete them.

After I’ve played with Tracy’s suggestions and smoothed the sentences, I like to wait a little while to see if I lose interest in the story. (I often do.) If not, I start submitting. Sometimes I only submit one time; if, when the story is rejected, my gut reaction is “That makes sense,” I retire it. Sometimes smart feedback from an editor can dissuade me from submitting a story I genuinely like. Once I got a rejection from Birkensnake that so perfectly described the problem with a certain story — one I had been persistently submitting for more than a year — that I never thought of trying it again. The rejection was very kind, but it was also right. The story was simple and maudlin. I am very glad that you will never read it.

So this is what I do instead of endlessly fiddling with stories: I write as many as I can, and let the weak ones die.

II. AFTER ACCEPTANCE

When a story is accepted for publication, I always hope for an aggressive editor. My vision is not precious or even relevant. Writing is an attempt to collaborate in the dark; I am trying to make something with a reader I can’t see, can’t hear, can’t know. I don’t worry about perfecting or even finishing my stories because that isn’t my job. The reader has to do it. But the editor can help.

An editor who cares about your work enough to help you change it is a reader you can see and hear. I don’t trust editors because I think they know better than I do. They’re probably all as confused and afraid as I am. (And if they aren’t, they should be.) What I think editors do is help me better imagine my invisible collaborators.

And here is the thing about collaboration: even if your collaborator is wrong, even if you are absolutely certain they’re missing the point, sometimes, you give in. Sometimes you do the wrong thing for them, because if you can’t do the wrong thing for your readers, then you don’t deserve their collaboration. Compromise is valuable in and of itself, if you believe you are not an author but a co-author.

For these reasons and others, I make a rule of taking every edit I can swallow. I can think of some edits I’ve accepted that I thought cowardly. I can think of edits I’ve accepted that I found clumsy. I took them anyway, or offered similar alternatives.

But I want to be more specific. Let’s look at my story “Better Weather.” This is a story I published with The Good Men Project. Matthew Salesses was the editor who accepted the story. I should say at the outset that this isn’t a case where I think the edits were cowardly or clumsy, but where I did disagree with some, and used them anyway.

For instance, “Better Weather” is Matt’s title. I don’t actually like the title “Better Weather.” I don’t hate it, but it doesn’t make me want to read the story.

Why did I take the title if I didn’t like it? Because my original choice was “Paper Walls,” which wasn’t even slightly better. I don’t think that it was much worse either. All else being equal, I preferred Matt’s decision to mine, simply because it was his and not mine.

Matt made a lot of sentence-level edits also. More than I’m used to getting, actually, by a significant margin. And thank goodness! When I wrote the story that would become “Better Weather,” I was making a major stylistic transition. Many of the rules by which I wrote sentences and structured paragraphs were changing, and I was reconsidering the rest. The resulting prose was sometimes clumsy in a way that even my roughest drafts usually aren’t. I was glad that Matt could help me with these problems.

(I’m a little embarrassed that he had to help so much.)

Matt also came the closest any editor has come to truly upsetting me in years. He changed my ending. That is, he deleted it. Here are the final two paragraphs as I submitted them. The portion he removed is in bold:

On the last night of the visit, Uncle Ellis declared they had never really played their instruments. He said, “We still owe you a show.” Hannah assembled her flute with military speed and precision. Aunt Paula laid spit towels down in front of her daughter’s chair and her own — both from Jacob’s linen closet. Clara moved her lips as she started to play, whispering the chords or secret lyrics to herself, letting the bright red streak of her new scab show. She had told her parents she’d bitten herself. Uncle Ellis followed her lead with his fiddle, and Paula and Hannah gilded the melody. They all knew the song without anyone saying what it would be. Marvin climbed into his uncle’s lap and watched his hands form chords, minding their movements as if he might start to play too. They were perfectly in tune with each other, drizzling sweet melody, amazing grace. They filled the living room, and filled the house. Jacob thought how the sound would bleed through their thin walls, out of the house, unfurling over the yard and the dog, the playground equipment, the cars, and lap at their neighbors’ homes, and the cul-de-sac, and their tree, and the lamppost that was in their yard but not their own. It was all so beautiful he was crying. It didn’t matter how much he hated the musicians. It didn’t matter how bad they made him feel. They could still make this sound, break his heart, make all his limbs ache to crawl away from his body. In fact there was no contradiction; the shame and the love, the need and the pain, the blood on one cousin’s shirt and the taste of the other one’s lips, screaming and music, they were all the same thing: final proof of his most deeply held belief, that he was no one and nothing, or at least much less than they.

A long B chord, then a sweet E, destroying everything, blowing out the television, bulldozing their home.

Again, when Matt sent the story back to me, all the bolded material was gone. He even made an addition to the new last line: “It was all so stupidly beautiful.”

You have to understand that this ending was precious to me. I had written much of the story so that I could write that ending. I thought it was a beautiful coda. Potentially didactic, but all the more exciting for having taken the risk. It related something I felt deeply about myself and my place in the world.

And of course it was a bit of showing off. I love showing off.

I agreed to cut the ending and I kept Matt’s “stupidly.” I suspect it was the right decision. The phrase “stupidly beautiful” seems to suggest more or less everything that the deleted ending states explicitly, and it does so with a grace and economy my pyrotechnics lacked.

But mostly I did it because Matt wanted me to. I trusted Matt more than I do most editors because he had done such a good job with my piece on the line level, and because I knew he was a good writer, and most of all because he had felt strongly enough to suggest the change in the first place. I didn’t want to make the change, and in many ways I didn’t like the change, and in some ways I still feel it might have been, in some sense, the wrong choice. But I believe in collaboration. And I felt that honest collaboration required that my ending be removed.

If someday I collect my short stories, and if “Better Weather” should find a place in that collection, I will probably try to come up with a title I like better. And I will probably try to find a way to save my ending. But I won’t do either without the guidance of an editor — a collaborator. (If the publisher does not provide someone suitable I will deputize one of my own.) I suspect there is a better title out there somewhere, though I can’t imagine what it is. Maybe the next editor will be the one who works it out. And I want to believe that there’s a way to save my ending.

I suspect there isn’t.

I suspect that Matt was right.

What I want is a collaborator who can tell me this is so. What I want is outside interference.

This is how I revise: I fail, I fail, I fail again, I very nearly succeed, I show it to my best reader, we tweak it together. I smooth the sentences as best I can. I try to find a publication and an editor that I can trust to make the story better. I trust that editor as much as I can. Not because they know best, but because they are not me.

They help me imagine you.

And as for you, you finish what I started.

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posted by Matt Salesses