Sunday, June 30, 2013

Intensive Revision -- and What I Gained From It

I've been intensively revising some stories the past month in order to submit them to various contest. I just finished (hopefully) the last one yesterday. It was interesting to me that the intensive, short-term focus on making things "better" actually taught me a lot about myself as a writer.  

The best part is, now my future "first drafts" will be that much better.

Below are some of the pitfalls (and advice) of writing in general, and my writing specifically, that I can now avoid.
  • Value of Critique Groups -- My group's advice on both of my stories was invaluable. I wrote a flash fiction story (1000 wds or less), and it was my first attempt at such a thing. I was pretty happy with the story, and my first time meeting with my critique group gave me some pretty positive feedback. Of course there were things here and there that needed tweaking, but overall, it was mostly "done." One member of my group, who writes quite a bit of flash fiction, wasn't there, however, and I really wanted his feedback. He liked the story overall, but not really the organization. I had a couple of flashbacks, which I think were fairly easy to follow, but still, not the best tactic for a super short story. However, I couldn't picture the story any other way and maintain its focus. This particular group member told me to write chronologically, but that would mess with some of the elements of the story, so I still didn't get it. But he spelled out exactly, scene by scene, how my story should flow, and it made total sense. I rearranged my story exactly how he suggested, and I think it made for a better story.
  • Ideas Come from the Strangest Places -- I think I've already told you about my Spa story and where that idea came from, but here's a quick recap. I was reading a short story that was a zombie story (though they weren't ever called that). The research facility in the story was inside a private spa within the abandoned royal castle. At the end of the story, the zombies come to the spa to worship Rasputin, who has been resurrected. Thus, an evil spa. My story is vastly different, but that was the beginning. The premise of my flash fiction story came from an unexpected place. My husband and I were reading a book about the science of spirituality called Fingerprints of God. A reporter was gleaning through all the current research to either prove - or disprove - the existence of God. (Ultimately, she did neither.) One study put each member of a couple in separate rooms. One member focused all their love and attention in their thoughts to the other member, and the other member was supposed to indicate if they felt anything. (Of course it was all randomized so it was scientific.) There definitely seemed to be some sort of connection within the couple.  Thus the idea of all things being "attached" to each other was born, and I just needed a very arrogant character who invented a device to read these attachments. 
  • Word Length Isn't Everything -- As I'm sure you've figured out by now if you read my blog very often, I am very verbose. There is a reason why I'm a novelist, and not a short story writer. I can't do stories. I have too much to say and not enough space to say it in. But I'm dabbling in stories just for fun, and also to make my novels tighter, and therefore better. The contest I was submitting my flash story to had a word limit of 1000 words. Some flash contests require 750 or even 500 or less. I was really grateful for that extra bit of cushion. My story ended up around 760, and I feel like it is fairly complete. Another story I started writing for the same contest was just a short story with a word limit of 6000 words. I blew past that and still had lots to write. I liked the story, but felt discouraged because I had no way to revise it enough and still make it good. A group member suggested I submit it to a different contest that has a word length limit of 17,000. Once I finished the first draft, I was around 12,300 -- well under my limit. That luxury of space was freeing. I still tried to tighten, and shorten the story, but I didn't have to do it because of word count. And here's the important thing I learned from that: sometimes I found sentences that could be shortened by choosing a different wording, but it would change the meaning or be out of character. Since I wasn't so concerned about word limit, I could focus more on believability of the story and choose to keep things a few words longer because it fit my context better. Word length definitely is not everything.  I ended up just under 12,000 words.
  • Filter Words are Useless -- I have a whole bunch of filter words that are useless. Filter words are those words that add distance between you and your reader. In practical terms, they just add a bunch of unnecessary verbage to your sentences. My most common filter words? "Began/Started to..." "It seemed..." "He/She saw..." Unless it's crucial to focus on the literal beginning of something, then just say what is happening. "It seemed" implies that what is "seemingly" happening really isn't, but most of the time it actually is. So get rid of "seemed." And "looked/saw" is already implied when you are accurately writing from a character's POV.
  • Contractions are Natural -- I don't know if it's years of training in academic writing before seriously pursuing creative writing, but for some reason I tend to have a more formal tone in my stories. That means I spell a lot of things out rather than using more natural contractions. This is something my critique group calls me on all the time. But this more intensive revision in a relatively short period of time really slapped me in the face with how many times I had to fix it. I think I "read" the contraction, but I don't write it. 
It seems to me that nothing quite puts your writing abilities in perspective as doing an extreme revision (like from first draft to final) in a relatively short period of time. It's a lot easier to see the mistakes you make over and over and over, and therefore it's a lot easier to know which mistakes to avoid the first time around on the next writing.