On Writing: “How do I revise my story?”

James Hurd, December, 2014

This is second in a series: 1. Starting your memoir-stories, 2. Revising, 3. Editing, 4. Layout, 5. Getting your story out to others. All these articles will (eventually) appear on Wingspread website: jimhurd.com   Message me, or post comments on this, or any other writing, on Wingspread at http://jimhurd.com. Thanks!

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Good news! You’ve written your story. Bad news. Now you must revise and edit it, make it as good as you can. Here are some gleanings from the experts about revising your story.

Revising vs. editing. Revising is about the big picture: about saying what you wish to say. (The next article, on editing, will deal with the more anal-retentive details of polishing your story to make it a thing of beauty.)

Re-Vision. If you want others to read your stuff, you must revise. Revision is “re-vision.” Trying to look at your story in a new way. Testing out different viewpoints. Keep asking yourself, “What’s this about? What’s the big picture, the main point?” Oftentimes, another person can help you see your story in a new light. We are all lit by a light from beyond this world—have confidence in your own work.

 “Kill all your little darlings.” This famous saying (of uncertain origin) is the best advice in revising. You can always tighten your piece, cut it by ten or twenty percent. Every section of your story should do good work. If it doesn’t, cut it. Even if a passage is wonderful, clever, marvelous, life-changing. If it doesn’t contribute directly to your story, kill it without mercy.

Coherence and cohesion. Your story must cohere. It must have a unity, a focus—think trees. Every twig ultimately draws sap from the trunk and root. Your story should be about only one thing. What is it? If it’s about two things, you should write two stories. On the other hand, your story must be cohesive. Think railroad train. Every car is well-connected to what comes before and to what comes after. Connecting your thoughts helps the reader segue smoothly from section to section.

Dialogue. Readers may skip over parts of your story, but they’ll never skip over dialogue, because it’s human nature to be interested in what people are saying to each other. Try putting in more dialogue—real people speaking real sentences. Don’t worry at this point about punctuation. One rule, though—each new speaker gets a new paragraph.

Narrative. One of the few truths across all cultures—everyone loves a narrative story. Take a red pen and underline all the parts of your story that would make a good movie. This is narrative. Description and commentary are wonderful, but if you underlined less than 50% of your story, you need more narrative. The reader is impatient—make sure you move the story along.

Bells and whistles. Does your story present a problem to be solved? A mystery to be explained? A surprise? A conflict? A failure or success? Are you using good metaphors? [One of my favorite metaphors, referring to indecision: “peeing down both legs of your pants”] Can your reader feel the emotions? This is the stuff that attracts people, hooks them in, keeps them reading.

Starting and ending. You don’t have to be tethered to a timeline—you can jump around, as long as your reader knows where you’re going. A good rule: Put the second most interesting thing at the beginning of your story, and the most interesting thing at the end. Don’t write an “Introduction.” Just jump right in. You start with one objective—keep the reader turning the pages.

Tired words? Use as few words as possible—never use two when one will do. Fewer words add punch to powerful sentences. Exorcise most of your adverbs (very, really, kind of, sort of, and most words ending in –ly). Eschew words ending in –ion. Try to eliminate adjectives. Change passive verbs to active (“was found” to “we found him,” or, “were ironed” to “she ironed them,” etc.). Try changing is, are, were, be, been to verbs that you can picture in your mind. Start a list of action verbs. Here are a few of my favorite “picture verbs”: tether, lurch, disembowel, stoke, cauterize, botch. I actually go through my verb list, and see if I can use them anywhere in my stories.

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So, have you cast a new vision? Killed your little darlings? Does your piece flow well? Have you used dialogue, and fast-moving narrative? Started and ended with a flourish? Have you chosen words with a punch? If so, you’re done revising, and ready for editing. Soon you’ll have a thing of beauty!

Next edition: “Editing—the spit and polish of a good writer”

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