By Lis Anna-Langston
Sharon May wrote a great piece about revision last month. Revision is more than changing a word here and there was her point, and I agree. Great writing is rewriting. It also made me think about the rewriting after the rewriting. What about the piece that’s been hanging in limbo for months or, worse, the piece that’s been continually declined? Does it warrant a full rewrite? What if it’s even more nuanced? A lot of rewriting is intuition, craft, objectivity.
I had this piece of flash fiction titled: “afternoons. with kerouac.” For six months I sent the piece out. Nothing. Every editor passed. After half a year I pulled it from the submission queue. Taking an objective look, I analyzed every facet. Plot, pacing, tone, characterization. Is there desire, momentum, goal? Yes. Can I tighten the story? Um, no. At 405 words it was the most well-crafted flash fiction I’d ever written. A love letter to Jack, conceived and honed to perfection after a long cold winter listening to On the Road. Something was wrong, and I couldn’t figure out what. That bugged me. Unable to figure out the missing piece, I kept it out of rotation. Days later, I returned to the story. I sat down at my desk and reread it. “What is this piece really about? What is really going on in this scene?” I asked myself aloud.
I made some quick notes. A girl and Jack and Neil in a small apartment. The narrator liked Jack, but she didn’t love him. I reduced the entire story to three lines, then to two lines, from two to one. Then I distilled the entire piece to a single phrase. Except I was back to zero. The piece really was about afternoons with Kerouac. I must have sat there for half an hour deconstructing every word. Finally, I did what every writer does: I went to get a cup of coffee. Driving down the winding road, the answer came. I drove back to my office and distilled it to one word. Sex. The narrator was having sex with Kerouac, even though it is never mentioned. I changed the title, sex. with kerouac, saved, and submitted the piece to literary journals with open calls. It was accepted for publication nine days later. So, what’s the takeaway? Well, clearly sex sells.
But that’s just snark. Even after all the line edits, plot changes, grammar, and punctuation, revision may extend beyond the rewrite. A simple revision can complete an entire piece and bring the story full circle. Elevating the mechanics of a complete rewrite to a single meaningful change can very often be the difference between a good piece and a great piece. You can make a change, but what you really need at that point is an elegant change. Sometimes that comes long after the original rewrite. Sometimes changing one word changes the entire substance of the piece. One meaningful change can shorten the distance from where you are to where you want to be.
This post originally appeared on Columbia Writers Workshop Blogspot @ http://columbiawritersworkshop.blogspot.com/
A chapter of the South Carolina Writers Association.