1) Make sure you’re in love. I’m not a genius, my stories are not born lovely and perfect, their language strong, their plot lean and exciting. I have to work at it—a lot. And I don’t mind, because I enjoy editing. But I know there’s a big difference between revising a story I love and revising one I’m just fond of.
Perhaps this is obvious but to me the most important factor in ensuring successful revising is to be working on a piece that has legs or emotional resonance for you. If not, you’ll probably give up long before it’s in the best shape possible.
So what’s the key to knowing if it’s love or just infatuation? I once listed all of the stories, screenplays and plays I’d written—over 30—and looked at the themes, characters and plot, and I was able to see certain patterns. Not surprisingly, whenever I loved a story and its themes and characters, I ended up revising it enough that it was perfect—or as perfect as I could make it. And that story usually resonated with others.
Column by Monica Trasandes, novelist and playwright. Her debut novel
BROKEN LIKE THIS was published by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s
Press in November 2012. Her short stories have been published in journals
such as The Sun, and three were anthologized. Several of her plays have
been produced. She is originally from Uruguay but lives in Los Angeles.
2) Start from the beginning but don’t get stuck there.
We all know the first pages of a story or novel are critical, have to be sharp, enticing, fresh—generally amazing. These are the pages when a reader (agent, editor or final reader if you get that far) says either “Yes! I’m in” or the dreaded, “Ah, maybe not.”
Because the stakes are so high it can be tempting to stay on those first pages to the point of forgetting about the rest of the piece. Revising can become a sort of trap in which you start to judge the material so much that you never finish. It’s important to know when to move on so that you can get to the end and have a completed piece to revise.
3) Give yourself time between revisions
This is different for everyone, but I estimate that when a draft is new, say a week or two old, I only edit about 30%. I can’t do more because, hey I’m in love. It’s like being asked to list a lover’s faults soon after meeting them. What faults? She’s perfect! But give me a little time and I can see things more clearly. Don’t need that sentence, nor that one. Gone! What would have been a heart wrenching choice weeks before is now easy.
4) Be tough, others certainly will be
Assume every editor or producer you ever meet, within five minutes of shaking your hand will be thinking of ways to say no to you. Why? Saying yes will require that they convince others of the work’s merits—editors if it’s prose or financiers if it’s a play or a film. That will mean a lot of work on their part—probably unpaid.
Assume every editor is looking for a reason to say no. Don’t give it to them.
A teacher of mine, at Emerson, Pam Painter, would write DB on manuscripts, which stood for “do better.” She was saying, ‘this really isn’t the best you can do, is it?’ You have to be willing to ask that of every sentence you write.
5) Trick yourself if necessary
Revisions can be brutal: you’re killing good material in order to make the excellent material shine. I tend to trick myself into thinking that no edits are final (or nothing good is lost) by creating a document called something like “BestLeftover,” where I put everything I like that didn’t make the final cut. When do I access these documents of beautiful leftovers? About as often as I access the bag of clothes tucked away in the back of the closet “in case I need them again.”
6) One last pass
When you think it’s perfect, send it to someone who loves you enough to tell you the truth and tell them to be tough. Revise one more time after they’ve read it.
I hope these suggestions help, and that you find the sweet spot of being very critical of your work without ever losing faith in that work. Most importantly, keep writing!
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