I had the chance to visit a class of undergraduate advanced Fiction Writing students this week. It was delightful—I remember being an undergrad, having authors come into our classroom, sit at a desk, and just chat with students. It always felt like such a privilege to gain insights into their writing process, and it was absolutely a privilege for me (some 13 years later) to be able to share my experiences with them.
These being writing students, their questions were so different from those I get at Q&A sessions with readers. They were incredibly specific and craft-focused.
Here is a rendering of me every time I am initially asked a craft question:
Shrug emoji. That’s all that goes through my mind. Because at first thought, I don’t really know how I did xyz in a specific scene or throughout the narrative. I know it was difficult. I know it didn’t just happen. I know I knew enough to sense something was off on the page and that I needed to fix it until it was right. Craft is hard work, but it can also feel like magic. It’s subtle enough to feel instinctual, when it’s really the deeply engrained benefits of practice and experience.
In other words: when I’m asked a question about craft, I inevitably end up describing revision. Because I’m not a writer who gets everything right the first time. I’m not even a writer who gets everything right the second time. Except for the occasional scene that has manifested more or less in its true, final form (again: magic!) I am very much a reviser.
When I was an undergrad, my Creative Writing teacher once told us: the first draft is self-expression, the art is in revision.
I embrace that wholeheartedly in the writing process. I write a first draft with no real plan or outline, then I step back halfway through and try to piece together what I might be saying. Sometimes at that point, I’ll outline the rest of the story, but it’s only once a first draft is done that the real work can begin.
For me, revision starts very organically and gets progressively more strategic with every subsequent draft. But in the beginning, I just feel my way through a story. Some ways I do that include:
- rewrite entire scenes. Ask: can I achieve the same thing in a completely different way?
- play with the possibility of starting a story from a new point or point of view.
- choose a completely different focal point—if you start by seeing a character sitting on a chair in a waiting room, what happens if you begin with your attention on the faded poster for dental implants on the wall?
- write letters from one character to another. The kinds of letters that will never end up in your story, but they’ll reveal your characters’ voices to you.
One thing I don’t do a lot of in this stage of revision is rewrite. Even the word itself—re.write.—hints at repetition, the act of doing something again. What’s the point if we end up in the same place? Shouldn’t we be thinking of revision not as a rewrite, but a reimagining? Not a retracing of our steps, but an exploration in a completely uncharted direction?
If you think you know where you’re headed, go another way.
If you’re struggling with where to begin, write the middle or the end.
If you’re worried a story isn’t working, all the more reason to fearlessly disassemble it.
If it’s not coming together as a whole, take a closer, deeper look at the pieces.
Let go of the expectation that it can only exist as different versions of itself on the page. Let go of the idea that it only has one story to tell you.
Later, there’ll be time for the rewrites, the less drastic, structure-altering changes. But early on, in the richness that is the beginning, you have a chance to explore all that can become.
What are some ways you reimagine your story during revision?
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