On Revisions

As the students return to school, the submission windows for all the MFA-program lit mags open up, so I’ve been working on revisions lately. It’s a frustrating process for me. In workshops, I usually get a lot of praise for the polish on my first drafts, though in reality, I am one of those writers who revises as he goes, so my first draft is probably really a second or third. I read an interview with Tobias Wolff (I think that’s who it was), where he talked about how he rarely revises his stories once he gets to the end, but revises constantly as he’s writing. I guess that’s my style, though I tend to go back to a manuscript over and over again. I’m no Tobias Wolff, though.

I write in that two steps forward, one step back manner where I tend to rewrite paragraphs until I like them rather than just try to get the gist of it and move on. That’s what makes me a really slow writer, as noted in other posts. So when I sit down to revisit a story, I often have a hard time finding what to redo. I have a tendency to put “fix this” in the margins when I re-read something, but don’t offer myself advice as to how. And while I’m not usually squeamish about the “kill your darlings” method of revising, I do have some trepidation that I’m cutting too much. While a sentence might not be revelatory, I wonder if it’s like garlic in cooking – a subtle flavor that’s never the star, but noticeable when it’s missing.

It’s part of the process, though, and one I have to improve my skills at. I read Stephen King’s memoir/writing manifesto “On Writing” and the best thing in it was an example he gave of a first draft and what he did in the revision process, with footnotes as to his thought process. I wish more authors would do that sort of thing. I saw George Saunders speak a few months ago, and he talked about how his story “Tenth of December” was three times as long before his editor helped him cut it down to fighting weight. I’d love to see how that happened.

On another note, I’ll be at Sunday Salon Chicago tomorrow night at the Black Rock Pub at 7:00. It’s a great reading series. I’ve done it before, and tomorrow night features writers from the Northwestern MFA program, The Missouri Review and my pal Micki LeSueur who runs the incredible Fictlicious series. Highly recommended.

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