The act of writing may be the birthplace of your creative work, but it’s in the revision that art happens. I’ve heard sculpture described as the act of finding the shape within the stone, or whatever medium the sculptor works in, and that seems like a pretty apt metaphor for revision. You take this block of words, this assemblage of character and scene, and chip away at it—smoothing out a rough edge here, refining the curves and corners there—until the actual form comes clear. From a technical standpoint, this part of the process is somewhat easier, but artistically, it can be a challenge.
Recently, I decided to set myself a challenge. I had a 22,000 word story—part of my NaNo ’09 novel, actually—that I felt was ready to be reworked and shaped into something usable. I had a set of ideas about what I wanted to do, and I even had a destination in mind for the finished work. Everything was good to go…until, in a fit of reasonableness, I decided to double-check the submission guidelines for my intended destination. Lo and behold, I found a problem: this particular publication has an upper word limit of 12,000 words.
Chastened, I sat down to begin my revision process, thinking I would simply find somewhere else once I’d finished my revision to send my story, when a thought occurred to me. Why not cut it down that far? Cutting 10,000 words from a 22,000 word work is pretty extreme, but that alone isn’t an argument against it. Besides, what better way to figure out what the story actually is? The more I thought about it, the more the challenge appealed to me as both a writing and editing exercise, so I said, “What the hell,” and broke out the machete (metaphorically; my wife frowns on me carrying one around in real life).
In the broad strokes, the first 4,000 words were pretty easy to remove. Large swaths of material that worked in the greater expanses of a novel-length work were clearly unneeded in the short story realm, so those went quickly. Certain stretches of dialogue, a digression about a minor character: gone. A sidebar about another minor character was harder to lose, because I liked what it showed about both the character and the antagonist, but since the character left the story and had yet to return to the main narrative, I couldn’t justify keeping it. Thus, I lost another 2,000 words or so. This had me down to 16,000 words, and things were looking good.
At some point, though, a machete is too unwieldy. After the aforementioned sidebar went, I knew that I’d cut all the low-hanging fruit. It was time to trade in the machete for a scalpel. I went through the story from beginning to end, line by line, weighing the balance and heft of each line. Was I using passive voice? Is this information redundant? Can it be phrased more clearly, more in keeping with the hard-boiled tone of the story without losing the descriptive power? Too many adjectives? I kept asking these questions and more as I went through the story once, twice, four times. With every pass, I whittled down a few hundred words, but it was an exhaustive process.
Now, I’d hit the crux of the matter. By this time, I was still about 2,500 words too high, and tired of reading the damn thing over and over. For short stories, 14,500 words is a pretty good total, and I felt like I’d reached a good point for the story. It read cleanly, covered the major scenes and kept a lot of what I’d felt was necessary. It didn’t feel right, though. Something was off with the rhythm: it was too drawn-out in places, and the denouement seemed too short for what went before. The sense of the solution being on the tip of my mental tongue was maddening; if I’d had room on my desk, I would have pounded my head on the desktop until the answer came or I passed out.
That’s when it hit me (the idea, not the desktop). I’d already cut out 7,500 words, but my sense of the story was still rooted in its original incarnation. I wasn’t seeing the story within the stone; I was still seeing the stone. I had to reevaluate what I was working with to see where I’d gotten, not where I’d began. So, I started over, reading the story not with an eye toward editing, but just to see what I had and where I was going. As I read, I realized that my perception of the protagonist had changed. In the original story, he’d seemed settled in his life, making changes reluctantly as the story forced them upon him, but as I cut and refined the story, he became more decisive, more willing to step outside his idea of fulfillment and make decisions based on a new understanding of himself.
Once I understood how my protagonist had changed, I understood where I was going with the story, and a series of edits to clarify that goal became clear. In the end, I was able to meet the 12,000 word limit, but more importantly, I ended up with a solid story that made narrative sense. Whether anyone else will agree with me, I’ve no idea, but I am satisfied with it. For now.