I love the freedom of the first draft. The only thing I love more is revising the ever-living bleep out of the first draft. Today, I’d like to share the revision the first paragraph of my surreal short story, MIXED MEDIA. Originally titled REPRODUCTION, I wrote the first draft in 2008. The first draft is full of gory detail, bombast, and sins against English. I’ve chosen three examples of the first paragraph to illustrate my revision process. Now, let’s make some sausage!
Here is an exerpt from June 12, 2008:
My name is Mario Santa Maria. On Tuesday I walked into a museum where all of the paintings were black. In the bright foyer of the visiting exhibit, natural light fell upon black canvas after black canvas, making the uniform paint gleam and reflect dark rectangles on the honey-golden floor freshly buffed. I read the names of the works: “Surreal Forest,” “Cloud Ninety-Nine (As Seen from Easy Street),” “Submissive Ocean.” Each canvas was a straight hung, edge-on-edge perfect patch of night set flush to the walls, and none of them more colorful than a square or rectangle of deep-space pitch. The brochure describing the exhibit extolled the sensuous representation of Nature, and how each painting (various media) had captured the essence of light and life. I chuffed a bit under my breath. What a statement, to fill an entire gallery with such a nihilistic representation on modern life or modern Nature! It was, I decided, a gutsy if artless venture.
I warned you about the bombast and the sins, no? This paragraph is an Ouroboros, choking on its own tail. I’ve gone beyond overboard with adjectives. The floor is not just “freshly buffed,” but also “honey-golden.” The paintings aren’t just on the wall, they are “straight hung,” “set flush,” and (ouch, this hurts!) “edge-on-edge perfect patch of night.” I think we all get it that paintings in a museum are hung in an orderly fashion upon the walls. Almost none of that description was necessary, and I may as well take a stick and poke it in the reader’s eyes: “You! Know what? Paintings hang on walls!” I used the word “chuffed,” because Steven King used it in a book; which book, I no longer recall. It’s a fine word, but overbearing and pompous in this paragraph. This paragraph is a “gutsy if artless venture!”
It was also the pinnacle of my ability at the time that I wrote in in 2008. I’d been writing three years, and for the equivalent of a literary toddler, it isn’t bad. Another thing that’s not bad is that I knew I wasn’t ready to publish, and I put the story aside, took several writing workshops, studied, wrote tons more, completed my first and second novels, and then (then!) came back to revise.
Here is an excerpt from May 5, 2014:
My name is Mario Santa Maria. On Tuesday, I walked into a museum where all of the paintings were black. I walked the perimeter, pausing to read the names of the works: Surreal Forest, Cloud Ninety-Nine (As Seen from Easy Street), Submissive Ocean. Each canvas was a straight hung, perfect patch of night set flush to the walls. The exhibit placard extolled the sensuous representation of Nature, how the paintings captured the modern essence of life. It was gutsy, if artless, to fill an entire gallery with such a nihilism.
This is better. I cut entire swathes of needless description from the paragraph. I kept the first sentence and maintain that simple phrase was always the exact right opening for the story. I replaced the awkward double-quotes around painting names with uber-swank italics. I got rid of “chuffed.” I’ll have you know I actually, sadly struggled with that decision. “Chuffed” is a good word, not oft used. I wanted to bring it back. Or get it started, like a party. I cut it, though, and that was the right decision. Writing is funny, because as a writer, you fall in love with the strange bits you are pretty sure no one else will ever love. You really believe those bloated phrases like “straight hung, perfect patch of night” are simply misunderstood, and if people had sense (SENSE!) they would know what was good for them and LOVE it. Luckily, I have an editor. Her name is Jacinda Little. She doesn’t let me get away with atrocities against my readers. I sent her the version from May 5 for her to edit. I think you’ll agree that with her input, the opening paragraph turns into something that doesn’t make you want to gouge out your own eyes.
Here’s the final revision to the opening paragraph, from June 1, 2014, nearly four years after the first draft was penned:
My name is Mario Santa Maria. On Tuesday, all of the paintings at Vos Museum were black. The works in the visiting gallery had names like Surreal Forest, Submissive Ocean, and Cloud Ninety-Nine (As Seen from Easy Street). Their placards extolled the sensuous representation of Nature. The nihilism was gutsy, and I wondered why there hadn’t been a bigger media splash.
Ahhh, isn’t that better? There are specific details to ground you in the scene, both the painting names and the name of the museum. I no longer try and painfully describe that paintings hang on walls (!). I also finally tell you why the fact that this is gusty matters to Mario or to you, the reader: no one else has noticed or mentioned that there is an exhibit of paintings that are just black canvases. It immediately gives you the interesting fact that Mario alone is remarking upon this particular phenomenon. I’ve also clued you in that Mario is in the museum on a day when most grown-ups are working, and possibly you wonder what’s up with that, which would be great, because a reader with a question is a reader who keeps reading to find the answer. Perhaps I could have come up with shorter names for the paintings. I think they’re clever, and Jacinda didn’t object, so they stay. I hope we can agree that the removal of “chuffed” improves this paragraph.
May your sausage making be guided by an excellent editor!
About MIXED MEDIA:
Mario Santa Maria is an artist who has lost his dreams – literally. Insomnia, unemployment, and a failing relationship are his lot. Things are going badly, and then things get strange. On a visit to the Vos Modern Art Museum, Mario discovers he has the ability to intercept the communication between art and a viewer. MIXED MEDIA is a surreal tale of masterpieces, Delphic sugar cubes, and the promise of new perspectives.
What’s hidden by what we see?