Revision: Wanna See How the Sausage Is Made?

DIY Book Covers, Fiction Template #17

Cover Design based on DIY Book Covers Fiction Template #17

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!

xoxo,

-aniko


 

About MIXED MEDIA:

Story Blurb

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?

You can read MIXED MEDIA for free (PDF), or purchase it on Amazon (5.0 out of 5 stars). If you enjoy the story, please consider leaving a review on Amazon or Goodreads.

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Modernists, Typewriter, and the Question of DONE

At least once a week, I make a point to visit Arts and Letters Daily. A&L is an aggregator site, gathering the most thought-provoking editorials on a variety of subjects. Recently, A&L linked to a piece entitled Revising Your Writing Again? Blame the Modernists. Revising Your Writing explores the Modernist origins of the revision philosophy, where works are torn down to be put back together with a goal of enhancing style. Prior to the Lost Generation, revisions were minor. Paper was a luxury, and without typewriters, revising an entire novel would mean rewriting the entire thing longhand. Then came Hemingway and T.S. Eliot, who took the philosophy of revision and raised it to an art. Their results were incredible, and wholly new – and wholly encouraged thenceforth as The Way to Write.

We’ve long since moved past paper as the medium for creative writing. Electrons for revision are ubiquitous, endless. This leads to its own dilemma: how does a writer know when to stop editing?

I’m a fan of revision. I love the psychological freedom of the first draft, and the covenant of editing that “first” implies. The problem is that writing a novel isn’t like building a house. There isn’t a blueprint or a city code or safety ordinances. The author alone is the arbiter of DONE, FINISHED, THE END. The general revision manifesto goes something like this:

  • Three self-revisions
  • Beta read revisions
  • Line-edit revision
  • Proofread revision
  • Final WOW, I’m sick of this! revision

This process works well for a given novel, over a finite span of time. If it takes a year for an author to get through the full revision cycle, there has only been a year for the writer to improve her craft, and what she can do now is only somewhat better than what she could do a year ago. If the author has a hopeless case of “being a writer,” she’ll keep writing. Five years, ten. And one day, she looks at that book that made it through the revision process years ago, and realize that she could do it better now. What was her best, is now only an intimation of her current skill.

Reading old works shows us how much, and in what ways, we have improved. It is encouraging. It also triggers the desire to revise.

As I bring forth my backlog of unpublished works, I’m dwelling in the hinterlands of the modernist: a revision is a revision is a revision. These works were deemed DONE at the time I wrote them; most are very far from what I would considered polished now, years later. I am putting them through the editing cycle as if they are brand new. The self-edits are rather extensive, which is both encouraging because I’ve improved and discouraging because the stories aren’t as DONE as I thought. Still, I believe this is a valid and appropriate application of revision. I believe a writer should make every piece she publishes the very best she can — at the time of publication.

In the age of author-publishing, it is possible to edit published works. I know I get the craving to take a red pen to STOLEN CLIMATES. In a technical sense, the novel would be better if I wrote it now. Of course, I’m not writing it now. It is published. It has been read and enjoyed, spawned conversations. It is no longer just mine, but something I have shared with many people. I’ve recently changed the licensing to creative commons, so anyone could edit it, including me.

And yet, I’ve decided not to edit STOLEN CLIMATES.

If I revise STOLEN CLIMATES now, I’ll have to go back and edit it again in some number of years. Taken to a logical extreme, there would come a point where all I would do is rewrite already published works. I would not have the time to create that which is not yet created. My forward progress in technique, style, mood, and dialog would falter. I would become a parody of a Modernist, hacking away at pieces until they are less than what they were. A clean room is perfectly perfect, sterile, nothing extra or unexpected. That’s great for building microprocessors. It sounds kind of horrible for a novel, though, doesn’t it?

We cannot revise our personal history, nor should we revise our literary history. We grow and change, and it is right that our work grows and changes, too. To me, a successful literary life is one where each book surpasses the previous one.

Ksenia Anske is a great example of bravery in revision and seeking early feedback. She posts the major drafts of each of her works as she completes them. She’s thrown open the door on the Modernist’s writing room, showing the world how stories are crafted in the age of the easy electron. I hope that more writers follow Ksenia’s lead. Storage is cheap, websites trivial to construct, and electronic PDFs shareable between people and across devices. There is no reason to produce and share only a final draft, other than to keep the writer’s process in a vault separate from the reader. Ksenia’s idea is inspiring, and I’ll be sharing a few drafts of MIXED MEDIA when I publish it. There is joy and learning to be had from looking at how a work changes throughout revision. If we each share what it means to us to be DONE, perhaps we will stop struggling with the question of DONE alone, and face it together, our own post-post-Modernist movement.

Does this mean you should wait to publish everything until you are at the peak of mastery? Setting aside the problem of knowing when you’ve peaked, does this feel like a right solution? I don’t think so. Neither we nor our writing will ever be perfect, but there is efficacy in feedback. Readers will teach you your strengths, but also point out your stylistic ticks and authorial failings. My suggestion is to do the best you can do now. Hire a great editor. Solicit beta readers. Slog through that march of revisions. And then – then! LET GO. Accept praise and criticism, but only insofar as either improves your writing. Hone your craft, and start all over with a new story. You are a storyteller: go forth and share your stories!

Xoxo,

-aniko

 

PS – If you haven’t already done so, please VOTE for the cover you’d like to see on my upcoming surreal short, MIXED MEDIA.

 

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Aniko’s Steps to Overcoming the “This is Crap!” Phase

Revision is hell. Whereas mediocrity is expected in the first draft, revision is the fabled realm of shiny, awe-inspiring perfection. I tend to forget that revisions are like climbing a up a pyramid: the first step will only get me a little ways up from the cruddy, muddy bottom. On an intellectual and experiential level, I know that this is a phase. From a metaphysical vantage, I’m looking up at the dense clouds obscuring my path and wondering if there is really even anything there to attain.

Here’s an excerpt from a Sunday brunch conversation:

Me:  “I just realized I’m writing the world’s dumbest book.”

Mr. Aniko: “I guess we’re at this stage again.”

Me: “Stage? What stage?”

Mr. Aniko: “Where you say your story is stupid, and maybe it would be better to stop. You did this four or five time with Stolen Climates.”

Me: “I did?”

Mr. Aniko: “Yes.”

Me: “Well that was silly. Stolen Climates is good. Not at all like the dumb story I’m writing now…”

May your words flow like spilled nail polish...

I have entered my first This Is Crap Phase of the revision process, and thought I’d share a few tips on what I am doing to overcome it. Yes, I am sharing these tips to avoid revision. I am also sharing because Mari Biella, author of the delightful novel The Quickening, has nominated me as a Beautiful Blogger! I hereby declare the first step to overcoming the This is Crap Phase to be:

1. Befriend other writers that you admire. Find writers who are fierce in their dedication to craft and honest about the legion of difficulties inherent to writing. I am fortunate to have the members of #TESSpecFic as well as Mari in my circle of writer friends. There are others, both online and off, and I can’t tell you how often they have given me the courage to keep going when all I want to do is curl up with other people’s books and ignore my own.

Once you’ve assembled a climbing party, the next thing to do is:

2.Tackle your overgrown yard. Yes, this is a metaphor for revision. It works best if your yard is so very, terribly, embarrassingly, non-HOA-compliant that when you drive down your street, you wonder where your house is.  By clearing away the canopy of overhanging limbs, twining vines, and (really!) impressively tall weeds, you discover that you have a house. A cute house. Not perfect, but not the worst house in the entire world. This is the essence of revision: weeding, chopping, rearranging, and discovery.

Now that you’re at your desk, looking out on a recognizable yard & not a jungle, you need to:

3. Paint your nails. You’re going to be looking at your hands a lot because you have a LOT of revision to do. Extra points for nail polish that has a clever name, like “So Much Fawn” or “Commander in Chic.”

4. Tie your hair back. Yes, even the blonde-streaked bangs you got by accident, but turned out to look pretty good. Hair is a distraction you don’t need when fighting off a hydra of hyphens.

5. Wear your most comfortable, jersey stretch skirt. Nothing ends a writing session faster than a tight waist band. If you can wear a matching shirt, go ahead, but comfort trumps style.

Now for the difficult part. Bravery, bravery and nerves of steel! It is time to:

6. DISCONNECT from the internet. Yes, it hurts. Do it anyways.

The final, yet crucial step:

7. Open the file for your Work in Progress, put your pretty hands on that keyboard, and prepare to haul your jersey-clad booty up another level of stony, revision hell.

May your climb be happy!

 

PS – For those who got an early email with incorrect numbering, sorry! This puppy chose to publish itself before I was ready. A little less polish to it than I like, but my nails sure are pretty! xoxo

 

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Aniko Around the Interwebs

A few weeks ago, I gave in and set up a Twitter account. I proceeded to wonder what in the world I would say, who I would follow, who would follow me. It was a weekday, and it was time to get ready for work, so I left my writing desk. I forgot about Twitter. Then someone (his name begins with ‘Paul’ and ends with ‘Dail’) found my abandoned Twitter account. Just like that I had a follower. Very cool! I, Aniko Carmean, have actually even tweeted. Twice!

I have also joined BookBlogs and GoodReads. I realize now that I have lived a life that was nearly off the grid up until I decided to publish my novel. How interesting that my most introverted habit (writing) is the catalyst for all these extraverted digital excursions.

In my last post, I set myself a deadline to finish incorporating my copyeditor’s suggestions into STOLEN CLIMATES. I met my deadline, finishing the edit before lunch. And it wasn’t even a late lunch!

I also wrote my acknowledgments and the author bio. Nothing comes into being through the efforts of only one person, and it felt really good to be at the stage in the novel’s lifecycle where I could compile and write my thank yous. The author bio was fun, too. I took some advice I read and included a link to my blog as well as a note asking readers to review the book if they liked it.  That isn’t tacky, is it?

this isn't me, but what is that mechanical arm on the windshield?I love rainy days. Living in an area suffering from the century’s worst drought, I almost forgot how wonderful it is to hear rain falling on the roof. I wondered what those weird things were on the windshield of my car, you know those black rubbery arms that get in the way when you try and use the gunky, blue water at the gas station to clean off the accumulation of four months of dust? At one point during the summer it was so dry, when my Doberman ran across the yard, she would raise a cloud of dust behind her. We still took showers. Don’t worry, things weren’t as bad as all that, although I was dismayed when my plumber suggested we turn up the pressure at the street to increase flow into the house. Given that farmers are going to be denied their water rights if rain doesn’t come, it seemed just shy of negligent to suggest that we use more water, especially when we had no complaints about the pressure. I haven’t washed my car in months, and it shows. My front yard  turned brown, then started to blow away because I refused to water a non-native, non-drought-resistant lawn. Xeriscaping is in my future.

But it’s raining now, has been all weekend, so there was no work done in the yard. Everything will get done in its own time. Setbacks befall everyone, hell, they befall all of Nature. Times aren’t always easy, not all days are honey-sweet. If this summer is proof of anything, though, it’s that even the worst drought ends.

May your December be bright!

 

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