It’s been fun taking this art break, but it’s time to get back to what this blog is all about this year: revision. And at the end of this post I have a special announcement. Ooooh, Aaahhh.
Brainstorming Revision Strategies
Since one of my stories placed in its event in the Writer’s Games, it will be published in the 72 Hours of Insanity anthology later this year. I will soon receive notes from the editors. The main reason I find the Writer’s Games worthwhile is that each story receives feedback from three to five judges. Today, let’s look through my feedback and strategize how to approach revision.
During the Writer’s Games I wrote six stories. These are my generalized notes of feedback from all of the stories.
- physically describe the secondary character
- clarify MC’s relationship and emotional connection to secondary character
- how character holds him/herself
- more description and elaboration of characters important to the climax and end of story
- character should cling to previous beliefs and behaviors before change
- consider how descriptions interact with internal logic
- smooth transitions
- a delicate balance: too much in one story, not enough in another
- more backstory through character’s internal thoughts, not dialogue
- needs to be more clear
- character’s beliefs need to be clear at the beginning
As with most feedback, one judge says one thing, and the next says the opposite, but what I listed above appeared to be a consensus, or was something I agreed with. Saving the feedback and giving it time to sit helped me separate my emotional jerk reactions and find useful information. Now that I’ve identified things to work on, how do I want to approach revision?
I like to leave most of the physical aspects of my characters up to the reader’s imagination, but it appears the readers sometimes need more. I have a couple of tools I’ve collected but didn’t use while writing these stories. I’ll give them a try before I revise.
Exercise 1: Act out how the character walks, stands, gestures. To do this, I will envision that I am the character and walk around the room for a while. Then I’ll act out some dialogue as the character. I’ll video tape myself doing this and see how my movement and gestures change as I become each character.
Exercise 2: Chart the character relationships. For this exercise I’ll put the main character’s name in the center of a page then put the names of the rest of the characters encircling it, then I’ll draw lines of relationship between the characters and write what those relationships are. I’ll journal about how these relationships formed and changed over time, then I’ll focus on the main character’s perceptions of each of these relationships.
I thought the comment about a character not letting go of his/her previous beliefs so quickly was a very good point. I’ll brainstorm ways that my characters can demonstrate that they don’t want to believe their own eyes, and are struggling to find rational explanations before changing their beliefs.
I thought the comment about description needing to follow the stories internal logic was good. I do tend to explain things after the fact when I should make sure something is clear to the reader before I describe it, or at least directly after, not later in the story. I will be on the look out for places where the reader needs context.
The feedback I received about use of backstory is tricky. There’s a delicate dance here that ties in with the work I need to do to recognize when the reader needs more context. I think I will try a couple of exercises to work on this.
Exercise 1: Read through the story and highlight everything I consider backstory. Are there flashbacks? Highlight flashbacks in another color. Are they necessary? What do they bring to the present narrative? Where does the reader need context for a character’s feelings or actions? What is the character’s most powerful memory that influences that behavior? Will it clear things up for the reader to know that, or will it take them out of the present action?
Exercise 2: Print out 5 short stories I like and highlight every use of backstory and flashbacks. When and how was backstory used.
Using chiastic outlines ( This article “The Strength of a Symmetrical Plot” does a good job of explaining it and has a great example created by Susan Raab using the story of Beauty and the Beast) has really helped me think about foreshadowing. However, from the feedback I received, it looks like I still have a ways to go. I think both of the exercises I set up to work on backstory will also apply to foreshadowing.
I have found in the past that having the computer read my story to me has helped with final edits, especially typos. Recently, however, while I was recording myself reading my poems for the pathways project, I found that knowing I was going to record it led to important revisions. I haven’t tried that with a short story yet, so for this revision, I will try recording myself reading it aloud and see what the process of recording myself reading it does for short story revision.
And here’s the Special Announcement!
One of my favorite short story writers, Jacob M. Appel, has taken time out of his incredibly busy schedule to write a guest post about revision for Experience Writing. If you haven’t read his work yet, he has something for everyone. He has published novels, story collections, a poetry collection, essays, and medical articles; he contributes to Writer’s Digest, and so much more. There’s a documentary about him on Amazon Prime Video called Jacob.
Here’s his bio from his website:
Jacob M. Appel’s first novel, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up, won the Dundee International Book Award in 2012. His short story collection, Scouting for the Reaper, won the 2012 Hudson Prize and was published by Black Lawrence in November 2013. He is the author of seven other collections of short stories: The Magic Laundry, The Topless Widow of Herkimer Street, Einstein’s Beach House, Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana, Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets, Amazing Things Are Happening Here, The Amazing Mr. Morality, The Liars’ Asylum and Winter Honeymoon; an essay collection, Phoning Home; a poetry collection, The Cynic in Extremis; four other novels novel: The Biology of Luck, The Mask of Sanity, Surrendering Appomattox, and Millard Salter’s Last Day; and a collection of ethical dilemmas, Who Says You’re Dead?
Jacob has published short fiction in more than two hundred literary journals including Agni, Alaska Quarterly Review, Conjunctions, Colorado Review, Gettysburg Review, Iowa Review, Pleiades, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Southwest Review, StoryQuarterly, Subtropics, Threepenny Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and West Branch. He has won the New Millennium Writings contest four times, the Writer’s Digest “grand prize” twice, and the William Faulkner-William Wisdom competition in both fiction and creative nonfiction. He has also won annual contests sponsored by Boston Review, Missouri Review, Arts & Letters, Bellingham Review, Briar Cliff Review, North American Review, Sycamore Review, Writers’ Voice, the Dana Awards, the Salem Center for Women Writers, and Washington Square. His work has been short listed for the O. Henry Award (2001), Best American Short Stories (2007, 2008), Best American Essays (2011, 2012), and received “special mention” for the Pushcart Prize in 2006, 2007, 2011 and 2013.
Jacob holds a B.A. and an M.A. from Brown University, an M.A. and an M.Phil. from Columbia University, an M.S. in bioethics from the Alden March Bioethics Institute of Albany Medical College, an M.D. from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, an M.F.A. in creative writing from New York University, an M.F.A. in playwriting from Queens College, an M.P.H. from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He has most recently taught at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where he was honored with the Undergraduate Council of Students Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2003, and at the Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City. He also publishes in the field of bioethics and contributes to such publications as the Journal of Clinical Ethics, the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, the Hastings Center Report, and the Bulletin of the History of Medicine. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The New York Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Detroit Free Press, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Times, The Providence Journal and many regional newspapers.
Jacob has been admitted to the practice of law in New York State and Rhode Island, and is a licensed New York City sightseeing guide.