Revising a short story: the penultimate pass

Now that I have revised at the story level and the scene level, it is time to dig into those paragraphs, sentences and words. A fun and useful tool to use at this point is the word cloud. I put my text into Word It Out and created this:

The program has some great tools. After pasting the text into the text box, I clicked on Settings at the bottom right and added the character names at the end of the filter words. Then, once I created my word cloud, I clicked on Wordlist and can click on any of the words to see how many times I used them. I definitely want to look at the instances of “like” and “back” and explore why I used them so much.

After working on some of the issues that my word cloud revealed, I continued using the “Find” function. I found some lists of words to looks for in some of my old posts. Revision: Overused Words helped me find some problems with “very” and “really.” And Part Two The Worrying Wave of Weak Verbs: a cautionary tale of the murderous search for to be, to have, to do, to get, to go and to make got me on the right path to finding all my weak verbs. A search for “ly” also helped me strengthen my verbs by revealing the adverbs I used to modify them. My “ly” search also showed that I overused “only” which in most cases, I deleted.

This time, when I listened to the computer read my story, it was helpful. I noticed a couple typos, some words and phrases that were clunky, and a couple unnecessary sentences. It helped me fix the timing of the ending so it had the punch I wanted. And the most exciting part? I liked it.

I will print it out and read it aloud a few times, and then send it to a few beta-readers for feedback.

Revising at the Scene Level

Fixing It – photograph by Maria L. Berg 2021

In my last post on revising a short story, I mentioned the many things a scene needs to do:

  • have a goal
  • have a conflict
  • have an action that leads to a new goal
  • character development
  • world building
  • reveal new information
  • provide sensory information
  • have a grabber or payoff

For my revision, I assigned each of these scene needs a letter, and starting with the final scene, worked backward through my story, evaluating each scene. Here’s an example:

Scene 14: Maria’s POV after feeding in the town [one of my MCs is a Mexican-American named Maria (not me 😉 )].

G – To leave town
C – a farmer tries to help her, grabs her wrist
A – She uses aspects of the chupacabra to get away
D – She feels / wields the chupacabra’s power, misses old life
W – describes the nearest town to the river
N – Maria can bring out the chupacabra for defense when scared
S – sounds: door slams, whistling; texture: grimy
P – She hurt the farmer to get away

This quick analysis of each scene did wonders. I completely deleted one scene and combined two others. I discovered areas that needed more description and sensory detail and a section of exposition that I was able to show in a scene. I had printed out a more detailed “Deconstructing a Scene” worksheet I created a couple years ago, but I didn’t use it because this system worked. I plan to use it as part of my revision process in the future.

After analyzing each scene, I typed in all my changes, saved the draft and let it rest.

But the Distractions – photograph by Maria L. Berg 2021

I found joy in editing a different, shorter story while letting this one rest. In that story, the main issues were filter words. It really helped the piece to remove sensory filters: saw, heard, and felt. I also added specific details like “mahogany” instead of wood. By the time I finished revising the story, I enjoyed reading it aloud. The words felt good in my mouth.

Doin’ the Work – photograph by Maria L. Berg 2021

I brought the feeling of accomplishment and the specific issues I found in the shorter story to the next phase of revision: paragraphs, sentences, and word choice which I will talk about in my next post.

How is your revision is going? Have any tips or tricks?

Any questions?

Please share in the comments.

Revising a short story: working through discouragement

Levi says, “Walk away. Don’t force it. Give it some time.”

Because I’m focusing on revision this year, I want to bring you along as I attempt to revise my work and improve my revision process. Hopefully, we can all improve together.

I found a call for submissions that I think one of my stories will fit perfectly, so I’m starting with it. For once, I have plenty of time; the deadline isn’t until May. This is one of my longer short stories and I worked on it for a long time. I have edited and submitted it in the past, but after rejections set it aside. Now, with this anthology call as a goal, I thought it would be a great piece to put through Cat Rambo’s revision class and use as an example for my own revision process.

  • First, I printed it out (double spaced, Times New Roman, double sided pages to not waste paper).
  • Then I read it aloud, trying not to stop for notes, but making some notes.
  • Then I stopped. I hated it. It wasn’t the great story I remembered. It wasn’t what I wanted it to be.
  • I came back and finished reading it aloud, but had to walk away.
  • I was disappointed and had no intention of figuring out how to fix it.
  • I searched the internet for what to do when you hate your story.

You Hate Your Writing? That’s a good sign from Jane Friedman at Writer Unboxed led me to Ira Glass on Storytelling

and Why You Don’t Need To Worry Hating Your Own Work by Robert Wood at Standout Books also talks about Ira Glass’s videos.

Why It’s Okay to Hate Your Writing by Sarah Gribble at The Write Practice

It helped to know that most writers go through this. And happily, I think I’m getting to the other side of the I hate everything phase. What was the magic fix? As usual, there wasn’t one. The answer was time and work. I kept going back to Cat Rambo’s class and trying to get myself to do each revision pass on my story. Finally something clicked, and since then things have kept clicking. Here’s what has worked so far:

My Short Story Revision

1.Major cuts: The first thing that had to change is I went into a flashback way too soon. Though the backstory in that flashback is important to the story, I plan to only use the most important parts and pepper them in later, so for now, I cut the flashback completely.

2. The Character and Dialogue focus: After cutting the flashback, it became clear that one of my two characters was less developed and it was the character I introduced first. To fix this, I journaled about his life before the story, his wants and needs and rather quickly got to know him and his story arc. Then I went through the story and found places where I could add character development.

My characters are opposites in every way, so I want each character to have a distinct voice. I journaled for a while about what would influence their style and word choice, exploring such things as education, socialization, family life, etc. I also decided that both of my characters needed new names, so I did a little research.

3. Setting focus: While exploring my character, I decided that he has a biology degree and works in a Garden center. He would have knowledge of the local flora that would impact the story. This made the specific setting more important. In the first draft, the setting could have been any river in any forest in North America, but after doing some research, I have now set my story in Northwestern California and have specific plants and trees for my characters to interact with.

At this point my draft is so marked up, I can’t read it. I’m going to sit down with all my notes and write a brand new draft from scratch. Hopefully my next read through won’t lead to me saying, “I hate this,” but something closer to, “this has potential.”