Killing a Story Through Revision

I mentioned last week that I was working on a story that I thought needed “one more pass” before it would be finished.  It was a story I have been working sporadically on for over a year.   I’m happy to say I finished the story and it’s been sitting in a slushpile for four days (not that this means anything of course).  On my earlier post, fellow writer Eric J. Baker left a comment in which he observed that too much editing can sometimes stifle a work.  I agree with Eric, but that got me wondering: When are you done tinkering with a story?

I don’t have a good answer.  I know when I’m done line-editing a story (when I have nothing left to remove—yes, remove, not add), but I don’t really know how I decide enough is enough on revising a story.  I guess I make that decision on the “feeling” that it’s compete, an intuitive sense that I’ve developed with practice and experience.  (I know, not a useful answer, but it’s the best I have.)

When I started writing, I used to work stories to death, constantly tweaking and adding and changing and obsessing.  I’m sure that I wound up editing the life out many of them, not that I think they had much life to begin with because I simply wasn’t a very good writer (I’ve since risen to passable…I think).  I’m now more confident in my writing craft, and I find it easier to look at one of my stories and decide specifically what it needs to make it work as well as it can.  Looking back several years, I used to approach revisions with a shotgun full of buckshot; now I approach them with the focused precision of a laser.  This makes it easier to know when I’m finished, because I’m not trying to change everything in the story, only the “important” stuff.  I’ve also developed a stronger sense of “voice,” the primary thing that I think gets ruined with too much revision.  I can tell with greater confidence when my story has reached the point that more revision would compromise the voice.  Most importantly, I now have the sense to stop revising when I reach this point.

If a story isn’t working by this point, there is probably not much I can do to rescue it.  It’s time to put it away for while, possibly forever.  I can’t see much sense in trying to revise a story that simply isn’t working.  My writing time would be better spent on a new story, one that is more likely to come together better than the one that failed.  If the trunked story has some ideas that I really like, I may periodically revisit it to see if I have gained any insights as to how to quick fix it.  I might tinker for a day or two, but if nothing continues to work, I’ll put it away again.  I may eventually scrap the story, and write another one using the elements I liked from the trunked version (I did this with at least a couple of stories that I later managed to sell).

I have several stories in this state.  Some I have never gone back to (and probably never will); others I still believe in, and if I can get some distance from them, I think I can eventually figure out the problems and maybe even fix them.  But this will only happen if I can avoid editing the life out of them.

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About D. Thomas Minton

Writer of speculative fiction
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4 Responses to Killing a Story Through Revision

  1. I always add more, or I work in stages, releasing bits at a time, till I think I can reach the ending.

    • Charlotte, thanks for stopping by. I also tend to add in the first revision, but then spend the next one(s) taking things out to streamline and tighten the story. Everyone writes differently, so there’s no right or wrong way, just your way 🙂

  2. Pingback: Did They Really Cite Me as an Authority? | D. Thomas Minton

  3. ericjbaker says:

    Thanks for the mention, sir. It’s fair to say you are quite beyond ‘passable” as a writer, even if you were being cheeky.

    i am very guilty of beating my stories to death. It’s not that I rip it up and start over all the time. It’s that I go through every line a thousand times until I’m sure the word order is just right for maximum efficiency and emotional impact and that each bit of dialog is made of exactly the words that character would choose. By the time I have individually taken my meat tenderizer to each and every word, I have lost my feel for the story. That’s not to say I’ve ruined the story. I’ve just ruined it for me.

    Interesting topic, as usual.

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