More Words = More Reasons to Revise

Big news! Little Patuxent Review finally upped the limit for fiction submissions to 5000 words. We’ve been gradually heading in that direction over the past few years, but this opens up LPR to even more great stories by talented writers who’ve been unable to pare down their pieces to 3500 words. I can’t wait to see what comes in during our Summer 2013 Music issue submission period. It should make for terrific reading.

I don’t envy myself, though. My role in chosing pieces to publish will soon become more difficult than ever. More words mean more ways that a story can go astray. A higher word count makes some writers less rigorous when it comes to revision, so I suspect I’ll see stories that have expanded to 5000 words when fewer would have done the job very well.

My advice: Before you submit, revise!

Fortunately, revision is my favorite part of writing. No writer that I know gets far without it. Revising is writing. There’s no separation.

Jack Kerouac On the Road

Jack Kerouac’s manuscript of On the Road. (Photo: AP)

“What about Jack Kerouac?” I can hear one of my former students asking as I write this. “What about “first thought, best thought” and the spontaneous purity of the initial draft?” All good questions. I’ll get to them in a moment. But first, try not to delude yourself into believing that you’re a misunderstood genius.

It’s an occupational hazard, I know. I tend to think that my own first drafts are brilliant—that I’m brilliant! Get ready, world, here I come! Until a day or so later, when I reread my words and realize that what I’ve written is dung. Oh, maybe my story has its moments–some beautiful sentences, the kernel of a good idea–but it’s also laden with grammatical errors, huge holes in plot or logic and mixed metaphors galore. And don’t get me started on punctuation: how I love a good dash, can be overzealous with parentheses and am errant with commas.

So I start revising. And revising. And revising.

I put as much space between me and the piece as possible. A few days, a few months, a few years. Because what needs to be changed in a piece is never fully apparent in the first few passes. When I feel that I’m finally finished revising, I go back and do it again. At some point I show my former-masterpiece-turned-modest-work to a writing friend. Based on what he or she says, I revise some more.

Most good writers that I know do this. Yet, there is this notion among new writers that revision spoils the original intent, that it takes away the energy and zip, or worse, that it deadens the personality of a piece so that everything sounds as though it was shaped in the same writing workshop. Kerouac regarded revision as a form of literary lying. (Never mind for the moment that Truman Capote regarded the “first thought” approach as typing, not writing.)

Funny thing about Kerouac. Yes, he typed On the Road on a continuous, taped-together 120-foot roll of paper and touted it as a single, spontaneous, complete draft. But this September, Joyce Johnson, former girlfriend and accomplished author, blew his cover. In The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, she claims that rather than having written his seminal work in a three-week blast of energy, he actually spent years revising it and carefully crafted each paragraph.

Joyce Johnson The Voice is All

Joyce Johnson reveals what “spontaneous” writing really involves.

As reported in “You Don’t Know Jack…,” Johnson reveals just how much of Kerouac’s approach came about through a disciplined and self-punishing journey to find an authentic linguistic and literary style. Fortunately, that style came into being somewhere between the margins of the working-class French-Canadian neighborhood in Lowell, Massachusetts, where he grew up, and the elegant lyricism of the writers he admired. And that–not the myth–is what makes Kerouac a writer worth emulating.

Very occasionally, a story will emerge from me nearly fully formed. Those works are rare gifts but still require the scrutiny of my internal editor. For me, revision is important because it uses a different part of the brain. It requires more decisions, more meditation, more intuition, more listening, more music and rhythm. Exacting and deliberate revision is what adds depth, emotion, texture and personality to a piece.

My point? Being a misunderstood genius gets in the way of being a great writer. Besides, you can save every version of every draft you ever write. If your revised version is not what you want it to be, go back to the beginning and start again. Which is to say, revise.

Online Editor’s Note:

As Jen indicates, revising a piece of fiction is a demanding but subtle process. Books attempt to tell you how it’s done, but I don’t know that I’d recommend them. You’d be better off simply mastering the basic elements of literature and becoming familiar with sophisticated views on the subject. Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them for the former and James Wood’s How Fiction Works for the latter are, in my humble opinion, perfect.

Recommending books to help you with editing your own manuscripts so that they’re submission-ready is easier. Here, all you need is something that tells you how to (1) make sure you don’t get in your own way and (2) not give exacting editors such as Jen peripheral reasons to reject your work. I started out with Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, and that worked as well as any. There are others that would do, no doubt.

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