April Revision: Fiction

Three revised fiction pieces. This post features references to two BBC news stories. But the real selling point is that I’ll tell you about one of the worst stories I’ve written in the past year. That’s up first:

Two Girls Stolen: Working title, not working hard enough. And terrible piece, really. In the middle of writing this I thought there was a bit of brilliance to the characters and situations. I thought the story was fantastic! It isn’t. I know, because I just trudged through a chop chop chop kind of revision and still ended up with a Jodi Picoult* wannabe. You tell me if it’s something Jodi Picoult would write, if she were sitting at a stoplight, listening to a BBC news bulletin about two kids found in the Roma community, guessed to be missing British children:

That’s it. Really. Except I made the two girls from Wisconsin, gave them to a child trafficking ring before they were brought home by foster parents who realized their foster kids were actually missing children; and then I stayed with the families for another decade, sussing the emotional wringing of reuniting with family but missing foster parents and and and. It is a really bad piece.

But when I wrote it, oh, I thought I was on to something. Give points to waiting a month or two or three before revising: you see the junk. I revised to see if I could salvage anything. I can think of only one way this piece might be salvageable. I’ll let you know when I play around.

Jake: I like not naming my fiction. This piece is a shout-out to another BBC interview I heard. The reporter was speaking with a man who’d helped rescue people during the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi; the reporter asked this man if he thought of himself as a hero. Of course, the man answered no.

What else could he have said? I put a note in my phone: Can a hero admit they are a hero? And then I stumbled my way around, finding a character named Jake, his time and place. Jake is a muralist who comes to Kuwait to paint, gets caught in an attack, helps rescue, admits he is a hero, and gets slammed. This was as far as I’d gotten when I began revising the piece. I revised, hoping an ending would come to me. It did: I took a creative George Saunders-ish leap and then made my husband read the whole thing. He liked it.

David: I need some new boy names. Seriously. I wrote this piece nearly three years ago. David is a young soldier serving in Iraq. Near the end of his first tour, he knows he will die during his second. I remember sitting at my in-laws’ kitchen table typing my way to an end. When I was done, the whole thing was forty single-spaced pages. Because I dream about publishing a book, I was vain enough to reformat the piece into two-column landscape and got around seventy book pages. Ish.

But a third of the way to novel length or not, most of David had to go.

I avoided the piece for a long time. I’d open the file or remember a couple promising scenes, but not until this month did I make myself revise. I read through first, without touching. Then I thought I might die at the amount of work ahead. I swept my cursor down the entire first two pages and deleted. Felt better. I cut entire subplots. I tightened sentences. I changed the direction of one relationship. I changed the ending.

The piece is now nineteen pages.

Both Jake and David will get another go. I think both pieces work but I’ll wait another month or so before I revisit.


 

*Oh, I loved me some Jodi Picoult at one time. But after reading a dozen, you get the sense she rocks on wrenching twists. Of course, you read what I’ve got so far and you’ll get the sense I rock on traditional boys’ names and BBC stories.

Intentionality

When I show up at the page, I don’t always know why I am there. Sometimes I ask. Most of the time, I cycle through the top load of junk and find something to take me through a couple of pages. Actually, most of the time, it is that top load of junk that takes me through a couple of pages.

But I show up. And I think that’s enough.

Right now, I’m practicing revision. I like that word “practicing” in front, because I’m learning to return to a piece and work with it. For years I’d finish a crappy short fiction piece and think it was actually kinda good. Then I’d go back, expecting to dust-up extra commas and swap out a few words. Instead, I’d reread the piece and close the file because it was complete crap and I didn’t know where to begin.

Now I am coming to revision work with the same intentionality I have when I show up at the page: I open a file, take a breath, and begin. If I have comments to work from, I have those up too. Most of the time I revise at home, during the kids’ quiet time. Those slots of time are usually short so I like to take revision writing dates out, packing my laptop and heading to a coffee shop. On Sunday I met a poet friend who was also revising old work. And today I worked alone. Both days I put in a couple of hours on a piece I’ve let sit for nearly three years.

And if being intentional about revision happens to come with a triple shot mocha, all the better.

March Revision: Fiction

I revised three fiction pieces.

Melanie: Not the title, but the character. If I cut this piece to a sentence, it’s about wanting what you cannot have. I wrote this piece very quickly, in the shadow of my own want. Because I felt too connected to Melanie’s situation, I threw in all these details that are mine. In the latest revision, I cut a number of them. I am not Melanie, even if we’ve walked the same want. One thing that I gave wholly to Melanie is my close following of Syria. Though I kept a fairly accurate timeline of events in my mind, I cut some of the extra “reporting” from the story.

I Still Want You: This piece has a nameless narrator and is set in Kuwait. Another mom, another wanting what she cannot have. For the past year I’ve felt ridiculous picking at the same scab: lust and discontent show up in my notebooks and fiction. This piece came together very quickly and I revised it a couple times. I’m letting it rest for another week or two. I wrote it in present tense.

I feel less ridiculous about rewriting the topic of lust after reading I Want To Show You More by Jamie Quatro. I think that sometimes there is something in your life that just won’t shut up. While Quatro managed to weave faith and God into her pieces addressing infidelity, I didn’t do that with the two above. I didn’t want to try, really. The two pieces above are not my only writing on the subject and I openly address my faith and prayers and the grit of flesh and spirit in my personal writing, some of which may evolve into essay.

Jeff: Again, not the title, but the character. This piece is also set in Kuwait, following an Afghanistan vet working as a contractor. The first drafts of this piece contained a lot back story on Jeff and his family. In the first revision I cut cut cut. In this revision, I cut to compress.

I’m just learning what compression in fiction means. I need to recognize the purpose of my longer drafting: to let me meet my characters. But wandering back story and exhaustive detail does not allow the reader to sink in the immediate story. These revisions were work, each averaging two or three hours of rereading, scrolling, cutting, pasting, rewording. I was surprised to feel so intensely at some points in my reading and revision. I feared that after having looked at these characters for so long, this latest revision might be a little pale.

But now, I am afraid I’m a little blind to what really works. I’ll move on to the next round of fiction revision and let these pieces sit.

Revision: Comparison

I have an essay to revise, in need of a title. It’s saved as Comparison Shit. I wrote it a few months ago, uncovering the still raw sting that I eat a lot of comparison shit. My comparison game really kicked off a year or two into parenting. My mothering insecurities are fed by emails regarding my daughter’s behavior at school and my son singsonging Stupid, stupid at his sister; by the screaming just to scream in the elevator; by a bedtime that drags into an hour-long ordeal. My mothering insecurities double when my kids’ misbehavior is witnessed by other parents whose kids, at that moment at least, are docile creatures with clean mouths and combed hair.

I often write my way to an answer. And just as often, I return to a topic, write my way again, hoping for a better answer. I wrote Comparison Shit in a fit of wanting out of the game. And at the edge of jumping into the piece’s revision, I am (again) returning to the topic. And reminding myself what I already know:

I am a great mom and an awful mom, in the swing of a day. But my kids and I belong together, by design. During holy reflective moments, I sense the blessing of our stories unfolding and overlapping. During angsty embarrassed moments, I think none of us will make it to their adulthood emotionally intact.

I am Claire and Grant’s mama, but I am not their full satisfaction. Their deeper heart needs are beyond my love; I pray their hearts open to God’s greater love.

I write my way to the truth: My worth is not found in this singular role of mama, but in the complete love God has for me. I’ll write my way to that truth again and again because I forget his goodness when I am in the middle of stacking my gifts and flaws next to yours. I’ll write my way to that truth again and again because such generosity is unfathomable; because when I do grasp at its understanding, I get it: there is no comparison.

And still, I eat the shit.

Already Wanting to Quit

Yesterday I wrote a post about my March April May Revision plan: about fifty thousand shoddy pieces of essay and fiction I’d like to slap into shape. I listed the pieces by theme or character title, with a cheery note about updating my progress on each, published the post, looked at it, trashed it.

March April May Revision will happen and I will post the process. But seeing the list in print – the same list I write out in my notebook when I need to see it still fits on a page, it isn’t such a wild reach – seeing the list in print made me want to quit.

Again.

Every third day I want to quit this work. It is work! My WP is valuable. But I often show up at the page and just write junk. I write my same messes over and over. The joy of generating a piece is tempered by the effort of revising that piece so that what I really want to say comes through.

I have learned to make myself finish a draft. Yesterday afternoon I looked through a few notebooks from 2009 and was shocked by how many of the pages were fiction starts, many of those characters left right where I wrote them. So I have learned to write my way to an end. And now I am learning to make myself revise. Take the feedback I’ve received, work with my own ideas, play, reshape, and revise my way to a finished work.

I need this revision practice. Over and over and over. I need enough practice to know what’s possible in my own work. I need to see that I can finish a work, many works. I need to practice the discipline of opening a file, rereading notes, thinking thinking thinking, and revising before I close the file and fear-eat an entire chocolate bar.

I won’t quit, but I’ll want to, again and again.