“When you read proof, take out the adjectives and adverbs wherever you can. You use so many of them that the reader finds it hard to concentrate and he gets tired. You can understand what I mean when I say ‘The man sat on the grass.’ You understand because the sentence is clear and there is nothing to distract your attention. Conversely, the brain has trouble understanding me if I say ‘A tall, narrow-chested man of medium height with a red beard sat on green grass trampled by passers-by, sat mutely, looking about timidly and fearfully.’ This doesn’t get its meaning through to the brain immediately, which is what good writing must do, and fast.”
-Anton Chekhov in a letter to Maxim Gorky
I’m usually a bit leery of prescriptive revision techniques, maybe because they seem like a hard way of doing something I might not want to do in the first place. However, there’s one such strategy I’ve really come to rely on in revision. I’m unable to track down whose idea this is, but the basic idea is to cut 10% of the length from what you think is the final draft. This is generally a pretty hard thing to do but it puts a lot of pressure on each and every word and description to pull its own weight. Typically it starts off cutting unnecessary adjectives and adverbs, as Chekhov advises above, although there usually aren’t enough of these to meet quota, so it becomes clearer that a certain paragraph is kind of superfluous, or that the third flashback is a bit indulgent. The rule seems a bit too arbitrary on its face, but it’s never really done me wrong. It requires a lot of hard work and difficult decisions, of course, but that’s the point. You can’t be soft anymore: you have to kill your darlings. And assuming the core of the story remains, it almost always will be better as at eighteen pages than it was at twenty.
For most of the past four months I’ve been at work revising the first part of my novel. This includes many different styles of revision, from writing freely within the document on the computer to expand scenes and explore point-of-view in new ways, to writing new scenes with brand new characters in order to find ways to recast the emotional feel of characterization and scene, to using crude statistical measure to rethink structure, to letting the ink flow freely on a hard copy edition. At one point Part I had grown to 160 pages. This was much too long, but I wanted to lay all my cards on the table, so to speak. Coming into last week I’d pared it down to a much more manageable 112 pages, which is where the 10% rule came into play. You’ll have to excuse me, because I only made it down to 104 pages, four short of my goal. But it still feels pretty good, I must say. There’s more to do, but I don’t want to get carried away at this point.
I’ve been plugging away at Part II as well, mostly revising the first forty pages or so to present in workshop for the class I’m taking right now. I really like how this part is coming together. I’ve been working here with a much looser outline and feel like it’s a better strategy for me. Instead of plotting out each move, I set a goal to meet in each chapter (something like getting a character to a certain place physically and emotionally) with a group of benchmarks to achieve throughout. (This is how I outline short stories as well, by the way.) This way I can follow the characters more, let them move more freely, without too much of a constrictive superstructure. All’s well that ends well, but the overly specific outline used in Part I will probably have to be scrapped for the most part. It will be useful for setting goals and benchmarks, as most of my ideas are in there, even though it seems stupid to stick so closely to something when the story wants to go elsewhere. Yes? Hopefully this will save a lot of time in revision if I’m not fighting things in the drafting stage.
Dispatch from The Open City
“It worried Esther, the way Michael was terrified of cars. She’d seen him walking many times (anyone who drove in midtown with any frequency would have seen him, a constant pedestrian of city streets) and she had an idea of the misery he struggled with. Esther had secretly watched him jump back from the street for no apparent reason, startled by the rumble of a passing truck or the screech of bald tires on an oil slick road. Or how he was sometimes compelled to walk in the grass strips that fronted small businesses when he sensed the dark energy of an impending collision, dreading that moment of terror when an oncoming motorist jerks their wheel suddenly away, remembering almost too late that they’re not the only one on the road. Michael only rode with Esther when absolutely necessary, angled tensely in the passenger seat. It wasn’t healthy, this behavior, but Esther didn’t know what she could do to help.”
Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Near Misses
Opium for “The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life”; Cream City Review for “The Man Who Never Was”; South Dakota Review for “How to Die Young in a Nebraska Winter”; and Copper Nickel for “From Indiana.” And as previously noted in this blog, my review of Lydia Peelle’s short fiction collection Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing was accepted for publication by Prairie Schooner!
Exiles by Ron Hansen. I wasn’t into this so much at first but the final eighty pages or so were really quite good. Hansen spent an awful lot of time on the history lessons of the novel, something that pushed me out of the story. Much of the Kulturkampf stuff was pretty interesting, however. Once we actually got into the action of the sinking of the steamship Deutschland and the tragic series of events that led to the early demise of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins the book became intensely engaging. It surprised me how much I felt for Hopkins and his plight as a Jesuit priest, being transferred around and misunderstood.
Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon. Just started this one yesterday and read nearly a hundred pages, which is pretty good for me, a slow, slow tortoise reader. Aside from some questionable exclamation point usages, this one really has me on the hook.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.
Link of the Week
Duotrope’s Digest. An unsurpassable database of literary journals, magazines, webzines, and other publications looking for submissions. This is a must for any writer looking for new markets, and was how I found homes for my work in Flatmancrooked and Johnny America. The random market feature is kind of fun too.
Prairie Schooner. Since we’re going with Duotrope up top, lets go with an old standard here. And since I’m now a Senior Fiction Reader at PS, go ahead and send us your very best work soon. Our reading period is currently open.