Revisions are the Devil

July 27, 2011
Erik Johnson

Last year, I wrote a story for a contest. It received good reviews and nice scores, but didn’t win. I later brought the story to Oz Drummond’s writing workshop at 2010 ReConStruction in Raleigh, figuring it was the strongest I had. It was also the only thing I had. The feedback I received there was absolutely invaluable, but it took me time to realize it. Now, with the other submissions out-of-the-way, I am considering my story again and reliving the whole process. It’s a horrible thing.

I have an admission to make; I am terrified of revisions. I don’t mean editing (although that can be kind of scary too) no, I mean changing critical elements for fear of breaking the stories beyond recognition. It’s something I’m going to have to come to terms with as a writer if I am going to learn anything, or indeed, write any stories that are worth anything. 

At first, I saw my stories as sacred cows. No, you just don’t understand. That character is going through hell. He’s moody and depressed. That’s why he’s not a very sympathetic character. If I change that it just won’t be the same story anymore.

Bull. And even if it isn’t bull, it’s probably a Good Thing.

There were two pro writers in the ReConStruction workshop – Carl Frederick and Steve Miller. Both of them gave me feedback which was about as close to glowing praise that I, as a starting writer, could have hoped for. Something along the lines of “Wow, we really enjoyed this story. But…”

Ah, “But.” You are my nemesis, “But.” (Hmm. Let’s not continue that. It’s sounding odd.) That “but” meant something along the lines of, “The main character is flat and we didn’t understand the resolution of the story. Fix those, and this is publishable.”

Oh, yes of course. My main character and the whole point of my story needs changing. but otherwise, I’m good.

I despaired.

After a day of mulling over all the feedback (Lou Berger and Heather Urbanski were my fellow neophyte authors and they gave fantastic, brutally honest feedback as well), I had a plan for fixing my story. Wisely, I promptly tucked my notes away and forgot about them.

I’ll talk more about the past year at some point, but suffice it to say there was stuff between now and then, and having fired my new submissions into the ether, I turned my attention once again to this year-old tale. I re-read the feedback and despaired.

It’s amazing, even a year later, my brain can summon incredible amounts of shear stubbornness. I was overprotective of my story all over again. No, I can’t change this! This is still a good story! It made me cry and I know what happens!

But I realized then, and I realize now, that the feedback I got was valuable not because the others didn’t like the story, but because they did. They wanted it to be a better story – to be all it could be.

I’ve learned a lot in the past year, and in re-reading I too see the flaws more clearly. I also see how I’ve progressed as a writer. It is, at its core, still a good story. But this is not a child’s macaroni art to be hung on the refrigerator and admired for how cute it is. This is going to be submitted to a publisher who might want to pay money for it, and that’s why it needs to be as good as it can be. Even, if by some miracle, I did nothing but a polishing edit and it was purchased by a market, there will be readers out there who say “Hmm. you know, that guy was kind of flat. And what was that ending about?” I think that is more of a wake up call for me than the possibility of rejection. I don’t want to be remembered as the guy with the flat characters and crappy endings. I’ve read those stories, and shaken my head. I don’t want people to shake their heads at my stuff.

So the story, which I will discuss further in the near future, is now being marked up like a Beverly Hills rhinoplasty patient. I have my plan for fixing it, and I still think it’s a pretty good plan. Will it go far enough? I guess that remains to be seen. But you don’t make an omelet without hatching chickens … or something … so let the cutting begin!