I would say it’s that time of the semester, but I’m encountering “revisions” everywhere — and all the bad feelings that come along with that part of the process. (And yes, I know lots of people are also doing NaNoWriMo, but you folks will get to revisions soon enough.) My fiancée Tara has recently finished the latest revision of her novel, Black Diamond City, and is fretting over whether it’s good enough. My friend Kyle has asked me to look at a piece he’s tinkering with before he submits it to a literary contest, and he’s struggling with a “why bother?” attitude. Two of the most perceptive, most creative students in my fiction workshop are second-guessing recent drafts of their stories; both are trying to burn down and start over to one degree or another (which is a useful thing for any writer to do occasionally, I think: Revision can mean, literally, re-envisioning a project entirely). And I am myself rereading a complete draft of my own novel, trying to figure out what needs to be fixed and finished before I can call it done (or done for now, at least).
All this in mind, I thought it was time to post another exercise or two. This time, I’m turning to the queen mama of creative writing textbooks, Janet Burroway — drawing on two of her books for small writing assignments, one more local in its focus, one more global.
The first of these comes from Burroway’s more recent textbook, Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft, a book which deals with several genres: fiction, nonfiction, poetry and drama. As much as exploring craft, this text encourages creativity and experimentation, and I highly recommend it for use in an intro creative writing class. Here’s an exercise in dealing with “underdevelopment” in a draft. “Try this,” Burroway writes:
In the first, second or third draft of a manuscript there are likely to be necessary lines, images, or passages that you have skipped or left skeletal. Make notes in your margins wherever you feel your piece is underdeveloped. Then go back and quickly freewrite each missing piece. At this point, just paste the freewrites in. Then read over the manuscript (long shot) to get a feel for how these additions change, add, or distort. Are some unnecessary after all? Do some need still further expanding? Should this or that one be reduced to a sentence or image? Do some suggest a new direction?
(In this same text, Burroway also offers suggestions for dealing with drafts which are too long, including a variety of experiments from cutting “half of every line of dialogue” to fusing “two scenes into one.” Look that one up too.)
The second exercise comes from her classic book Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft— in my opinion the Bible of fiction workshops. This one is from the sixth edition, only because I can’t find the latest on my shelf right now. (The seventh edition, I should note, is co-authored with Elizabeth Stuckey-French.) Burroway addresses her exercise to short story writers, but I believe it holds up as well for much longer narratives too:
Following your story workshop, but before starting the next draft, write a “contributor’s note” similar to those in the back of the Best American Short Stories and O’Henry series volumes. In a paragraph, describe how the story first occurred to you. What intrigued you about it? How did the story evolve? Which of your plans changed, and why? What do you hope that readers will think the story is “about”? Read these contributors’ notes aloud in class. Do they help you articulate the dramatic and thematic elements you wish to address in the revision process?
Happy writing — um, I mean revising — to all!
— Art Taylor