Do you understand your own story? Deep Revision: Part 1.

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This is Part One of a 5-part tutorial called Deep Revision. This series is designed to help you prepare for The Little Bird Writing Contest.  

Read the rest of the Deep Revision series here:
Part One (below)Part TwoPart ThreePart FourPart Five —    


This is one of the great anxieties of writing fiction: you can only know your story after you’ve written it. If you write self-consciously, you defeat the creative act (Ray Bradbury said that). Therefore, your first draft holds all sorts of significance you don’t know consciously, yet.

Now that you’ve written it, you get to find out what your story really IS.

And that’s the first thing you need to know, because you don’t want to revise what you think you wrote. You want to approach your draft with curiosity – see what you’ve actually written, first, and what it might be telling you.

Allow yourself to be surprised by yourself.

It might seem dismaying that you should see what your story is about only after you have written it. Try it; you’ll like it. Nothing is more exhilarating than the discovery that a complex pattern has lain in your mind ready to unfold.
— Janet Burroway

A story gets better not just by polishing and refurbishing, not by improving a word choice here and an image there, but by taking risks with structure, re-envisioning, being open to new meaning itself.

A second draft isn’t created simply by sitting down and starting on page one and tinkering and tightening every line until you reach the end. In a second draft, you’re going to deal with chunks of new information, new characters and new structures. You’re going to experiment with the sound of your voice and style.

It’s work, but the good thing is that you’ll be discovering your story in your second draft. Once you’ve done that, it’s likely to stay done.

Today’s exercises are going to start you digging for more material, so you can understand more about what you’ve already written.

Note: these exercises owe thanks to Bret Anthony Johnston and his excellent book on writing, Naming the World.  

 

Homework:

1. Choose a character from your story who is the least developed right now. Write a list of everything your character resents or is ashamed of in the entire world.

2. Write in the voice of this character twenty years later, describing the events in the story that’s being told in the present. How does the character feel about these events now? How important was this day in the context of his or her life?

OR: if the piece is already being told twenty years later, write in the voice of the character in the present moment. How important was this day at the time?

3. Consider and study the setting of your story. Describe something that happened in that same setting three years ago that has a strong effect on what is happening to your characters right now in this very same place.

(If the event has nothing to do with your characters at all, that’s fine too.)

Note: The second draft of a story is often much plumper than the first draft. It’s in the third draft that you can usually start cutting down on your prose. In the second draft, you’re still learning about the story itself. Your goal, remember, is to gain a deeper knowledge of your own story.

So give yourself permission to use your notebook liberally as you re-experience the details that are the engine of the story.  

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Read the rest of the Deep Revision series here:
Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart Five —    


Little Bird the Third!
Lose the first draft. Deep Revision: Part 2.

28 comments

Try a Little…Artful Focus: ROW80 Update, May 19, 2013 | shanjeniah

[...] three flash fiction WIPs using Sarah Selecky’s Deep Revisions exercises: (Complete all by end of [...]
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The Occasional Writer, Part 2: There Will Be Setbacks | Sappy Chick

[...] the less glamorous part of the writing life — revising. Luckily, I found an excellent series on deep revising from Sarah Selecky, and I’ve done part one of those [...]
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Lynn Ciesielski

I tried the first exercise with a narrative poem I have called "Junk Food and Poetry at 3 a.m. The character I chose was a very young homeless girl sitting on the floor in the doorway of a drugstore. All I say about her from my perspective is that she reminds me of my daughter and I buy her a candy bar. From the cab driver's perspective I say that he resents her presence there, saying she is "bad for business". Here are a few views from her perspective: She resents people who judge her for being homeless and would rather hide her away. She also resents people who feel sorry for her and try to help her though she appreciates their help. She resents her mother for throwing her out of the house. She resents her boyfriend who wanted them to stay with his cousin who was sexually abusing her so they would have a place to stay. She resents society for not opening more opportunities to her without her high school diploma or GED. She resents rich people for having things so easy. She resents the welfare system for making the whole process so demeaning. She is ashamed of her old, dirty clothes. She is ashamed of so needing the candy bar she accepts from a stranger. She is ashamed of stealing candy from the corner store when she was six. She is ashamed of beating up her little brother. She is ashamed of all the failing grades she got in school when she knows she is smart. She is ashamed of her weight. She is ashamed of the abortion she had.
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Weaving in the Edges: Final ROW80 Update: 12/26/13 | shanjeniah

[…] revisions on three Deep Revisions short story WIPs. Nothing this […]
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ROW80 2013 – Hindsight; Foresight | shanjeniah

[…] also employed the first several steps of Sarah Selecky‘s Deep Revision blog series, using three of my existing short stories: “A Splash of Red”, “Morning Coffee”, […]
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[…] Deep Revision process with my three short story […]
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Holly Guglielmetti

I think the breakdown of one thought, "She looks like my daughter." is amazing, and another story in itself. You make me want to champion for her, and teach her how to turn all of this shame into the weapons and ammo that too many young people need in order to survive this world. I would write her into awesomeness. The potential is boundless.
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Samantha Agar

Thank you, Sarah, for sharing these tutorials! Thank you, Lynn, for sharing your example! I love your response, too, Holly. Even while reading this I began to develop my main character's boyfriend with so much more depth. Currently, he exists only as a "sweet, trudging oaf." I just realized he was a bully as a child as a result of an awful older brother, and that he has been through so much...This is the amazing supporting character he needs to be to help my pessimistic main gal find goodness in herself...oh, this is just so great. I am so enjoying everything you present here. Thank you.
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Take your eyes off publication and put them back on the page | Not the Library of Alexandria

[…] read it, well, what are you waiting for?)  She has a five-part tutorial on what she terms Deep Revision and they have completely transformed  the way I attack the revision/editing stage.  And I mean […]
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Mary Alterman

thanks for all of this, the interview, the exercise. You are brilliant, Sarah, and generous! I passed your name onto a staff person at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. I said somehow we need to bring you here!
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Not sure how this will impact my story, but I got quite a bit out of the exercise. I actually have two characters who are not well-developed so probably do the exercise again tomorrow with the second character. One of the things I discovered is that this minor character, a daughter, kind of compensates for the crap her mother does. The discovery was, she does this because Mom sort of pays her off, e.g., finds more money in the budget for a special dance dress. Unfortunately, daughter is buying into this dynamic. Also, when I looked at the setting and what had happened there three years ago, I discovered that Mom's resentment and jealousy of the neighbor was partly because she'd wanted to move into a nicer neighborhood in the first place and partly because her husband admired the neighbor's cleavage a bit too obviously.
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These tips are cool and helpful, but I wish you explained more WHY we should do these exercises. What do they accomplish?
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Sarah Selecky

Hi Dom! The why behind these revision exercises is related to the why of writing itself, at least for me. Why do I write? To explore, investigate, and understand what I really care about. To reflect on what I know about people and their nature. To deeply notice the details. To spend time imagining and re-imagining, respectfully. To grow. Story is all about growth and insight: writing always asks you to evolve. All of these exercises are meant to help you (and me!) evolve as a writer -- in this case, through story revision.
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Purabi Das

Hi Sarah, I have discovered that when I write the first draft my characters are already formed in my mind. Now how to bring out their best potential to people the story I am writing is a challenge. For now I have to build the story around the. At other times, the story is formed but not the characters. And that becomes a challenge of a different nature. Do you ever go through a similar process?
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Sarah Selecky

Hi Purabi. Well, sometimes an idea for a story comes first (more of an emotion, not based on a character) and at other times, I feel that I know a character's voice before I even know her story. Is that what you mean? In both cases, doing lots and lots of character work is helpful for me. I fill out character questionnaires (I use the same ones I included in Story Is a State of Mind) and I write lots of journal entries in the voices of my characters. Eventually I get to know them better, and doing this kind of freewriting usually gives me information that I understand as story, too. Hope this helps!
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Ron Leighman

When I'm writing I'll talk to my characters as I write. "Did you really do that? You sure you want to do that. hey nobody saw you do that I can backspace if you want me to.. Okay if you really want to do that I'll hit the save. " There are times I 'm like man I didn't know you were going to do anything like that, I'm impressed, and I hit the save. For me anyway my stories write themselves, I'm just the guy hitting the keys that put them up on the screen. I ask myself those questions that you presented as I go back and proofread and sometimes I think that's a little out of character for him or her. Okay, no problem he or she is just having an off moment, then I let them fix it instead of me going back and rewriting two or three paragraphs. Even the bad guys get the same consideration, even as I create them and develop who and what they are. They know that sooner or later they're going to fall, and I think that in a way they respect the fact, that the hero is going to come after them and will destroy them. They know that they don't deserve to go on doing their evil. Yeah, I talk to the characters as they are doing whatever, and I tell them that somebody won't like them doing that. Be it a reader or one of the other characters. Most of the time they say: "So what .." Sometimes I backspace and fix it. Then sometimes later down the line they do that something and it's at a more appropriate time. Thanks for the help and the points that helped me realize a few improvements I need to make.
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Claudia Zuluaga

I'm so glad I found this. I seem to have to learn the same lessons over and over! In my first novel, Fort Starlight, I don't think I understood my story until 4 drafts in! It is fruitful, but it definitely hurts a control freak like me to feel so in the dark for so long.
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Hi Sarah, I just wanted to say thank you so much for this series! I've been a creative nonfiction writer for a while but am just starting to work seriously on fiction, and it's like having to learn how to revise all over again. I wasn't even sure where to start, but yours have been the most helpful articles I've found. I thought I understood my story and liked its simplicity, but after just the first prompt my story has completely exploded. I realized that my protagonist was actually my least developed character—you saw way more of the people she was interacting with than her—and understanding her shame and resentments has made me look at this story in a whole new way. There is so much more to it than I ever initially imagined, and I would have sold myself short if I had said that this story was finished just because it looked "finished enough." Revision has always been my favorite part of the writing process, so I am so grateful and excited for it to click for my fiction now too. Thank you again for this amazing opportunity to grow my skills and for taking the time to share your knowledge with us so freely.
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Sarah Selecky

Yay! I'm so glad that the series has been useful for you. Revision is my favourite part of the process too. I hope all is well, and that you continue to feel surprised by your characters and in love with your process.
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I am just floored by your generosity. Thank you so much for so much.
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