Do you ever give up on a story? I often do. I seldom put one in the trash—that feels too final—but filing a story away feels like failure, which I hate. So I try again.
I recently returned to a story that had given me fits. Something wasn’t working, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. I had submitted it a few times, thinking it was as good as I could make it, but I’d had no luck—which isn’t a sign the story is bad, but I knew it wasn’t as strong as it could be.
I had never been satisfied with the ending, so I tackled that first. I revised for days, until finally, the ending seemed to come together. That was no small victory, and I thought, Okay, I’m getting there!
Then I read the piece again—one last time, I promised myself. I read for all the things: clichés, sentence variety, scene and narrative summary balance, tension, character arc and change. If you’re a fiction writer, you know the drill. I recalled advice I had pushed to the back of my mind all along. An exceptional fiction writer once told me in a workshop to ask myself whether every sentence, every detail belongs. I had done this kind of strategic whittling down before, but I had resisted it this time, hoping the process would somehow get easier. As I read the story again with that advice ringing in my head, I realized how heavy the piece still was with gratuitous details, even whole sentences that didn’t move the story along or contribute to character development.
I wound up cutting that story brutally. It’s stronger for it.
I sometimes forget how much I need time and distance to gain perspective. The advice to “put it away for a while,” then read with a fresh eye, is golden. It’s the crux of revision, whether I’m writing short or long fiction.
Here’s some unsolicited advice: Before you file a story away forever, thinking it’s hopeless, do the inventory. Ask yourself: Does this scene/ paragraph/dialogue/sentence/image/ word (at the most basic level, it comes down to word choice) move the story forward? What does it add? Strike out any one of the above and read the passage aloud without it. Do you miss it, not because it was a nice phrase, but because without it, something essential has gone missing from the story? If not, cut.
Is it possible to chop the life right out of a story? Yes, I’m afraid so. I’ve done it. But the more I practice the art of figuring out what’s necessary to the stories I want to tell, the better I will be as a storyteller.
Image credit: vecteezy.com