Revising your entry story

So, you’ve finished your first draft of your story to submit to the Alpha workshop, or perhaps if you’re reading this at a later date, to a magazine. The first version of your story was enticed, cajoled and pulled to the finish line. Whether planned and outlined or written on instinct, the story and its characters will likely have changed and evolved as you wrote, and the final result may be somewhat different to your initial idea. But it’s done. How do you get that first draft to the best it can be?

Revision is a beast that many people love, and many other writers hate. Personally, I will rewrite a story many times from that clunky first draft to get it where it needs to be. Often the first draft produces a story that is like the first sketch of a painter, or the rough hewn first stage of a sculpture. You have the basic form, but need to fill in the details and carve away the fat to reach the story in its best light.

The first thing to say about revision is not to worry too much about making it perfect. The story will never be truly finished, as Robert Heinlein famously said, there’s no point in endlessly tinkering with it. Heinlein actually thought that once the story was finished it should be just submitted to an editor, but as he was a classic SF genius he probably got away with it a bit more than us mere mortals! The revision process is more like a refinement process in many cases – I find it much easier to revise in multiple quick passes through a story, rather than approaching each change separately.

The second thing about rewriting is that it becomes a lot easier if you can get a few extra pairs of eyes on the story. Critiquing is a massive part of successful writing, especially early on in your career (although judging by some older writers who seem to no longer show their work to anyone else before publishing it, maybe they could use more critiquing too).  By showing your work to others, you can get the kind of perspective on the story that you could only really get after putting it in a drawer for six months until you couldn’t remember it anymore. When you first finish a story, you are very attached to it, thanks to the arduous task of putting it all together in the first place. Having readers to tell you what they liked and what they found difficult can accelerate that revision process immeasurably – after all, that’s why the Alpha workshop exists in the first place!

There are a number of excellent online workshops you could submit to if you have the time – Critters and the Online Writing Workshop are the most notable for science fiction and fantasy, although the latter charges a small yearly fee.  However, if you don’t have fellow writers around to help you, sometimes non-writers can be just as useful – they can often pick out flaws with the overall feel of the story and its characters, whereas might focus on more technical points. A general opinion from a friend or family member can make a big difference in how you understand the effect your story is having on its readers.

Once you have some general idea on what works and what needs changing, its time to take out that (usually metaphorical these days) red pen and get to the edit itself.  Obviously grammar and spelling are the easiest things to fix – and it’s amazing how often a mistake slips by when you weren’t looking. Changing the sentence structure and word use can also marginally improve your work, but it’s only an incremental game in the grand scheme of things. What, then are the biggest targets for rewriting? What’s the biggest bang for your buck?

I’d say, overwhelmingly, that most stories in first draft need cutting at the beginning. When you start a story, you’re feeling your way around, getting to know the characters and setting, and working out where the plot wants to be. As a result, a lot of beginnings can be somewhat rambling and meandering, and are often improved for a little trim. Look at your opening section and identify the ‘inciting incident’, as screenwriting parlance calls the event that kickstarts the main story. Does it happen on the first page? In a story of less than 5000 words, if you’re not starting the story on page one, you’re in trouble. Skip lengthy character introduction, expansive setting description or non-key dialogue, and get us to that first event as soon as possible. Many great stories do it from the first sentence, and few don’t get to the point within the first three or four paragraphs.

Similarly, be aware of any parts of the story where you move too far from the central tension of the plot. In a short story everything needs to be working together towards the same goal, as you have very little time to play with. Do you have any dialogue scenes that don’t move the plot along, or long explanations or descriptions not vital to the story? Lose them. I find typically a first draft of mine can be cut by as much as 20% and still work – and often work better.

Another place to look for slimming, as Justine Larbalestier wittily talks about on her blog, is repetition – not just words, but also themes and actions. Do you take three sentences to describe someone opening a door, or how they feel tired? A reader is smart, and you typically don’t need to repeat yourself. On word use, I typically aim to avoid having a noncommon word repeated within three paragraphs of itself.

The final, and perhaps most important thing you can do to improve a first draft comes through reading it, listening to other people’s reactions to it, and understanding the meaning behind the story better. What is the theme you are trying to portray? What do you want the reader to feel? How is the character changing over the course of the story? By asking yourself these key questions as you reread the story, you can go back to key scenes and subtly alter their effect to push more in the direction you want to go – by adding a piece of internal dialogue justifying the character’s actions, describing a key prop that will appear later in the story, or ramping up the tension in a dialogue scene. These little tweaks are some of the hardest to get right, but ultimately have the biggest impact on the story – helping it to get closer to the ideas you want to portray.

To go back to Heinlein, remember that at some point the story has to be submitted, and you can tinker no more. Set yourself a deadline and revise as much as you can to make the story better, but don’t be afraid to then send it off into the world.

Tomas L. Martin is a writer and physicist from Wales, UK. He attended Alpha in 2003 and 2004. His fiction has appeared in venues such as Nature, Aberrant Dreams, Thaumatrope and Satirica, as well as garnering two semifinalists and four honourable mentions in the Writers of the Future contest. His nonfiction has appeared in SFCrowsnest, Futurismic and in the photovoltaic industry press. He is currently finishing a PhD in Physics at the University of Bristol, England and wishing he had more time to spend writing fiction rather than his thesis!