I’m chest deep in a revision of my novel right now, but I’m also reading Alice Munro, who makes me want to work on short fiction. So I figured this week, I’d put my hands together and do a revision exercise on one of my long-problematic short stories.
Because this is slightly complicated, I’m going to explain the exercise up front. It doesn’t come from any particular source but is more an amalgam of basic tips in most writing texts, things I’ve learned from experience, and a bit of advice Tom Franklin once gave me (I’ll explain the reasoning at the end).
The exercise goes like this: Take a piece of working fiction, something you’ve gotten far enough to have typed up, even revised a few times already. Then turn off the computer, dig out the writing notebook or the old yellow legal pad, and rewrite the text longhand, from scratch. You can refer to the typed text if you need to, but try to avoid it–you are rewriting the story that’s in your head, not transcribing the text on the page. Once you’ve rewritten the story long-hand, open a new file on your computer and type that story, making any changes you feel necessary as you go.
So, what appears below are three versions of the first few paragraphs of my story. The initial version is not the original (this story already has been through more drafts than I can keep track of), but it was the working draft before I started the exercise. Between the pages of the writing journal, I’ve transcribed verbatim the handwritten version, and then below that I’ve pasted in my retyped version.
Version 1 (the “original”):
Phil kept his eyes closed most of the three-hour ride south out of the hill country to the Texas coast. No one else existed—the seven other teens laughed and bounced on the long bench seats of the white touring van as Mack, their youth leader, sped down I-37 and then the small Rockport streets and then the sandy beachside roads, but Phil had muffled his ears with the headphones of his new Walkman. He only opened himself to the world when Mack braked the van too hard and swung after the lead car; Phil’s head bounced on his tinted window and Diane, the red-haired girl next to him, slid into his thigh. The faded Lincoln ahead of them had ducked off the broken asphalt of the beach road and onto the seashell drive toward Summerplace. As Diane moved back to the middle of their seat, Phil sat up away from his window and watched the Gulf of Mexico glint between the dunes of Mustang Beach.
The youth group jostled and elbowed each other in their rush to exit the confines of the van. Only Phil remained in stasis, floating instead out there in the gray-blue sky of ocean horizon, white-rimmed and picketed with the distant shafts of oil derricks, daydreaming. Side two of the Peter Gabriel tape he’d borrowed from his brother played in his headphones, the new Walkman on his lap. He closed his eyes, the chorus of “Lay Your Hands on Me” chanting through his brain.
The breeze blew off the Gulf with a scent of fish and petroleum and salt and seashells. The spiny grass shoots clumped in the dunes twisted and snapped in the breeze. The old building creaked behind them. Its white paint peeled in the salty wind. Two liver-spotted old chaperons and three teenagers waited beside the Towncar in the gravel and shell drive. The teenagers bounced out into the saline air of the Gulf, where they stumbled with second-hand suitcases and sports bags that served as backpacks. The boys heaved and grunted and made sure their sleeves fell high on their arms as they flexed, then they fled indoors under the weight of their bags. The thin screen door banged twice each time it sprang shut, and the dining room smelled of dust and concrete floors and picnic tables. Diane stood in a stairwell with the girls, but Phil did not stop to watch her.
Version 2 (the handwritten version):
To drive from the Texas hill country, through the snarl of San Antonio and then down I-37 to Corpus Christi, takes three hours. Many make it in two, but with a van full of thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds balancing over seat backs and laughing and jostling each other, stopping once for sodas and bags of corn chips and once more for what everyone insisted was an emergency bathroom break at a little gas station outside Pleasanton, it took three hours. Mack, the youth leader driving the van, enjoyed the trip. He was young himself, just twenty-four, and he laughed and jostled as best he could behind the wheel, grinning into the rearview mirror or elbowing Luke, the boy who rode shotgun. Only Phil, his eyes closed and his headphones on, a ________________ cassette playing on his Walkman, rode in silence. He’d bought a Coke and a box of Nerds candy at the first stop but he’d stayed in the van for the second, kids shoving out past him. He kept his eyes closed. The Walk-man, which his grandmother had bought him last Christmas, before she’d died, had a switch that reversed the tape automatically, playing one side then the other. It flipped sides four times on the trip. He was listening to ________ as though in a dream, the song now as much in his head as in his ears, when the van lurched down a side road too fast and Diane, the red-haired girl next to him, slid into his thigh.
They had ducked onto a broken asphalt beach road. Diane scooted to the middle of their seat and apologized–put her hand on his forearm when she said it–and then they turned again onto a long drive paved in broken seashells. He looked at her hand, but he could not look at her, so he looked out the window instead, the humped dunes bristling with scrabby grasses and beyond them to the Gulf of Mexico, the gray-blue sky over the thin ocean horizon, picketed with the distant shafts of oil derricks.
When the van stopped behind the old Towncar that led them, the kids spilled out into the shell drive, laughing and chasing each other to the back where their duffels and backbacks waited. Mack walked forward and shook hands with Bully, the old church elder who’d come along with his wife Della. The shouts of the teenagers mixed in the salty air with the scattered calls of seagulls. Only two remained silent: a twelve-year-old, who no one knew well because he was the youngest, and Phil, who kept his headphones on and surveyed the dunes across the road, the wide porch with a raised pool, the sandy old building where they would spend the week in church retreat discussing Jesus and the importance of faith while three hours north, Phil’s grandmother lay in a funeral home, being dressed and made up for a viewing and a funeral Phil was not allowed to attend.
Version 3 (the retyped version):
To drive from the Texas hill country to the Gulf of Mexico takes three hours. The route they drove, through the snarl of San Antonio and then down I-37 to Corpus Christi then over the bridge to Mustang Island, took three and a half. Mack, the youth leader driving the van, enjoyed the trip even though he claimed he could make the run in two hours if it weren’t for old Bully, the church elder, driving the Lincoln Towncar ahead of them. But he only said this to impress the teenagers he oversaw, to earn the respect of youth, and because he was still young himself, just twenty-four. He did not bark at the teens to quit draping over the backs of their seats, to quit shouting and wrestling and tossing Corn Nuts at each other. Instead, he laughed along with them, jostled as best he could from behind the wheel, elbowed the boy Luke riding shotgun. Only Phil rode in silence, his eyes closed and his headphones on, a Bryan Adams cassette playing on his Walk-man. When they stopped in Pleasanton for Cokes and snacks he’d stayed in the van, the other kids shoving out past him. He kept his eyes closed the whole trip.
The Walk-man, which his grandmother had bought him last Christmas, before she’d died, had a switch that reversed the tape automatically, playing one side then the other. It had flipped sides four times on the trip. He was listening to “Heat of the Night” as though in a dream, the song now as much a part of his mind as his own thoughts, so he was slow to react when the van lurched down a side road too fast and Lane, the red-haired girl next to him, slid into his thigh. They had ducked onto worn beach road, off the main drive through the state park toward Port Aransas. Lane scooted back to the middle of their seat, said sorry though it was only the shape of the word through the Bryan Adams in Phil’s head. She touched his forearm when she said it. Phil looked out out the rows of humped, grassy sand dunes slipping past the window like an EKG, rises and dips in one long rapid line, and then they turned again up a seashell lane toward Summerplace. Phil looked back at Lane’s hand but it was nowhere near his anymore.
When the van stopped the kids spilled out into the shell drive, laughing and chasing each other or collecting their duffels and backbacks from the rear. Mack walked up to the Towncar and shook hands with Bully and with Bully’s wife Della. Phil switched off the Walk-man but left the headphones on. The muffled shouts of the teenagers mixed in the salty air with the scattered cries of seagulls. Only two remained silent: a younger boy, only twelve, who no one knew well or even by name, and Phil, who stood away from the van and surveyed the dunes across the road, the choppy late-May Gulf and the gray-blue sky over the thin horizon, the little shaft of an oil derrick. The huge two-story house behind him, a beach retreat, wide raised deck and a couple of balconies but with sandy, pealing paint on the slatted siding. and a screen door that hung at an angle and clapped in the Gulf breeze. At Summerplace they would sleep and eat and pray for a week, they would learn about Jesus and the function of the church youth group and the importance of faith while three hours north, Phil’s grandmother lay in the mortuary, being dressed and made up for a viewing and a funeral Phil was not allowed to attend.
The kids bounced on the balls of their feet, bags hung on shoulders on slumped against hips, while Bully and Mack did a head count. The boys flexed their muscles and the girls pretended not to notice. The wind smelled of fish and gasoline, and all the teenagers fussed with their hair. Then Mack waved them all in and they sprinted under the weight of their bags, dashing through the screen door and letting the spring slap it shut. They huddled in the dim dining room, dust on all the tables, and waited for their room assignments. Lane stood in a stairwell with the other girls, but Phil did not stop to look watch her.
The explanation of the exercise: One of the biggest obstacles to any revision is the familiarity of the text. Typed, it looks final, polished, and we are wary of making any drastic changes. So to get past that, we have to make the text unfamiliar, we have to remove the finality of the written version. Tom Franklin says one of his favorite revision techniques is simply to make the text look different, to change the font or the page color or anything else you can do just to make the text look different. More powerful than that is the desperation of losing a story altogether–several years ago, I lost the file of a novel I wrote as a college student, and I became frantic. The book wasn’t very good, but I was desperate not to lose all that work. Fortunately, I had the hard copy on paper, so I set about retyping it and in the process discovered that I was making profound changes to the story. The results were MUCH better than the original.
As for the handwriting: I have found that handwriting creates a different feel in prose than typing does. The story feels slower, more deliberate. That’s not usually my style, or so I like to tell myself, but with this story, I have always wanted a slower pace, a more contemplative mood, and handwriting slows down my thinking process as well as my writing. Plus, it makes the text look drastically different and more forgivably rough, so when I go back to type it up, I’m free to make changes that would feel harder in a typed, more “finished” text.
Of course, not all revision is good revision. Revision often reminds me of Joey trying to help Chandler break into Monica’s secret closet on Friends: They’re hunched down by the doorknob as Joey meticulously works in the keyhole with a pair of bobby pins, and finally he looks at Chandler and shrugs and said, “For all I know I’m just locking it more.” These revisions could be worse than the earlier version, or more likely, parts are better and parts are worse, and I’m working blind with bobbypins here–I have no idea if this is unlocked yet or not. So feel free to chime in: Leave me a message telling me what changes you like, what changes you hate, and what changes I haven’t made yet but need to desperately.