Last night in one of my writer’s groups ( I am in a fiction and a memoir group - both connected to the Writers Alliance (www.writersalliance.org), we talked about the best way to revise material. We debated the merits of just making small changes as opposed to an all-out, start-from-the-beginning, slash-and-burn re-edit. Personally, I think it depends on the piece. If you write something and it sucks, rewrite it from the beginning.
But be careful – sometimes you THINK something is bad, and really it just needs a little time to marinate. I have put stories aside literally for years, made some minor tweaks that improved them, and resent them only to have them get published. One story, “Bones,” was written after I witnessed an incident in a bar during a dart tournament my husband was playing in. Two men sitting next to me had a conversation that produced the story.
One said, “You’re not going to believe what I found on one of my construction sites today – a whole bunch of old bones.” The other guy said, “I hope you reported it.” The construction guy said, “Hell no, they’d take them away from me.” His friend replied, “Yeah, but, you know, I’m a Seminole. Those bones could be my relatives. Or a murder victim.”
That was it – the entire conversation. That phrase sat in my mind for weeks – “Those bones could be my relatives.” And suddenly a story came out of it. I sent it out twice. It got rejected. I decided it was useless, hopeless, weird and dull. I put it away.
For twenty years, it sat in a box, getting faded, decaying. When I found the pages, I literally had to retype it because we don’t use the same type of computer anymore. No one does. Yes, it was an old piece.
I still thought the story had potential – in fact, after letting it sit for over two decades, I think I finally SAW the potential. But it was hopelessly out of date. I wasn’t sure it needed a complete rewrite, but I knew I had to update it at the very least. At the time, Florida was experiencing some major forest fires, so I added the fires, added some cell phones, updated some of the extensive research I did on the Seminoles. Oh, and, as my writing group has told me so many times, took out all the that’s that were distracting (got that? Some of them you need!). All the “he said’s,” that weren’t needed.
And I sent it off to a couple of literary magazines. Within a day, it was accepted by Saw Palm (https://www.sawpalm.org/ - if you’re interested, I’ve uploaded the story below © Saw Palm), the literary magazine from the graduate program at the University of South Florida. Not only that, but I have been invited to read it twice by librarians at Library West on the University of Florida campus for their annual read-a-thon. And next year, I hope to read it for the Florida Folk Festival.
So, in my opinion, the best way to decide whether something needs a total rewrite or just a few tweaks is to put it away for as long as you can stand it. Never throw it away – it might get better with age.
Or like the novel I am currently working on, Bear Trapped: In a Trashy Hollywood Novel, you might find that someone hacked into your computer and rewrote your perfect prose into garbage. Now who would do that!