by Nathan Norton
Yeah, all us writers have said it once or twice or thrice or umpteen million times about one piece or another. Who can blame you, though? You want it to be good. You want it to be moving, to inspire, to make readers set your story down afterwards and say, “My dear sweet God. I’m so very glad I consumed that nugget of literary brilliance.”
So the rest of us can’t blame you. Mostly because we’ve all been there. We revise, revise, revise, revise, only to look up from the computer screen to realize a year’s worth of suns has set on a fourteen page story. This is not the fast track to the writerly production train. In fact, it’s just downright unproductive. Don’t get me wrong, revision is important. Ridiculous amounts of important. But the danger of the revision process is that it’s comfortable. Nestled safely under the awning of the “finishing touches,” a writer never has to hear criticism not his own, never has to experience rejection, and never has to settle into the reality that yes, the story is done and it’s not getting any better. But what if that’s not good enough? Well, then your story is about as useful as mustard-flavored ketchup and you ought to try your hand at writing up another.
A finished story is a scary thing. Is it good enough? Is it, like the Army man, all that it can be? Annoyingly, a writer’s work is never finished in his own eyes. In every read through there’s something sticking out, be it a humdrum verb, a particularly and especially redundant adverb choice, a character name you suddenly wish was Jake instead of Jack, whatever. There’s always something. The rub of it is that there will never not be something. You, as your story’s creator, will never be finished. Get over it.
There comes a time when you have to let go of your story. A time when you have to say, “I suppose I’m pleased with this” and just set the thing down. Many times, a story is actually pretty good, but the author may think quite the opposite. This is an excellent, effective way of becoming completely obsessed with your piece. Don’t turn into the mentally creative equivalent of a petrified birchwood tree trying to make a single story your Magnum Opus. You’ll stalemate yourself and more than likely end up churning out pounds of useless verbiage because you want so very very bad for your piece to doted upon by literature buffs everywhere.
Revisions are absolutely necessary. Fill in those plot holes, make clear those blurry sentences, tighten loose paragraphs. But if you strive too hard for perfection, you may find that revision has become a crutch.
Writers can’t rely on revision. Many do, but they shouldn’t. Let trusted peer critics read your piece. Let your mom read it, let your significant other read it, let your mentally unstable Grandpa Jack read it and mention how “back in his day, revisions were done with some white paint and a piece of charcoal” and take their advice to heart. Make the necessary changes, but know this: run away if you find yourself continually revising. Beating the dead horse will just get you covered in flies, so freshen yourself up a bit by exercising your head on a new story. When you’re creative slate is clean, go ahead and read through that first story and see if you still feel the same about it.
It’s important that writers realize that revision ought to be done only as much as it needs and precisely no further. Fixating yourself on a story will often do it more harm than good. So after your first few revisions, stop and take a brain break. Remove yourself from a piece, and see what it looks like with fresh eyes.
Nathan Norton serves as intern to the Third Coast fiction editors.