How I Revise

At the end of last week, I finished the first draft of a new, silly sort of short story called "The Shopping Cart Apocalypse." I came up with the title before anything else when, one day in the Target parking lot, I saw there were far more carts disposed of in the lot planters or simply left blocking empty spaces than there were in either the cart returns or the store itself. I was just making a dumb joke, but the title stuck with me and, eventually, I wrote the first few lines, and then a few weeks later, I shotgunned the last 2600 words of the draft.

After finishing the draft, I got a little giddy on twitter, calling it: "A horror story about the touching relationship between an underpaid supermarket employee and his cart retrieval machine" and "Fourteen pages of a guy walking through a parking lot, thinking about how shopping carts have changed during his lifetime."

"The Shopping Cart Apocalypse" is exactly what it sounds like, and thinking about it makes me happy. It's the first short story I've worked on since I started up on the new novel, and it's such a refreshing change of pace -- action, horror, humor! -- that it energized me a little. Now, things get more complicated. I need to stop being so giddy and start figuring out what's wrong with this thing. I need to revise it. But how? Jump the cut to find out.

The first rule of any revision for me is to take a few days and get another pair of eyes on it. At least one more pair. This is the part of my process that is the same as everyone else's. I can't do an honest revision without a little distance, and time and criticism both build distance. I'm lucky to have people who read my drafts who are much different kinds of writers than I am, because they understand things about my stories that I'm blind to. I'm not an awesome world-builder, but one of my first readers is an AWESOME world-builder. When she reads my stories, my world-building always improves.

After that, I try to have a fairly involved revision process. I need this because my first drafts are largely improvisational. I don't draft from outlines. I might have a good idea of the opening and a fair idea of the end game, but I discover my first drafts a lot more than I plan them. That means they have problems. Since I don't draft from an outline, one of the things I love doing is revising from an outline. It's hard to keep an entire story in my head at one time, and creating an outline of the story after it's finished allows me to see the whole thing more easily. I can track how many scenes characters are in, when information is introduced, when major actions are happening, and diagnose very quickly when the balance is off for any of these.

As part of this outline, I specifically track character motivations, desires, obstacles, and actions taken (or not taken) in response to their obstacles. I do this for every character who appears in the scene. It's amazing how often the first draft of a scene is missing one or more of these for one or more of the characters present. Now, I don't like to be a prescriptivist about a lot of things, and the idea that drama is conflict, and that conflict comes from having a desire that can't easily be fulfilled has always been a little too one-size-fits-all for me; I think drama exists when tension is inspired in the audience, and that there are a lot of ways to create tension (the character desire/obstacle/action triangle being only one). That said, it's too useful a tool for me to ignore. Even if I'm trying to create a sense of drama with a different tool, working my way through this checklist keeps me focused on my characters, which is really the most important thing, allowing me to track their consistency and their development much more easily than I would otherwise.

The other thing I really try to do is figure out all the things my first draft is doing that I did not intend for it to do. These can be bad: Am I unwittingly using a trope I find distasteful, like the magical negro or the tragic queer? It's often very surprising how often I fall into comfortable and familiar narrative patters that are not good. I'm trained in them. I use them. Then I look for them and get the hell rid of them. I clearly remember the moment I realized that one of my old stories, which was nominally about body horror at the time, inflicted that horror disproportionately on women. It opened my eyes to the crap I do without thinking, so now I revise for it. These unconscious moments can also be good, though: I find a lot of unexpected repetition in my drafts, unplanned patterns that assert and reassert themselves, that further inform or better develop the ideas I was working through in the first place, and noticing them allows me to make them intentional parts of the story in the second draft.

Then, I revise. Most of the time, this means I keep my outline and the list of corrections it demands nearby, I go to the top of the document, add some space above the first paragraph, and start writing the whole thing over, keeping words and half-sentences every now and then, but rarely any larger chunks. Too much has to change to keep much around from the first try. I always hope that changes will be small, but I find the butterfly effect is often just too strong. By changing the first sentence, I have to change the second for it to keep making sense, and the changes keep branching in that way until almost all of the words from the original draft have been replaced. By correcting a character motivation in this scene, their actions in the next scene have a new flavor, which has to be represented with new text. As I add new text, I delete the old text that it has replaced.

I know a lot of writers who do their revisions in separate documents, so they can hold on to the earlier draft of the story, for peace of mind, in case they don't like the changes they make. Without exception, they end up deleting the original file and keeping the new one, but the option to go back gives them the peace of mind to go forward. I don't do this. I much prefer the feeling that the stuff I know needed to be corrected has actually been erased, and is actually gone, and that the only thing that remains is the improvement. Maybe if I gave myself the choice to go back, I would never go properly forward.

And that's where I am with "The Shopping Cart Apocalypse." I have a few days on it. I'm getting a few eyes on it. Then I'm outlining, tracking, and replacing.

I like the story how it is. It makes me happy. I don't THINK I'll need to change very much. But it's a first draft, so of course I will. And that's okay, too, because it will be even better when I'm done.