Tag Archives: James Michener

The Pain of Revising and How to Cure It

Here what James A. Michener had to say about revising:

James A. Michener, author

“I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.”

After reading the towering masterpieces of this American writer, works such as Tales of the South PacificHawaii, and Centennial, I believe it.

At the beginning of my career not only did I not believe Michener , but I hardly ever did any rewriting, other than correcting typos.  This one time I had spent hours on a short story, lovingly carving each word and bringing it to life with my own blood and tears.  When it was finished, in the flush of creation I deemed it perfect and sadly didn’t look at it again.  Instead I sent it out “as is” to an editor.  The story was rejected.  I sent it out again.  Rejected.  And again.  Rejected. 

The fourth time was the charm.  On the standard rejection slip, some kind editor had scribbled.  “Needs ext. revision.”  After getting over my first knee-jerk reaction of angry denial, I spent some time puzzling over what “ext.” meant—surely not “exterior”?  “Extra”?  Extant?  It finally dawned on me that it meant “extensive.”  I sank in my chair, amazed and chagrined…not my perfect story that was so beloved and contained so much of my bs&t (blood, sweat and tears)!

Sheesh, was I embarrassed!

I pulled the manuscript out of it return envelope and started reading.  My face slowly heated up as I became more embarrassed the further I read.  Not only did purple prose stare me in the face, but there were typos.  I struggled with revising it and sent it out again; but I never did sell that story.  I finally filed it under UNSOLD and moved on.

For a couple of years after that, I always read my manuscript over and tried to revise it.  Trouble was, I didn’t really know how to revise.  Then I got my hands on a book, which changed my writing life.  Unfortunately, I don’t remember the name or author of the book and I loaned it to someone who never gave it back.  However, I learned to enjoy revising, and it became a challenge to find the areas that needed revision.  Once that happened, I started to sell my fiction material.  Most writers I know of credit their success to successful revision of their first raw draft.  Some writers revise many times.  Some only once, but the ones that do no revision at all are rarely successful.

Here are some of the things I have learned about revising, which I will be demonstrating in my next post with my work in progress, Battle Cleric.  It’s sort of a first draft and needs work.  I will share with you how I do it.

1.  Start off stories with a bang.  It doesn’t have to be direct action, but it does have to be compelling, in a way that makes the reader ask questions and WANT to read on to find out the answers.  In short stories, it is called the sizzler, the zinger, or the hook.  In a novel, you want to introduce the main character and give the reader an idea of what the book is going to be about.  If you have a theme for your story, it would be helpful to put it in the first few pages as well in some way.

2.  Don’t give too much of the back story in the beginning.  Let the reader find it out through dialogue, through flashbacks later on, and through deduction.  If you see a man in a robe that is not a bathrobe, custom declares that this story is not set in modern times, and quite possibly not of this world.  That is a clue for the reader about time, place, and circumstance.

Throw away the throwaway words.

3.  Remove all throwaway words.  These include there was, there are, there is, there were.  Check all adjectives and adverbs to see if they are absolutely necessary.  Strength comes from your verbs, but watch out for purple prose.  If you have too many people howling, roaring, stomping, crashing, etc., it starts to become melodrama, which is often unintentionally funny.

4.  Be careful of dialogue tags.  You want to minimize such tags as whispered, sobbed, laughed, choked, gurgled, etc.  Said is the best and most invisible dialogue tag you have in your toolbox of words.  Said is your friend.  Occasionally, you can insert one of the more powerful verbs as a dialogue tag (roared, stammered, shrieked, etc.), but they are like strong spices in the stew of dialogue tagging…meant to be used sparingly.

Watch out for the eyes.

5.  Watch out for eye movement.  Hysterically, she threw her eyes around the room (and what? Spent the next hour searching for them blindly?)  I have seen eyes slanted at, cut toward, sweep a room, send a disgusted glance, and so on.  It has always made me laugh.  You don’t want uninvited laughter from a reader.

6.  Search for awkward phrasing.  For instance, you probably have been told never to end a sentence with a preposition.  But the writing can get stiff and overly formal if you hold strictly to this.  You can either rewrite the sentence to avoid the preposition altogether.  Or you can do it the way you were told not to.  See?  The world didn’t come to an end when I did that.

There is lots more to come.  I learned a ton over the last three or four decades.  And I want to share it all with you.  But not all at once 🙂  So be patient, and practice working with those first six I have just given you.  You will be amazed at the resulting cosmetic and intrinsic value of your writing.