Revisionist History

Country music, new relationships, contemporary Christian music, and ducks have all been topics I debated writing about in the last week or so but I never got around to it. Part of it is laziness, part of it is lack of time, and part of it is because my writing energy was focused on something much more important: a short story. A few months ago I finished writing my the first PI story I’ve attempted in about five years. My PI jones has been fed by writing and revising Lunchbox Hero while the short stories I’ve written have all been darker noir stories or short humor stories to feed a different side of my brain. As I started placing stories with some of the good mystery zines though I realized it was time to go after one of the Holy grails of PI fiction.

Thrilling Detective ranked up there with Plots With Guns in the category of zines I most wanted to be in when I first starting submitting short stories. PWG is gone, so I figured it was time to aim for TD and I had just the story. So I knocked out the story over a couple days, sent it to a couple people to read, rewrote it a little bit more and then sent it off. A few months later I got an email from Gerald So with some suggsted edits. Lots of suggested edits. This was the first time I’d ever had an editor request anything beyond minor line edits and it initially threw me for a loop.

I’ve always been an extensive revisor of my own work. I love the process. I liken it to the art of sclupture. The first draft is just throwing the lumps of clay together to form the basic shape. As you fine tune the story though, you start getting into more of the details and chopping out extra stuff and so on. The first big mystery story I wrote was written six times over three years before it was picked up by a tiny mystery magazine. Lunchbox Hero was revised from scratch about five times along with several other major rewrites over the course of four years (and is currently undergoing another major page one rewrite–though this novel isn’t even really LBH anymore) so I am not a stranger to the revision process. But this was the first time the changes had been suggested by someone other than the voice in my head and it made me immediately defensive.

The suggestion were all valid and would make the story better but they would require substantial work, not just a few minutes of cleaning up some things. I thought about the story for a while though and eventually came up with an idea to fix the major problem of the story, then took care of a few other problems and was really happy with the final version I sent back to Gerald. He then sent the story on to Kevin Burton Smith who sent me back his own comments on the story a few weeks ago.

This time there were tons of suggestions and some flat out dissing of some of the things in the story. Again, all of it was valid and changing all of it would make the story much better but this not I was not only defensive, I was overwhelmed. There was so much that needed to be done to the story and I knew it was going to take even longer than the first edit and I wasn’t sure I was ready for that. After about a week of thinking about it and obsessing over it I finally figured out how ton tackle it and spent the next two days at work starting at a piece of paper with three questions I needed to answer for the story to work.

I got a wave of cool ideas that would add a whole new layer of depth to the story but it really took the story in a whole new directrion and would require scrapping everything but the first scene. It also didn’t keep to the original theme which was one of the things Kevin had liked, though he thought it was undeveloped. After thinking about it some more I was starting to think it was more than I was willing to, or would have the time to, put in and I also wasn’t sure if sending back a totally different story was what Kevin was looking for because he’d have to start editing from the beginning again.

Then my laziness actually helped me for once.

Thinking about the quickest and easiest way to solve the story’s main problem I had an epiphany and knew just how to fix the story. I then put off making the changes for a few more days until two nights before it was due back to Gerald. I worked all night on the story and got it to the point where I was happy with it and sent it back to the TD guys. Now I wait and see.

I’ve got a bunch more short stories I’d like to write and after working my way through the PWG anthology and the new Best American Mystery Stories I’m sure I’ll have more I want to write,but the next few months are about the new novel. It’s hard going back to writing from scratch and writing for discovery more than fine tuning but I’m eager to give it a whirl and see what I discover. I’m just trying not to think about how much editing this one is going to require when I finish…

6 thoughts on “Revisionist History

  1. Good for you, Bryon! Congrats on hanging in and on liking revision and on knowing that each tough revision is a learning experience that makes your writing stronger.

  2. I know how daunting it is to have a major rewrite or revision looming. I spent the summer rewriting and revising my second Annie Seymour mystery SECONDHAND SMOKE, and while I was close to tears when I started, in the end I knew I was smart to listen to my editors because it’s a much better book now. So keep your chin up, keep writing and I’ll keep my fingers crossed for fewer changes next time.

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