How do you recognize text that doesn’t add to the piece, and what is your best piece of advice for revision in flash?
April Bradley is a writer and lives with her family on the Connecticut shoreline near New Haven. Find her online at aprilbradley.net and on Twitter at @april_bradley.
January 6, 2016 at 11:21 AM
One of my first pieces of advice would be to read it aloud, have it read aloud to you, and listen listen listen and see what can be taken out. I remove almost all usages of the words ‘just’ and ‘that’ and tiny words that don’t add anything to what I’m trying to do. I work really hard to make every word count, even the tiniest ones. And I really try and make sure I fall in love with everysingle word I’m putting on the page. If something is bugging me about it, it has to go. I also let it sit for a while re: revision. I sleep on it, revisit it…read it aloud again. I have my phone or computer read it aloud to me. Patience, listening, falling in love with the language over and over again…that’s where I start and hopefully finish, as well.
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January 10, 2016 at 6:40 PM
I agree–having a phone or computer read back your words is genius.
When you put your work aside, how long do you usually wait before revisiting? Do you tend to change a lot in your revisions?
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January 12, 2016 at 12:24 PM
Leonora, for me it depends re: how long I wait! Sometimes a couple days is enough? Sometimes a week, maybe. There’s a sweet spot, specific to each piece I think. Usually if I can’t stop thinking about it, I keep digging in. If thinking about it is wearing me out, I make myself take a break. And for the most part I don’t really change a lot…but may focus on finding the perfect word or taking out unnecessary words but I don’t usually do huge overhauls to a piece that is working in any way for me..not when it comes to flash.
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January 7, 2016 at 5:41 PM
Distance is tool I use. Leesa talks about it in her comment, stepping away from a piece and letting it rest. This feels like “twinning” to me. I create a second me by putting a couple hours between when I write something and before I go back to read it the first time. I rewrite. Make it better. The same applies each reading, a third me might be alert to the story, asking questions such as “what does my character want?” “What’s her attitude?” “What stands in her way?” “What is she afraid of?” “What strengths have I shown?” I edit. The fourth me reads the story aloud, hearing the language, the quality of it. I edit again. The fifth me is ready to send out, reminding me of the many times I’ve found errors as soon as I hit the submittable button. I edit again. There may or may not be a sixth or seventh me, but breaking down the process helped me find flaws I don’t find when I look for everything at once.
Leesa states she has to love every word. Absolutely and I would add that everything word must not only be necessary, but as many of them as possible should do more than one thing. I use setting as a vehicle to convey mood, theme, as well as an anchor. The landscape must be specific to the story’s intention, my intention. And it must be abbreviated, a phrase, a sentence, that reflects the whole. The characters’ names, their appearance must carry some hint as to who they are. Dialogue must in its intonation and diction give the reader the both attitude and POV of the characters.
I use the search feature in Word to find and eliminate “extra” words such as “pretty,” “that,” “very,” “really,” “always,” “maybe,” “never,” “went,” “just,” etc. I don’t eliminate them completely, but I don’t want to overuse them, especially in non-fiction.
Reading over a draft, I also look at sentence structure, keeping in mind that sometimes rhythmn trumps conciseness. Having a list of words and phrases I want “to try” to expunge from my writing helps. (Included on that list are phrases like “I try to expunge!” which should be “expunge.” Even “list of words” could be “word list.”) Prepositional phrases, qualifiers, verb modifiers, repetitions in language and content must go if they don’t purposefully serve the story, as well as my own diction-addictions such as “I always find,” “a little.”
My one piece of advice? Allow the writing process to work. Know that each run you take through a piece will yield insights. Your mind, your subconscious, work when you’re not working so allow that to come to forward. Don’t hurry.
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January 7, 2016 at 7:14 PM
Distance, yes. Out loud. For sure. There’s no substitute for either. No shortcut, either. And out loud for me means in a room with a closed door, standing up. Not mumbling quietly to myself in a coffee shop, hoping no one sees. If I want to hear how it sounds, like practicing an instrument, it has to be big and from the gut. I often think about flash like a piece of music. Not a catchy pop song but something with movements and contradictions. I rely on my ear ten times more than my brain. The catch? Sometimes rhythm trumps meaning, and I compromise with the wrong word, or I can get caught up in the symmetry of two phrases next to one another–the beat. But it’s how the words hit the air that tells me what has to go. Revision is my favorite part.
January 10, 2016 at 6:48 PM
“Sometimes rhythm trumps meaning, and I compromise with the wrong word.” I agree with this wholeheartedly, Rosie. I find that if the rhythm is off, the piece rings falsely, which also detracts from meaning.
When you revise one part of a piece, how does it impact the rest? Does changing one element change the rhythm and feeling of the whole work, necessitating further revision?
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January 11, 2016 at 12:17 PM
I can completely relate to your musical metaphor. When I wrote for film, I always saw myself as a conductor of an orchestra — the strings, brass, woodwinds, percussion — all that musical movement had to work together to create the whole. I still rely on my ear in that manner. The contradiction (to my great disappointment) in life is that I have no musical talent whatsoever.
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January 8, 2016 at 10:35 AM
I perceive an effective revision as one that involves a certain spatial and temporal distancing. Whenever I finish writing a flash fiction, I lock it away in my drawer for a few days and then take it out again and read it aloud. Each time, I inevitably find a sentence structure/syntax/phrase that demands a form of editing. Like the other writers above, I too believe in the wisdom that a piece of writing acquires when it is allowed to remain away from the author. I also try to focus on a particular aspect whenever I re-read my draft instead of its numerous contours, and spend as much time with it as I can. My writing usually involves itself with the characters and not so much the plot, so that is the first area that I revise. I pick out random phrases and sentences involving the character on a separate sheet of paper and jot down everything that comes to my mind when I look at them. I then ask myself if that it what i was trying to achieve through the dialogue or the sentence. This often helps me to add more width to my characters. My next focus is the ‘plot’, and I see my narrative landscape as a space with which my characters interact. I try to see how strongly my characters interact with it. This process really helps me to work on my flaws. And the language, of course. Every word needs to have a purpose and a conviction of its rightful presence in the narrative. I also like to see how my words interact with each other. I hate a jarring texture if it doesn’t serve a purpose in the story. A flash fiction needs to be a perfect home for its readers (and for the writer too), and as writers, we need to ensure that we do justice to that. And patience and a critical conversation with what we write help me to achieve that. It sometimes takes me only a couple of hours to write a flash fiction, but months to finally proclaim it as a finished’ work. But then, the revision never stops.
January 9, 2016 at 9:14 PM
“… the revision never stops.” Oh, God, you are so right. I have to force myself not to re-read anything I’ve already submitted because invariably I will see something I hate and want to stick hot pokers in my eyes.
January 12, 2016 at 11:55 AM
“I pick out random phrases and sentences involving the character on a separate sheet of paper and jot down everything that comes to my mind when I look at them. I then ask myself if that it what i was trying to achieve through the dialogue or the sentence.”
This really resonates with me, Shinjini. I love the idea of language and character being married to one another. The prose should explore and deepen the character; if not, it’s extraneous.
January 8, 2016 at 5:46 PM
This reply is on behalf of Ashley Inguanta:
Nearly a decade ago now, my fiction teacher and advisor at The Florida Review—the late Jeanne Leiby—told me to read my work out loud, and if I found myself skimming over parts, to either revise those parts or seriously consider cutting them.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated with small spaces. Small homes, small cars, small works of art. It wasn’t surprising to me when I fell in love with Flash, but it did feel like a very sudden and wonderful gift. When I revise my flash pieces, I end up cutting a lot, but I also end up writing a lot more, too. I cut over explanation, sentences and phrases that don’t hold much weight. If I do replace these lines, I will sit with the piece (sometimes for hours, days, months, or years) and ask myself the question: “What does this piece need?” Sometimes, all a piece needs is one or two more details to make it feel whole. Other times, a character needs to say something for a story to become complete. But most often, though, a character needs to do something, to act/react, to truly fill the story.
January 9, 2016 at 12:52 PM
First of all, reading all your responses makes me feel like I’ve taken a master class in technique. I’m honored to be among you. As for my own process, I need that first sentence. Once I get it I feel I’ve crested that first tall hill on a roller coaster and the first draft takes off from there. Sometimes I get lucky and that first sentence appears like an unexpected gift. If I’m struggling too much to find it that tells me that I don’t yet know what I want to say with the piece. If I’m working from a word prompt, I’ll often go to the thesaurus and play around taking different approaches to the same meaning. A little trickery works wonders with my mind. “Look! Over there!”
Endings, blessedly, seem to arrive on their own. I most certainly will tinker with them, but there is no arguing with my inner editor. If I try to elaborate it’s like the child who gets her hand slap for reaching for another cookie. Maybe because I primarily write micro (under 300 words). I don’t really know. I completely agree that reading your work out loud is the Holy Grail of revision. In your mind, it’s easy to fall in love with the words, where the ear will not hesitate to tell you, “No. That’s crap. Cut it.”
January 9, 2016 at 7:35 PM
I echo the ideas of distance (time away) and reading out loud. I’ll add to the mix that changing the font of a piece is an effective way to distance yourself from it as well…
I do think that editing flash fiction is different than editing other kinds of work, perhaps more akin to poetry. I think what separates flash from other forms is an URGENCY inherent in the form–so when I edit I do it with urgency, almost as if a fire is consuming my story and I can only pick what I can carry. That kind of urgency.
On a practical level I hold each word and each sentences in my metaphorical hand and ask: “Will the reader be lost without this? And “Will leaving this out change important meaning?” If the answer is no, it goes. I try and leave the bare minimum, the slightest swipe left that still implies the whole.
I’m reading this book on clearing clutter by Marie Kondo–she advocates for “facing your possessions.” She advises to hold each possession in your hand and ask “does it bring me joy?” If not, it goes. If it used to bring you joy but no longer does, it goes. I think that’s how we should approach our stories–de-clutter them. Allow spaces and silences so that what is left takes on more meaning.
It’s the difference between 100 roses in a vase and 2 roses in a vase–which one allows you to really appreciate the beauty of a rose? Flash fiction knows how to let 2 roses imply the entire universe.
January 9, 2016 at 8:39 PM
Love what all have said. I did speak also of always reading the work aloud. Exploit the gray areas when possible. Forget zingers at the end. Each sentence should be critical to the tension. The first sentence must be essential and strong. Get rid of ‘i should, i could, i feel, i think’. Let that verb ring strong and clear. Drop all the adverbs and read the story and see if it works without them. Check metaphors, similes. Do they have a common theme that brings it all together without being overt. No dream sequences. And, I always ask my students to attempt not only to write the microcosm of the story, but add the macrocosm. How this fits into a philosophical theme of the protagonist. The big picture. Make it grandiose. State things that may not be true, but we don’t doubt when we read them. Utilize unique metaphors and similes. Consider what POV brings the reader closest to the story. Try it in 1st, 2nd, 3rd. Does the gender of the narrator (if 1st person) need to be known? Let go of any exposition that is filler. Like Nancy said, take out each sentence and see if the story works without it. If so, dump and continue.
January 10, 2016 at 7:30 PM
I love this, Meg, especially the idea of adding the macrocosm. I am going to keep these tips handy.
January 11, 2016 at 12:07 PM
“I always ask my students to attempt not only to write the microcosm of the story, but add the macrocosm. How this fits into a philosophical theme of the protagonist. The big picture. Make it grandiose. State things that may not be true, but we don’t doubt when we read them.”
Can you expand on this with a couple of examples, Meg?
January 13, 2016 at 8:32 PM
Yes, absolutely, Jayne. I was on a panel on flash fiction at AWP last year. I broke down a story that I had published in Connotation Press by Sara Henning titled “My Grandfather’s Photographs. Some lines of the macrocosm:
“Every man keeps a journal, even if he never writes a word.”
“To find a journal is one thing–a moment of graphite, pencil’s cruel liason with paper. A moment of leather warming in my mother’s hand.
To hold an artifact, another.”
And in a story of mine “Mutable Pleasures,’ which is a story about addiction and the need to fill up holes. “The toughest part is when I realize there are blanks I can’t fill in no matter how many times I revisit a puzzle. I have to burn the newspaper, because I can’t stand to see those empty spaces leering back.”
I could give many more examples, but does that make sense about the macro inside the micro, Jayne? I’m not saying it has to be stated, but I admire work that does add that deeper layer.
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January 13, 2016 at 8:50 PM
Yes. I get it now. I’ve even done it, but didn’t realize it was a thing, much less had a name. Thank you for pointing that out. And “Mutable Pleasures” is wonderful.
January 11, 2016 at 10:10 PM
One more thing I do, especially in flash–rewrite the whole thing from scratch without looking at the original. People hate me when I make them do this, but it’s the quickest way to see what you really need. When you are forced to rewrite it without looking ALL the good stuff stays (and sometimes you naturally reword it better the second time) and all the so-so stuff gets left out OR gets a natural upgrade. Then you put the two versions side by side–usually starting with the new one–and paint in any nice wording that got left out. Voila!
I actually recommend this for novels, too. People get very angry at this suggestion, but I’m telling you it works AND for a novel it has added bonus of giving the whole thing an urgency and an evenness of tone that you don’t get naturally when you have been dissecting the same text for a long time…
January 12, 2016 at 11:32 AM
This is a brilliant suggestion, Nancy. The one time I rewrote a piece without looking at the first version I ended up scrapping the entire first draft. The second one had, as you said, all the essentials. I am going to have to try this more often.
January 12, 2016 at 11:53 AM
Spoken like a young person. Wait till you reach my age. Things leave and they don’t come back.
January 12, 2016 at 12:40 PM
This is a fabulous question and thread of intelligent answers and approaches to revision of flash fiction. I agree with Jayne. It’s a master class.
I think we all agree about the huge value of reading the work aloud! I can’t tell you how many mistakes I’ve found that way. And as many others have said, the “sound” of the work is important to me too. I really edit for sound and flow to my work. Not so much for plot as I don’t feel my work is all that plotted.
The three most important things for me (besides sound and flow) are Emotion, Movement, and Resonance. I feel like the story must have these three things in order to “work” and I revise accordingly. Those are the substantive revisions. What does the reader come away with? Is there a sense of meaningful change by the end? Does this work have staying power, for the reader?
Beyond those substantive changes, my edits are always aimed at giving the piece as much punch, beauty, and flow as possible. I tell my students to look at where their sentences land. Is the most powerful word or image buried in the text? Avoid trailing off with conversational asides. Avoid “softening” words like “seemed like,” “sort of,” etc. Write with conviction! Things that are “sort of” are not that interesting!
My feeling about revision is that all stories can be made better. Yes, yes, put it in a drawer for a few days! Finishing a draft is a glorious feeling, but don’t send it out immediately. There is always some mistake (at least in my drafts), there is always a typo, there is always a way to make it stronger, tighter, more elegant, etc. I’ve never regretted that cooling off period.
January 12, 2016 at 12:45 PM
Oh I wanted to say, too, that in terms of “text that doesn’t add to the piece” almost always you can cut a bit off the top and a bit off the bottom. I’ve worked with Kim Chinquee for many years and at least at first, routinely told me to end my stories much sooner. And I found she was always right. Eventually I got better at recognizing this on my own and would say to myself, “you need to Chinquee the ending of this story.”
January 17, 2016 at 9:33 PM
What an amazing conversation! All y’all are brilliant!
My general rule is not to write down in the first place anything I wouldn’t wish to read. Ahahaha. But seriously folks, I do tailor a lot of my process to avoiding having a lot of trash to haul. I’m primarily muse-driven and like Jayne, I need a first sentence. So I do not benefit from techniques that run to writing at the same time every day or producing X pages per Y. I believe I DO benefit from disciplines like, “Nothing highly idiomatic, no neologisms or ‘figures of speech.’ ” and “NEVER begin at the beginning or anywhere near it.” Barbara Kingsolver told me she has to sit at her word processor and babble like an imbecile for awhile until “something catches hold” and she can begin work for the day.[Insert snowflake metaphor here, and yet…] Honestly, if I had to work that way, I wouldn’t. Being a writer just wouldn’t interest me. [second snowflake metaphor and a general apology] Still and all, a lot of pure shite sails through my filters. Just last night I had to take away a water nixie’s ‘jewel-like’ tail, thinking all the time, “Who came in here and wrote that crap? I never would.” sigh.
Most of my revision work is about syntax—sentence engineering. As a cousin to Nancy’s “rewrite from scratch” suggestion, I will often take a troubled passage or even a healthy micro and investigate what it would take to turn it into one grammatically correct and syntactically secure sentence. Then I know what the thing is made of and how it works.
January 17, 2016 at 11:33 PM
“Barbara Kingsolver told me she has to sit at her word processor and babble like an imbecile for awhile until “something catches hold” and she can begin work for the day”
Thank you for sharing this.
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January 17, 2016 at 9:47 PM
I knew someone was going to say, “No dream sequences.” Ahahaha. Since it was inevitable, I’m glad it was you, Meg.
Here’s my problem with that: I don’t give my characters any time off. They are my characters 24/7 so sometimes they dream. Unless they are sharks or ants, who do not sleep. If that seems harsh, consider– characters don’t give the writer any time off either. Aren’t they always walking over us to go make themselves another sandwich and waking us up in the middle of the night insisting we watch them dance? I figure if they can dick around with my dreams, I can dick around with theirs.
January 17, 2016 at 11:14 PM
You said “dick.” I think I love you.
January 17, 2016 at 11:46 PM
I double that! LOVE YOU, Sally! xoxox
January 18, 2016 at 1:27 AM
Thank you so much, Jayne. You should come to an F-Bomb. We say all that shit, right Meg? (I love you CRAZY Meg!)
January 18, 2016 at 10:44 PM
dick, ratfuck, coitus with cockring, missionary with a butt plug, etc etc….. I LOVE YOU LIKE CRAZY, Sally!!!! xo
January 18, 2016 at 1:51 AM
Jayne, it was more than 20 years ago that Kingsolver told me that. She may work differently today. It may be relevant to note that she had a background in technical writing and heavily researched non-fiction. She had no problem starting right in with those because she had her “thing” physically present on the desk. Perhaps even more germane, she said before someone taught her that technique she assumed she was “blocked” or “had nothing to say.” The key, she said, is to have an emotional connection to the babble and no judgement about it.
January 18, 2016 at 12:38 PM
“The key, she said, is to have an emotional connection to the babble and no judgement about it.” Yes! That emotional connection then becomes like a homing device attracting the images and story elements that support it. Kathy does an exercise in her class that starts with holding a strongly-felt emotion and then doing a word map. I’ll let Kathy explain it. Jump in here Kathy.
January 18, 2016 at 1:20 PM
Yes! I know that exercise of Kathy’s! It’s a great one. I can’t say it actually worked for me right then and there but I believe it primed my pump for the next exercise which was a simple photo prompt. I looked at that photo and spewed 2,500 words of depth psychology at a single clip. Ahahah. But I think that’s illustrative of the fact that it’s the Word Map
itself that makes that one a flash primer. The business of holding any random strong emotion and feeling around the edges of it is a novelist’s or long former technique because the stuff it fetches up, the preoccupations, the premises, are so bourgeois. To be a successful short form ignition, we need to interpose the Word Map as a babble blocker.
January 19, 2016 at 12:49 AM
I’ve got to say the exercise totally worked for me. It wasn’t a random emotion. We all plugged into something strong we were feeling at the time. At the time, I was righteously pissed off about feeling trapped in a situation. I ended up writing a story about a female prisoner of war that I in no way would have come up with otherwise.
January 19, 2016 at 2:06 PM
I’d like to chuck in a few words here about the opposite problem. That is, cutting mania, cutting for the sake of cutting and cutting inorganically to fit some lit mag’s word count guidelines. At blink-ink we see a lot of subs where someone has (probably) written a fairly decent 100-word story then rendered it unconscious and incomprehensible to push it closer to our 50-word guideline. That’s why I advocate working more with sentences than words. When you have the structure right, the gratuitous words fairly beg to leave. I once cast a very powerful spell devised by a talented friend that was designed to facilitate “getting rid of all the things in my life that do not serve me.” The junk just flew away from me. When I came to a pass where I had no toothbrush, no skillet or frying pan of any sort, and my husband had gone missing, I realized I needed to burn a black candle at the dark of the Moon and make the thing STOP.
Then there is the related issue of the blanket commands like, “No adverbs.”
“Not all adverbs are Toxic Toms,” she replied cuttingly.
January 24, 2016 at 5:01 AM
When it’s time to put the editor hat on, you need to first identify the function of the piece. If you had to condense the entire entity into one word or line, the driving force, meaning, purpose, what would it be? What’s the one fundamental message or feeling you want your reader to step away with? Once you’ve identified the purpose or function, you are ready for the only math involved with creative writing, a simple two part formula—part one: strengthen the function/message of the piece and the reader’s engagement with that function; part two: cut out anything that is distracting or taking away from the function and reader’s engagement. This is when you care about narrative arc (but you never should with your writing hat on, or you won’t allow yourself to discover it). Go through the piece and ask every word, line, paragraph, and page what it is doing to strengthen that function. Ask every word, line, paragraph, and page to do more. How can it be stronger without being pushy? This is a fine line but one you mustn’t cross. It’s likewise important to not be too explicit in your message or it will feel like being spoon fed a moral at the end of a Disney fairytale. The use of implication and ambiguity allows the reader to make connections and have revelations themselves so they can feel closer to it, inspired, a personal connection, because it was them who discovered the meaning—it becomes theirs. But, do make sure the connections are there for them to make.
January 24, 2016 at 11:30 AM
Kona, this reminds me of something a producer told me once when I was writing a movie: “Don’t direct your actor to cry. Make your audience cry.” I never forgot it. It’s interesting how the process of good writing transcends genre. I’m learning that more and more as I read through the comments from all the remarkably talented women on this panel.
January 24, 2016 at 10:59 PM
Kona, I would LOVE to be in your class! You are pure brilliance! YES! xo
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