Day 19: Slasher Revision (“Tuesdays with Nari”)

Scream 2

Revision Inspiration

When I was thirteen, I spent Christmas with my aunt and uncle in SoCal. My uncle had devoted a large hall closet exclusively to movies–the kind that consisted of black plastic and tape (after all, we’re talking the nineties). I’d never seen so many movies anywhere but the video rental store. The closet was filled with hundreds, many of them with their Costco stickers still attached, ranging from Disney classics to suspense. Because my parents didn’t let me have many movies, all I wanted to do during my visit was work through those VHS stacks. I shared a guest room with Rebekah, the twelve-year-old daughter of my aunt and uncle’s friends, also there for the holiday, and since our room had a TV and VCR, we watched multiple movies every day. She liked horror, so one night she picked Scream 2. We watched it well past dark, and, since this was my first slasher flick, I was terrified well past those two hours. Although fifteen years have elapsed, I remember the character Phil getting stabbed in the face through the bathroom stall’s wall and later his wife Maureen crawling in front of a projector screen, a knife protruding from her back. A complete slasher film lightweight, I’ve never watched another. And Rebekah didn’t have much of a chance to suggest any more because the next day her dad walked in on us cuing I Know What You Did Last Summer, which was rated R, and he said she couldn’t watch movies for the rest of their visit.

Despite my dislike for slasher flicks, I recently took to slashing my drafts. A few weeks ago I was revising an unwieldy, twenty-something-page essay (I’ve written about it before here and here); its many sections hadn’t found the right order yet, and after scrolling through them over and over on my computer, I couldn’t see them clearly–they’d blurred together into a confusing, unattractive lump. So I decided to make “cut and paste” literal. I took scissors, tape, clean paper, and a printed copy of my draft to a local coffee shop. With a cup of hot spiced chai as fuel, I sliced my essay into pieces and started moving them around as if solving a puzzle, which in reality I was. Once a sequence was right, I taped its parts together. On the plain paper, I handwrote new material–transition sentences, paragraphs that suddenly felt necessary. Mostly, though, I just worked with what I had. For more than two hours, I unscrambled my puzzle, and by the time I called it quits, the draft, while still imperfect, sang with fresh clarity. Other coffee shop patrons probably wondered why a grown woman was happily waving scissors about and stirring scraps of paper on a table. And if they had asked, I’d have replied, “Re-imagining.”

That’s really what I was doing: Most of the blocks were in front of me, and all I had to do was assemble them into a structure that held strong and pleased the senses. I had to re-envision what I had, like a dream that features real-life characters and locales but an element of the fantastic so that when you wake up, you see these people and places a little differently than you did before.

Usually I write fifteen-to-thirty page essays and stories. Somewhere between drafts three and seven, my subject and most of its development have been found, but they haven’t evolved into the right form yet. Until my “cut and paste” fest at the coffee shop, I’d muddled through that stage on my computer, but even my decent-sized monitor couldn’t truly show the scope of a draft; the most I could see at once was two pixelated pages. As a self-righteous proponent of printed, three-dimensional books over Kindles and their ilk, I hadn’t even bothered to consider that I could re-form my prose with the weight of actual paper and toner in my hands. But now that I’ve tried it, I’ll keep at it. Sometimes seeing your words isn’t enough to believe in them–you have to feel them too.


Whether you’re working with stubborn poetry or prose, print out your draft and cut it into sensible units. Then play with them. Start with a different line or paragraph. Swap a couple images or sections around. Let the old stuff surprise you. A hot beverage doesn’t hurt either. But a slasher film might.

Day 13: Triskaidekaphobia, Don’t Let Fear Keep You Away

Writing: A safe place for the Triskaidekaphobics (is this a stretch? probably)

Writing: A safe place for the Triskaidekaphobics (is this a stretch? probably)

The Apollo 13 mission may have made it safely back to earth, but it wasn’t without overcoming major obstacles.  The superstitious types were shaking their heads: with a name like that, the mission was doomed from the start. And, as if that ominous name wasn’t enough, NASA seemed to be taunting fate: the spaceship launched at 13:13 from pad 39 (13×3).  On top of that, astronaut sleeping arrangements were scheduled for 13 minutes after the hour.  With so much 13 in play, it’s wonder the crew made it back alive!

The superstitious 13 has caused a number of omissions:

  • Tall buildings and hotels often eliminate their 13th floors
  • Airlines often eliminate their 13th row
  • In Italy, lottery tickets often eliminate the number 13
  • in France, a dinner party with 13 guests marks a major Faux Pas
The 13 has struck such fear in people that the state of anxiety has number even earned itself a name: Triskaidekaphobia.  Today, on this 13th of March, don’t let the unlucky win.  To help you hunker down, here are three writing methods aimed to help you barrel through (I was going to give you 13, but that seemed a bit much…)

#1: TYPE INTO THE VOID (A writing prompt from Danner)

Sit at your computer. Turn the screen off. Get into the head of your perspective character. Type into the emptiness without worrying about editing, typos, or anything else. Just let yourself speak with your fingers into the computer for an hour.

DSCN4985#2: RETYPE YOUR REVISION (A writing prompt from Nari)

Print a hard copy of our draft.  Read it through and edit the paper copy.  Then, sit at your computer, open a blank word document, and retype the draft in its entirety.

Last year, Jennifer offered this same advice in a post titled “Retyping your Revision.” This year, Nari send the same idea in when she officially joined the March.  As Nari explains, one day, “I found myself at a coffee shop without my flash drive, and since I had a hard copy with hand edits, I decided to retype it. I started to do so (and still am) because I’ve found quite a bit to refine. Retyping the sentences that I’d read on my computer monitor so many times before has forced me to rethink them and, most importantly, really listen to them. This is a great way to work with a draft when you feel it’s almost there, just not quite there yet.”

#3: HAND-WRITE THE SCENE TWICE (A writing prompt from Sam)

When working with a particularly troubling scene, write the pages by hand.  Then, write the scene by hand a second time.  Then, type the scene into a word document.

Lately, this has been my method of choice.  I’ve found this process to be particularly helpful when writing problematic scenes (particularly climactic moments or difficult conversations).  When I write the first draft of a scene, I find myself putting in some fillers (as in “yadda, yadda, yadda, something will happen here” or “this scene is still not quite right.”)  Or, more often than not, I’ll be so compelled by the scene that I’ll skip exposition and narrow in on the dialogue (during these moments I feel like I, the writer, am simply trying to keep up with the characters).  When I hand-write the scene the second time, I focus on filling in these moments and playing with my sentences.  The second hand writing is important because it doesn’t allow me to become impatient.  I have to take the moment slow.  By the time I type the scene, I’ve found that I can type quickly, ironing out the language and punctuation but usually able to leave the scene in tact.


What are you waiting for?  Set your timers (for 13 minutes!) and go!


Information about the Number 13 were taken from “Number 13: The Legends, Myths, and Facts”.  Click the link to learn more.

Revision Advice a la Molly Beer

Here’s a revision exercise from challenger and current Olive B. O’Connor Fellow in Creative Nonfiction Writing at Colgate University Molly Beer:

I am currently revising a book-length work, so I’m devising exercises that make me see the work that I’m too close to from different angles, as a way to trick myself into seeing what’s actually on the page and not what I imagine I wrote there. So what I’ve done this week is cut and paste the first and final 3+ paragraphs of each chapter into a fresh document–an 80,000 word manuscript shrunk to ~8,000 words. Now I’m revising just those sections of each essay, with a focus on how each ending echoes into the beginning it follows and simultaneously funnels into the next beginning.

Got an Exercise? A Tip?  Some Advice?  Please share it:

Day 9: Retyping your Revision

When my adviser suggested I retype, as in start a whole new Word document, and actually re TYPE all the words I’d just written, all the PAGES– 196 of them–I thought for sure he was crazy.

“Troglodyte,” I muttered under my breath. Clearly he didn’t understand the power of computers; he would have probably suggested I use an actual TYPEWRITER if he knew I owned one.  I mean the beauty of word processing is that it offers tools every writer loves:  the File–Save As,   the Copy/Paste, the  Cut/Paste, the Search-and-Replace, Spell Check,  not to mention the Undo!

And then something happened.  I got stuck. I didn’t know what to work on next, where to begin…  and so in frustration, and rather than stare at the computer screen for hours, toggling between the chapter called “Big Messy Chapter 4”, Facebook, and email, I decided to give it a try, the re-typing thing.  Maybe I would feel like I was doing something other than stare. Maybe some sort of muscle memory of writing would take over and I could just write again.

I stacked my earlier drafts on my desk (not the one pictured above), created a new Word document, titled it “Starting from Scratch,” and began typing.  From the very beginning.  As I typed I looked at the comments from my professor and my colleagues. When I saw a section wasn’t working, I didn’t re-type it.  When the comments were something like “say more” or “not clear” or “and what do you think of that NOW” I would try to answer those comments as I retyped.  Sometimes a re-typed sentence would become a paragraph of NEW writing.   Sentences that needed restructuring got restructured.  Paragraphs that were not in the right place, were typed into the proper section.  And the best part, the person typing the new draft, was the person who had learned from the earlier draft, who had a different take on it, who was wiser than the person on the page.  In this way I deepened the reflection, and looked for smarter, more creative ways to say something.

I can’t tell you how it irks me that this is one more thing my adviser was right about, but now I swear by this method.  I use it for almost every revision.  And I’ve thought a lot, and for me there are a couple of reasons why this works.

First, if you’re as obsessive about polishing prose as I am, each time you “touch” a sentence you look at it for improvements. You change a word, you move a phrase, you make it better.  And by re-typing an entire poem/essay/short story/ book you take the opportunity to examine every single sentence at the letter-by-letter level.

And most importantly:  we’ve all heard some version of the advice, “you have to be willing to kill your darlings,” a quote attributed to everyone from William Faulkner, some dude named Sir Arther Quiller-Couch, and more recently Stephen King.  But the truth is:  it is painful to “kill your darlings,” to hit the delete key and disappear those perfectly forms bits of prose that either leapt from the tips of our fingers fully fledged, or were toiled over for days, weeks maybe, years even. It’s like ripping a little piece of your heart out.

BUT…  if you re-TYPE, you don’t have to Select/Delete. You don’t have to CUT those words out….  you just don’t bring those words into the new document.

So set aside your doubts and give it a try then let me know how it works for you.

Day 2: Writing is Revising

I’m in the final stretch–completing my MFA in creative writing, with an emphasis in creative non-fiction.  That means I have to complete a book-length project, turn it into a committee of advisers (by the end of March) that I have selected, and defend it in a public meeting (on April 13). I don’t want to go into details on what THAT means to me, suffice it to say it sounds like a special kind of hell.

When I entered the MFA program at the University of New Mexico I had 180 plus pages of a manuscript, Reconstructing my Mother.  I thought I was ahead of the game: I knew what I was writing about, and I knew the story. I’d  lived the story.  I thought I’d take some classes, write a couple more chapters, clean up the ones I’d already written and I’d be done.


I had a lot of revising to do.

I used to think that revising meant line editing:  changing a word here and there, re-arranging sentences, correcting typos…  That kind of revising had worked well for me in the past when I wrote press releases and marketing content.  It still works well for me in those arenas.  But in writing creatively, there’s a lot going on with the story under the surface, and sometimes to get at what that story is entails more than just polishing the prose.

As I’ve worked through this program and seen other writers develop their stories, essays and poems in workshop, I’ve discovered a few things about revising that I now apply (sometimes painfully) to my own work.  I’ve seen fellow writers submit the messiest drafts I’ve ever seen: disjointed story lines, essays that go off on tangents, poems that wander in the ether.  And I’ve seen those same writers cut whole scenes, add new scenes, focus the theme, and follow the tangent to another story altogether, creating something beautiful.  I’ve seen them revise those messy drafts, and sometimes even polished drafts into something entirely different than what they started with, sometimes only a whisper of the original piece remains.

Over the course of the month, for Fridays with Jenn, I’ll share with you some  of the insights on revising that I’ve learned, because writing is revising.

Revising is Re-VISIONING the work.

I started out writing my memoir, Reconstructing My Mother thinking it was about, well, my mother, who died when I was 13. That I, as the main character, was on a journey to discover who she was “as a person” not just as my mommy.

Then, I began volunteering at the Children’s Grief Center as a bereavement group facilitator.  During the training I learned about grief, and more specifically about grief responses in children.  Then I took a course from Professor/ Writer Daniel Mueller on Trauma in Literature and we read the book Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman.  I became enamored with the idea of grief as trauma.

Herman writes:  “Traumatic memories lack verbal narrative and context; rather, they are rendered in the form of vivid sensations and images” (Herman 38). And so, healing occurs in rendering the trauma into a cohesive narrative, into a story. THIS is how I would tell my story, I thought to myself.  And I even got all artsy about it. I was going to start with a poem I’d written to reflect the imagistic nature of traumatic memory, and through the course of the book the images would take form.  The structure of the narrative would actually mimic the healing journey.  (Even now that idea sounds appealing.)

During this past year of “dissertation hours” over and over again as I submitted pages to my committee chair, Professor/Writer Greg Martin, he would ask for the same thing over and over:  “What was it like in your house after your mom died?”

And I would say, “It sucked,” and leave it at that. I did not want to write about that time. I didn’t want to go there emotionally. Besides, it was so long ago–what did it matter? I thought.  I appeased him sprinkling in details here and there, a scene here and there….  I would weave these stories from the past, these interludes, into the overarching arc of the story:  the story of the hero (me) who goes on a journey to reconstruct her mother.

Then I wrote an essay about volunteering at the Children’s Grief Center.  “That is the narrator who needs to tell this story,” Greg said, a  comment I had to put on the back burner for a while until I figured out what he meant.

I struggled to figure out what went where, which pieces matched. At one point I even cut up pages and sections and laid them in piles all over the floor of my writing cave.  As I tried to wrestle all my scenes and scribbles into one giant thing, I realized that only way to see what I still needed to write, was to tell the story from beginning to end.  I would see what was missing, and what fit together with what.

And lo and behold, the voice, the person that began re-writing was the same narrator who volunteered at the Grief Center.  That narrator had a different perspective on things.  That narrator was a bit wiser than the girl who came into the MFA program clutching her 180 pages.  I saw the pieces in a new way.  And oh, yeah.  I was missing this big chunk of writing about the time right after my mom died.

Most of the writing from those initial 180 pages is now unrecognizable.  I’ve gutted those long passages of what I call “logistics” writing, the “I stood up, took seven steps to the table, set my cup down, then I sat down and …”  kind of writing.  I’ve worked on getting to the action sooner, and reflecting more deeply.  I’m a better writer now, I hope.

And the writer, the person I am today has a better understanding of how losing my mother has affected me.

And now the book, Reconstructing My Mother, is as much about me reconstructing myself as it is about my mother.  And for now, it’s not in some artsy fartsy form–it follows a basic, linear timeline.  Which for now, for THIS draft, works.

My advice to you:  don’t be so rigid in the way you think your poem, your essay, your short story is going to be told.  Be willing to explore all the possibilities.  You may end up writing a story different than what you thought you would write and you may learn something about yourself.  And even if you end up telling the story as you had originally imagined it, my bet is that it’s better rendered than had you not gone off on the journey of re-VISIONING the work.