Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Do as I Say, Not as I Do (Until I Do because of You)
I commanded my first students to revise, as I had been commanded by my own mentors. Had I ever revised–not just proofread and fiddled, but actually revised–anything in my life before I started teaching? No. When I was a student, my first drafts were clean enough and clever enough, I could get away with handing them in for all my classes. Some of my teachers called me on it, but nobody insisted I do anything differently. When I took the helm of a writing class for the first time, at the absurd age of 24, I could tell my students all the steps of a beginner’s revision process. I knew the platitudes, and for me, that’s all they were. I could not have followed those steps to save my life. My first drafts, while in progress, were plenty messy, but once I finished them, the prose style was smooth as glass. I feared what might happen if I broke it.
To my astonishment, my first crop of freshman composition students followed my directions. Why on earth did they do that? I had no idea what I was doing at the helm of that classroom in 1994. I’ll be grateful to them always, because they did one thing none of my teachers had theretofore accomplished: they made revision look desirable, enviable, even occasionally joyful. They didn’t just shame me into learning how to revise, though I will say that my horror at my hypocrisy was one force that drove me to change my ways. My students were, at semester’s end, happy with freshman composition papers, of all things, because they had accomplished major transformations on their projects. Yes, their sentences got smoother, but more to the point, their ideas grew.
I could make my ideas grow when I wrote poetry. I was a formalist, and classical forms forced me to search constantly for new ways to see whatever thought started a poem. You know that old Robert Frost quote about how writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down? Prose was even more so for me.
Your first thought is not likely to be your best thought, I told the students. When you get to the end of your first draft, look for your coolest idea. Dump anything that’s not necessary to it or nearly as cool as it is, and then start over around the core of coolness. And it worked! At the end of a semester of watching twenty students follow the standard advice in twenty non-standard ways, I followed the step-by-step instructions myself.
To this day, I don’t try to figure out what the core of a new short story or novella is until I’m nearly done with the first draft. Once I’ve written the bones, I can ask not only what my coolest idea is, but what my coolest moments, characters, images, and phrases are. Things that fit together stay. Things that don’t fit or are insufficiently cool go into a folder titled “Half-Abandoned Bits.” Maybe later they’ll grow into functioning story-parts. For now, they’re out of the way.
By the year I got to teach Creative Writing for the first time, I could actually speak from experience about revising prose, but I hadn’t ever revised a work of fiction, not deeply. I learned that from my students too, long before I returned to writing fiction myself. They learned pretty easily to jettison characters who weren’t working out for them–something I still struggle to do.
Sarah Avery’s short story “The War of the Wheat Berry Year” appeared in the last print issue of Black Gate. A related novella, “The Imlen Bastard,” is slated to appear in BG‘s new online incarnation. Her contemporary fantasy novella collection, Tales from Rugosa Coven, follows the adventures of some very modern Pagans in a supernatural version of New Jersey even weirder than the one you think you know. You can keep up with her at her website, sarahavery.com, and follow her on Twitter.
Sarah, I read all of your posts here. I teach writing in my school too and I am a novice trying to teach them stuff beyond my experience. This I may not comment on every post but I take notes because I admire your insights. Don’t stop! Ape
She who sails on the Good Ship Revision shall have a long but successful voyage.
For every finished story, I generate at least one abandoned project, a tale that didn’t keep dancing with sufficiently nimble feet to hold its own attention, or mine. Is this a problem of revision, or have I learned over time to heed the muse and follow only what’s working well more or less from the get-go? I dunno.
But you’re absolutely right that for composition papers, the ideas will grow with revision, and that your first idea is not likely your best. I don’t see those as platitudes but as truths.
I like to hope those things are true for stories, as well.
And of course Wild Ape is correct: keep posting!
Absolutely revision can sharpen ideas as well as smooth language.
But there’s a cost, and a balance you have to bring to it. Revision takes time, and you need to ask the question, how efficient does this particular piece of writing need to be?
As important as learning how to revise is learning when to stop. Especially for an artist unsure of themselves, the perfect can become the enemy of the good. It’s not just a matter of “good enough”, but also one of realizing when a revision pass, though still making the work better, is making it only every so slightly better.
You and I have the same reason for our history of avoiding substantive revisions on text, although it took me longer than you to learn what I actually needed to do to revise. Thank you for this. It’s a really good learning experience for me. I especially like the idea of taking the coolest stuff, throwing the rest out and focusing on the coolness.
Mark and Wild Ape, thanks for the encouragement. Coming up with something that feels postworthy every week is harder than I expected, and some weeks I suspect I haven’t quite hit the sweet spot. It’s good to know that there are readers out there who are happy to see me every time.
JMHawkins, you are certainly right. I often think of my great uncle, a minor cubist painter, who liked to say it takes two people to make a masterpiece: the painter to paint it, and a guy with a shotgun to shoot the painter before he can screw it up. There are times when I reread an older piece, decide that I am so much changed as a writer since I wrote it that I have no changes to make to it that would still be harmonious, and send it out as it is.
Hi Rednikki! Early cleverness has its pitfalls, that’s for sure. I’m so glad the teachers at CTY had the context to be unimpressed and to try to tell me what I needed to know. Not that I followed their advice until most of a decade later, but at least I”d been practicing to understand with half an ear.
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