Susan Vreeland's Thoughts on Writing

Award-winning author Susan Vreeland gives students advice on creative writing, from tools of the craft to revision strategies.
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Updated on: October 10, 2006
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Voice in Fiction
Historical Fiction
Vreeland's Revision Checklist Or Am I Really Finished?

Vreeland's Revision Checklist
Am I Really Finished?

Revision Strategies to Consider After Story has begun to Set Up, Like Concrete.

Tinker. This is not trivial work. It's essential, and should be joyful. It may require discipline, but discipline is a form of self respect, of respect for original vision of the work. Infinite patience is required to do this polishing. Sometimes this stage can reveal an entirely new and richer dimension to your story/novel.

  1. Consider a different entry point to the story. Have you started late enough? Is there too much backstory (exposition) that can be filled in later or suggested through action? Where is the first key scene? Is it the actual first scene? Common impulse is to try to cover too much ground, particularly in a short story. Does the first sentence, paragraph, page (depending on length of the work) suggest tension? If it doesn't, you've probably begun at the wrong place. Annie Dillard speaks of openings having "bold leaps to nowhere, brave beginnings of dropped themes, a tone since abandoned." Lop it off.

  2. Have you gotten to the heart of the story? Has "the thing" been said? Is there one line you like to roll around on your tongue, like to read aloud? One line when your heart quickens as you read it to yourself? One line you can say: yes, this is the core? Can you clearly answer: what is your story about? and in that answer know that the heat of the story is correctly aimed?

  3. Most Important Moment Avoidance: Have you committed this storyteller's sin? Is something in narrative summary that should be on scene?

    Make a list of what MIM needs to deliver. Has it done so? Is there enough intensity of heat in that emotional center of your story? Is it carrying enough freight? (Blithely, though.)

    Continue scenes (if you've faded out) just to know what would have happened. Don't slam the door on a scene by a plot interruption. It wasn't an interruption. It was the author's fear that stopped that scene. The author didn't know what was said or what happened next.

  4. Time and Place: Impact your work more greatly by the force of place, even if in just once scene in a story. Does this evocation of place radiate or send feelers into the larger story? Does the character look at anything differently by virtue of her responsiveness to place? Think of Tolstoy in Anna Karenina, the snow blowing in the train to St. Petersburg, and Tolstoy's hymn to spring on Levin's farm. Don't forget the weather. "Get the goddamn weather into it," Hemingway told Fitzgerald.

    Alternatively, impact your work more greatly by its setting in time. Let the larger cultural and social milieu have a deeper reach into the characters' lives. Use Dickson Timelines or Grun Timetables of History to learn what's happening in any given year, and think how your character would respond.

  5. Language: Is it fresh? Is the expression of emotion too easy, standard, predictable? Eschew expressions in Romance Writers Phrase Book. Are there any dreaded clichés?

    How do each of your characters speak? They should at least be slightly different. Consider lexicon, syntax, expressions, tone, sentence length.

    Is the narrative voice appropriate for the tone of the story? Is it consistent? Are there any self-conscious phrases or passages not fitting the narrative voice or character's voice? Are there any that are too written (too polished to be assumed as a character's thought process) too formal, too cooked.

  6. Abstract and concrete words. Highlight each so you can see the ratio. Is it tipped far enough to the concrete?

    Concrete: Is the story grounded in the concrete? List all concrete details in the story. Have they been used to advantage? Do any reappear with added connotations? They should. "Caress the divine detail," says Vladimir Nabokov.

    Details: 1 [detail] + 1 + 1 = 100. They carry freight, if repeated in a new context.

    What are the central images of the story? Those sensual images in which you love to immerse yourself? Is there any freight attached? Is there any return to them, like a motif and variation in music?

    Abstract: Are any abstractions unearned? That is, are they used where they don't need to be? Can description or dialogue carry that meaning and therefore involve the reader in figuring out what you told him/her? Are generalizations producing vagueness? Substitute with particularity.

    Wei T'ai, 11th century Chinese poet, wrote, "Poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling, for as soon as the mind responds and connects with the thing, the feeling shows in the words; this is how poetry enters deeply into us." This can be applied to fiction as well.

  7. Is the conclusion to the novel or story grounded in the concrete? Interior monologue is often less effective. Is the resolution rendered/suggested by action or gesture?

  8. Remove the narrative commentary on what you've just written. It's just distrust of yourself. Let the details and actions speak the conclusions. Play it off the money. Don't draw the conclusions for the reader. Don't explain every nuance. The abstractions are just notes to yourself.

Voice in Fiction
Historical Fiction
Vreeland's Revision Checklist Or Am I Really Finished?

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