Freedom and Structure in Revising a Story: Matt Bell’s Revision and Rewriting seminar at Grub Street

sculpture Monica (1985) by Jules Lasalle in Musée Plein Air de Lachine

Monica (1985) by Jules Lasalle
Musée Plein Air de Lachine

There I was, with a first draft I loved, a folder bursting with a massive amount of material I’d developed in search of what that first draft was truly about (none of which felt right), and absolutely no idea how to pull my story together or move it forward.

This was not a new experience for me. It always seems to happen with my favorite stories, the ones I feel really invested in, the ones I know have to be finished.

Unless my first draft is short and gives me a clear idea of where it’s going, my attempts to dig deeper into the story end up with me bushwacking my way through tangled undergrowth with no idea of whether I’m heading north, south, east or west. I have more than a few stories floating unfinished on my laptop’s hard drive (on my brain’s hard drive too). I’m not even talking about a novel here, just stories of maybe 2,500-5,000 words.

So – what next? In a previous post, Lost in Multiple Drafts, I listed my options: Should I go back to my first draft and start again? Or should I make a list of one-line summaries of all the scenes I’d written and see if they fall into any kind of order? Or, because the beginning of the story was in the form of a monologue, should I see this as a signal to do something different from my usual story-style and take on the challenge of experimenting with monologue? Wait, wouldn’t it be more sensible to simply give up, call it a day, and start something else?

Turns out the answer to my problem should be ‘none of the above’.

In his recent Grub Street seminar on Revision and Rewriting, Matt Bell suggested something quite different from my random efforts: a system.

Don’t try to “tackle the whole story”, he said. “Take one element at a time.”

As we worked through Matt’s long list of items, I found I particularly responded to those that came in the form of questions one should ask the story. My 1,000 watt lightbulb moment came with the question: “Where am I bored?” No weighty literary theory to struggle with here, just a question that I understood immediately as reader and writer.

A particular section in the first draft of my story instantly sprang to mind. No, it wasn’t a matter of boredom for me, but right from the beginning I’d felt uncomfortable about it. I’d taken it out and put it back at least a dozen times. I didn’t want it, but I needed it.

Cut it, Matt advised. Don’t put it back. If you feel you absolutely have to have something there. Write something new.

This strategy made immediate sense to me. It doesn’t mean I won’t still have to write a lot of material before I get to what I’m looking for. What it does mean is that working to replace a specific section will keep me grounded in the framework of my story while I I’m writing. No more rushing off into disconnected scenes or characters, or their various distant pasts, which may or may not fragment into any number of stories quite different from the one hinted at in that first draft of mine. Matt’s advice offers me both freedom AND structure.

This post by Susi Lovell first appeared on Grub Street Daily on 26 August 2013.

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