I have a story that I thought was done six months ago. I had read it again and again. Pinched and revised. Friends read it. I workshopped it. And I sent it out to contests and submitted it for publication–most recently, to a contest I felt pretty good about*. (Not that that meant I had a chance, but, you know how it is. Good feelings are worth something.)
Then, I was thinking about that story a couple weeks ago, and read it that night. I found myself making line edits. Little cuts–a word here or there. And then I realized that it had a couple bigger issues–it needed a change of dialogue here, a rearrangement of action there (“shuffled” instead of “stepped” type stuff). And the next day, while reading it for the 80,000th time, I was HORRIFIED to discover a major plot hole. Huge. A truck-sized plot hole that I had overlooked again and again.
It was a throwaway line on page two that got me–an offhand reference to a character’s son. He didn’t come up again. He didn’t matter. Except that he really, really did. Because–and don’t worry about the context–what kind of son leaves his 90-year-old mother to clean her own gutters if he lives close by? Why would he never come around? And that made the whole second half of my story kind of unbelievable. Not in a good way–I mean it lost its verisimilitude. It didn’t make sense.
The fix? Get rid of the son.
I laughed at all of this, along with nearly (but not) crying, because that same week, my Intro to Creative Writing students were focusing on revision: all the experiments a writer can do with their stories, all the questions they can ask themselves, all the possibilities they can open up.
I’ve always said to them, truthfully, that I practice what I preach, but that week, I lived it in real time. I told them all about my mistake and my dismay at its discovery–no delusions of grandeur here–and how it reminded me that sometimes, what we need most in the revision process is time. To let something sit for a while, in the proverbial drawer, until we’re ready to take it out again and see what we didn’t before.
Also, it made me think, “Damn. What else did I call ‘done’ too soon?”
I went back to my desk to find out.
*Update on this: After I first drafted this post, I decided there was no harm in reaching out to the editor of that contest, asking if I could swap the file for an updated one. He hadn’t yet opened the submission, so he allowed it! It’s still “in progress” on Submittable.
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