Committing a draft of a story to paper or laptop is an estimable accomplishment. Some writers describe the feeling of pulling off a first draft as visceral, a rush, or as a mysterious process during which one is carried along as on a blast of inspiration. Some might even feel as if something was given to them, that they had to get it all down before the streaming service from their muse was cut off. Some feel as if, in that early draft, they have captured something, a firefly in a jar. After this first draft, then, some writers might be nervous or reluctant to open the jar up again, in case that firefly gets out. (Or maybe this is just how I feel, almost every single time I write something!)
The thing is, none of us can say exactly what we want to say, in exactly the way we imagine being able to say it, in one draft. So, if we accept that what we have written is not perfect, perhaps not even in the neighbourhood of perfect, how to revise without losing anything—anything essential about the writing, or the bright light at the heart of the manuscript, the thing that perhaps defines it? How to not upset some balance we feel we have achieved, even if we achieved it in a way we can’t quite describe? (How to not worry about how painful it might be to open the draft up, to prod and poke around in it?) Many of us—before we have done it and realize what it really is—think of revision as a dull, plodding, pedantic process that merely irons out wrinkles, or that plucks out words here and there, adding better ones, “correcting” mistakes. We think of it as a mechanical process. But revision is actually the best part of writing, and the most creative.
Starting on the story again, discovering or cultivating a new way to see and connect with your imaginative work is where the digging deep happens, the honest look at what’s in the manuscript and whether it’s doing something interesting, something you intended it to do. It’s where most of the true building happens, the making of something original— that springs from the very particular way you see the world. When you’re open to the possibilities, revision often yields more inspiration than the writing of the first draft did.
There are many ways to move back into a piece of writing so that revision is a playful exploration, gratifying and revelatory. If you are truly going back inside, rather than just over the surface of the piece, revision will be an experience that holds surprises and reveals angles you hadn’t before considered.
As you revise you go backward and forward. The manuscript might get quite a bit messier before it finds its shape. Your relationship to the words you have produced and put in a certain order may change. And all of that is a good thing. Taking detours, trying things out, coming back to the things you’re curious or downright obsessive about, is how you figure out what you’re really writing, what you really want to say.
And this is when you improve as a writer—when your work starts to show itself to you, becoming more and more the thing it has the potential to be. This is when you learn what kind of reviser you are, and what your best process is. You might even learn to look forward to it.
I met a bear in the bush, and she told me a story.
Hiking in a wilderness area on the south shore of Nova Scotia, I heard this odd, mechanical growl. The sound was masked by the racket I was making, moving through narrow paths on barrens covered with huckleberry, sedge and rose, over granite rocks, roots, puddles and sopping peat.
At first I wasn’t alarmed. I thought, construction somewhere, a boat on the water, thunder. I thought: nothing.
Then I heard it again.
Construction was unlikely, miles from anywhere. Ditto a marine motor: boats are rarely audible until you’re fairly near the shore. As for thunder, it was a bright, fresh morning, and the sky was perfectly clear.
It was strange to hear a noise so loud in this wild, untrafficked place. But by now it had stopped. I started to go on.
Then maybe something moved in the brush ahead. Maybe the growling resumed. I stopped, hoping for calm, and from deep in the bushes came an unmistakable sound: something big, huffing like a thwarted child.
The thing about black bears is that they are more afraid of us than we are of them. No bear has killed a human in Nova Scotia and that huffing sound they make is a fear vocalization. But the thing about humans is that we know better than to trust this kind of raw generalization. Like humans, individual animals have distinct personalities, histories and patterns of behaviour.
Maybe this bear had experienced threats from humans in the past. Maybe she was a new mother caring for a pair of cubs sleeping in the bushes.
I backed away, talking as calmly as I could until it seemed safe to turn around. What a thrill to be reminded that this coast is not ours! To have its wildness proven!
As I walked, I wondered how my trespassing might have seemed from her point of view—yet another heedless human, stumbling through her living room.
If that was her point of view.
Later, listening to black bear vocalizations on YouTube, I felt startled and delighted to be reminded how magnificent an unfamiliar voice can be, its meaning encoded, in tone and pattern and cadence, with a world of awareness and desire.
Hey, bear? Thank you.
To be reminded that there is glory in difference—that difference doesn’t have to be threatening, isn’t something to be overcome—feels, this dark fall, like a gift.
It was the end of a gruelling, exhilarating hike: 13 km of intense climbs and descents on a rugged wilderness trail in unrelenting heat. Maybe I was a little disoriented, because when the snake-like thing danced with me mid-run, I felt charmed instead of scared. There are no venomous snakes in Nova Scotia, I told myself, so why worry that its mouth veered toward my bare calf? I moved away a foot or two, then stopped to look back: olive-green and black patterned tail, blue-green upper body and—hang on—was that a pair of legs near its head?
My hiking partner got out his phone to take pictures, and we debated. Were those legs—or were they gills? And what was with the graduated colour scheme, warm green blending into cool blue? We tried out theories: snakes go through a juvenile phase in which they sport proto-limbs? This was a vagrant lizard, visiting from away? Nothing made sense.
Walking on, talking of other things, we set the question of the creature aside. Then on the final uphill, heat and muscular exhaustion getting the better of me, I suddenly thought: but why couldn’t it be a baby dragon?
At the mid-point of this hike, just when I’d most needed refreshment, I found a fairytale waterfall and washed my hair in it to cool down. The moment felt magical. So, while a mythical creature is ho-hum in fiction—all too easy to conjure—the idea of one felt exciting and possible in those fabulous woods.
A few days later, a friend with a nearly-finished novel said, Tell me it’s not a rule that Canadian stories have to end with a body in the bushes!
Of course there is no rule that in fiction the grimmest possibility is the best or truest one. There’s no rule that fiction has to follow rules. We make stories in order to satisfy a yearning for new understanding, for truth entwined with imagination, for surprise and thrill and mystery.
Stories are necessary. And doesn’t the fact we make them instinctively—transforming a snake with a frog in its mouth into a fantastical creature—seem like evidence they’re a form of play whose success depends on dodging rules?
It was too dry this summer, so the woods were on fire.
If you’d asked me last spring, Could this happen? I think I’d have said, How could it not?
Every trip through the wilderness, I’d see evidence of carelessness. Fire circles made of stones, charred logs left lying where they burned or kicked under brush. They worried me. So when the inevitable happened—wildfires burning out of control, hectares of woodland lost, backcountry travel bans in place—I felt helpless.
No one was allowed in the woods. It didn’t matter that I’d never struck a match among trees—I couldn’t go for a walk. It felt unfair. Don’t you understand, I want to say, it’s not hikers who build fires—it’s people who build fires who build fires. These may be intersecting sets, but they are not the same.
Why did I feel such impatience, I wondered? I just wanted to walk. But there was something very familiar about this feeling of impotence crashing up against selfish desire …
Rejection is probably the hardest experience a writer has to manage. All you want is to write, and publication seems like a way to validate that desire. Why don’t the people in charge—the publishers who accept or reject—understand?
As an editor I can appreciate the writer’s disappointment at being told not yet. As a teacher and friend I feel the grief my students and fellow writers experience. It rings through me as it rings through them.
But the writer in me is torn. The writer wants to say: Rejection is a reprieve. It means you can still revise.
I love to revise because I have seen the difference it can make. Stories and novels take off in revision. It’s when the real writing begins.
Of course finished stories do get rejected. Just as there’s no necessary relationship between the firebug and the hiker, rejection doesn’t correlate with failure. Luck plays a part. Each story or novel must find an acquiring editor passionate enough to shepherd it through challenge.
The difficulty for the writer is in knowing when a story is done. You can ask, Am I amazed by this soaring thing I imagined, or plagued by unease? Honesty is crucial, because once you identify a problem, you can rectify it.
Just as a match turns tinder into flame, as drought inevitably gives way to rain, change releases stories so they can lift off.
Happy New Year!
I think of September as the true new year—I feel it as the new year—even though I have not been in school lo, these many years. It might be that I have retained sense memories of this time of year; it might be the smell of the air, the quality of the light, that the sun is lower in the sky. It might be that I am watching, and feeling for, my own children heading off to school. It might be the atmosphere in the house of renewed resolve and energy, and the novelty of everything. It is probably all of these things that imbue early September with great poignancy, suggesting both an end and a beginning, rich with promise.
On the last day of August, Valerie and I met up in PEI. We walked the beach, ate fish & chips, turned our faces to the sun in what seemed—suddenly—like one of the last times we’d feel it. That sun—lower in the sky—felt fantastic.
We talked a little about books we were reading, about literary hype and prizes, about work and our ideas for workshops and how to get done all we wanted to accomplish with NA in the next little while; but we also talked about blueberries and hiking and good burgers we have eaten.
I had one foot in summer and one in this new year, not sure—yet—where to put the weight. I wasn’t ready to leave the summer behind, though was unable to resist talking about the future, which seemed, as only the future can, shiny and bright. Potential is a wonderful thing. Standing on the brink of time or circumstance, everything seems possible. Potential has everything going for it, and can stretch as far as the eye can see, in all directions. The sense of potential, for the work Valerie and I do together, and that we each do in various other spheres, was palpable that day.
After we parted, we each made notes, mulled ideas over, wrote to each other to confirm certain plans for NA. That is when potential started to resemble a list of resolutions. And standing on the brink of work that will make resolutions into something real is bracing in another way.
This is a good time of year for resolutions. It gets easier to be inside, to incline our heads down to our desktops, to turn our minds to work.
Like all kinds of work, creative and otherwise, writing is often aided by time off. Time spent doing something else, or doing nothing at all, allows energy to build up. Ideas and revelations, small and large, can percolate, even when one doesn’t feel there is any thinking going on. A writer once told me that he wrote copious notes, about character and plot and ideas and pieces of scenes, and spent a great deal of time just thinking. And he wouldn’t start writing until he couldn’t stand not to. I imagined him holding back a rush of energy and creativity—as a dam would hold back a rush of water.
We hope you’ve had some time off, that you might too feel as though the floodgates are about to open. We wish you a palpable sense of the new year, of potential, and of the pleasure of getting back to work.
When I read a manuscript, I am looking for cumulative effect. Most obvious for its presence—or absence—in short story collections, this is the sense that the pieces (or stories), when taken together, form something altogether new. And what is newly created transcends (sometimes mysteriously) and is more powerful than the sum of its pieces. What I hope to experience when I read a collection of, say, ten stories is a sense that meaning and effect encompasses all ten, and then goes on to resonate or ripple outward, occupying a larger imaginative space than “ten of these.”
What Valerie and I are hoping to do with NA is to create—to be—cumulative effect. Because of the way we work together, because we share the view that there is no end to what we can learn, because we both work to tell writers everything we know, because we trust each other’s experience and expertise, and because we know well we have much to learn from each other—we feel we offer something greater than the sum of our added-up ideas and knowledge.
Editing—like writing—is a solitary endeavour. To really get inside a piece of writing, to apprehend the rhythm and shape and intent of the words on the page, is to enter something of a meditative state—and this has to be done alone and in a quiet place. (It feels to me that I am not just seeing as I read, but hearing too.)
Yet there is a way in which editing—like writing—can be collaborative. When Valerie and I first started talking to each other about our work as editors, I was struck by our similar sensibilities and approaches, and struck too by how much I enjoyed being pushed by this intelligent and sensitive and respectful reader to think more deeply, to focus more finely, to get closer to the kernel of truth of what I say to writers, and to examine more carefully how I say it. It was exhilarating to know I was doing more in my solitary work because of conversations I was having with another editor. It was a comfort and an inspiration to be suddenly (or so it felt) part of such a meaningful community.
And once we realized the effect we could have on each other, we developed a conviction that if we benefitted from this charge, this spark that pushed each of us to look at our practice in a deeper way, then a writer in need of feedback would have a richer experience too.
Editing (reading and feeling and noticing and articulating) is creative, and we are always examining our responses, looking for new ways in to understanding the process and results of writing, and motivating each other to be better. We transfer creative and critical energy back and forth between us, and and our aim is to share that energy with you.
We love to talk about writing—about the process, about the results. So let’s talk.
Bethany began by describing one of the qualities that sets a fine novel or story collection apart—cumulative effect, or the sense that “the pieces (or stories), when taken together, form something altogether new” whose “meaning and effect … resonate or ripple outward.” It’s an ambitious goal, one a writer must work to achieve. How do we hope to help writers build the kind of novel or story collection that surpasses its apparent possibilities?
Part of the answer is that we focus in our work on emergence. Emergence is a concept from game design that refers to the way, in a well-designed game system, many possibilities arise from a simple set of rules. Emergent systems are compelling because they’re unpredictable and have the potential for complex interactions. No other quality of a game is as important. Yet in terms of potential for emergence, game design has nothing on the world-expanding experience of writing fiction.
Facilitating this effect—of complexity arising out of simplicity—is at the heart of how we guide, critique and advise. Editing, for us, is not direction: we want to support the writer in their own exploration.
We hope our creative guidance will encourage an emergent experience for the writer. This might manifest as a feeling that the novel or story has lifted off, that its characters have developed minds of their own, or that the story is expanding outward in many directions. Or it might strike the writer as a feeling that the story has suddenly become easier to write or reimagine.
In workshops, we strive to support writers by cultivating a spirit of community in the room and by monitoring the delicate balance of honesty and generosity on which good collaboration relies. It’s an easy task—writers are nice people. And of course we’re all moving toward the same goals: achieving creative growth and making fiction that will be wonderful to read.
We’re eager to read what you’ve written.