When I get to the end of a story, I feel flushed with triumph, proud of myself, and ready to show off the story to whomever will read it. I’ll send it off hardly before I’ve checked for spelling errors sometimes; but this is one of the biggest mistakes we can make as writers. It’s also one of the most common. When we get to the end of a story, we think that’s it — the story is done, and so are we. Unfortunately, we couldn’t be more wrong.
The truth of the matter is that unless you’re the type of writer who edits as she goes (and yes, some folks do this), then reaching the end of the story is only the beginning of the struggle. In fact, our stories must go through a narrative of their own — a narrative of revision. I think it’s still essential to print out a hard copy of the story; there’s nothing like seeing the words on the page and being able to attack them with a red pen. It gives us a better sense of what the story needs overall.
In the first pass, you might find yourself making small, incremental changes. It’s perfect, you think. I’ll just fix the spelling, change a few word choices here and there…wait a minute, didn’t he say he was in Poughkeepsie? What’s he doing in this scene?
On that first pass, you might discover some pretty surprising plot holes and large problems. As you try to fix these, it will feel a bit like digging in sand for a little while; fixing problems will only alert you to more problems. The more you fix, the more things seem to be wrong. It’s easy to get overwhelmed at this stage and wonder if you need to start over entirely. But don’t lose hope! This is normal; this is necessary. This is just what the narrative of revision is like.
At this point, try to step away. Take a breather. Don’t panic. Just get a little distance on the story. Try to put it in a drawer for a day or a week or a month. Go outside and get some fresh air, for goodness’ sakes, or start an entirely new story so you can still have some joy in creation. Then, when you’re calm and ready, look back at the story needing revision. There will still be some problems, but at this stage you’ll be surprised by how much is actually good. That page doesn’t need to go after all; it’s not all bad. There’s stuff to work with here. And now it’s time to make that good stuff shine.
Work hard. Improve the language on every line. Clarify and simplify. Make the characters’ motivations clear and believable; make the stakes evident. Build us toward a climax. Avoid vague pronouncements. Show much more than you tell. Of course, visit Writerly Life’s many guides to revision. And then, read it over again. You’ll be amazed at how your story has blossomed and grown, and become the excellent piece you first hoped for when you laid that first tentative sentence down on the page. But it won’t reach that wonderful point unless you give it the time and the work it needs.