I just submitted a story to beat the August 1st deadline for the literary magazine, The First Line. It’s not *quite* the last minute, but much closer than I anticipated.
I spent a long time on the “edit revise retool” process for this story. Much more than I had planned.
Good for the Goose
This process all started earlier this year, during one of my Iron Writer classes. The assignment for that particular class was to choose from one of the sentences I presented and make that the first line of a story or personal essay. It’s an old writing exercise, and the premise of The First Line magazine: all the stories in a given issue begin with the same line, and yet each story is completely different.
As an added layer of value, I asked the writers in the class to choose from the upcoming first lines that the magazine would be featuring. (The First Line publishes a list of their upcoming opening lines for the next year.) This way, if one of the students found something really interesting in their use of the first line, they could refine their work, and then submit it for publication consideration.
In an effort to get some of the writers in the class to have experience finishing a story and submitting it, I said that I would write a story and submit it, if they would. Three of the writers agreed that this was a valuable goal.
In other words, I was stuck.
Repurposing an Older Story
One of the first lines was this: The old neighborhood was nearly unrecognizable.
The line reminded me of an old story, started before the calendar years started with a “2”, in which the female, ex-wife character comes back to the house she had lived in with her ex-husband—a house where he still lives—and she comments on the down-hill slide of the neighborhood.
I hadn’t thought of that story in a long time, but I decided, that day in class, to start the story with that opening line, and write my way back into that long-dormant world.
Over the hour of writing in the class, I was able to conceive of a way to repurpose the old story. The new opening line, and the new way I was attacking the story, led me to a different starting point; it made me step further back into the narrative past of the narrator. By re-starting without actually going back to read the old draft of the story, I was left to write into what I remembered the story to be ABOUT rather than writing to match “already established facts” that really weren’t facts at all.
This is both a good and a bad consequence of trying to take an old story and rework it.
Edit Revise Retool
Here were a few of the complications I ran up against as I attempted to transform this story.
- Some of what I thought belonged in the story was a contradiction to what was already there. By the time I dug the old draft out of my archives, I realized there were some serious issues between how I had originally envisioned the scene (years ago) and what I now knew was the way to move forward. That required repairs to the text. Repairs take time.
- Reimagining this story, impacted others. This story was actually tied to two others I wrote in college. Some of the details I worked out for this character while revising this story impacted the other two stories, as well. If I do what I had planned to do and turn these three stories into a small chapbook of linked stories, I’ll have to go back and fix those earlier ones, as well.
- I’m not the same writer I was fifteen years ago. There was no way to just take the old text and plop it into the new story. Each line had to be re-worked, to match who I am as a writer, today. (Which is the optimist’s way of saying, the old work wasn’t as good…I wouldn’t be happy to call that my story, today.)
- Re-writing an old story turned out to be harder than writing a brand new one, from scratch. About thirty hours hard, to be exact. I took the story to my writing group, got some feedback, and planned to do a bit more editing and revising and then let it go. (I had already put in 10 or 12 hours of writing and editing the draft.) It wasn’t easy to just let go. Every time I re-read it, I found more things that I knew had to be fixed. Not just edited: exploded and put back together. The quick revision I anticipated turned into at least thirty hours of work.
I hold on to a lot of story ideas: bits and pieces that never quite found their voice. I always think, “Oh, someday, I’ll find a way to use this!”
My recent experience hasn’t changed my mind about keeping old stories and ideas and un-finished novels in the file drawer, but it has helped me realize that some of those old ideas and stories just aren’t worth the effort to make them into something new.
The story I submitted to The First Line turned out pretty well, I think. I’m glad I took the time to finish the story, and, in one sense, put this character who has hung around on my To-Do list for almost two decades out into the world, so maybe he’ll leave me alone.
“But wait,” he says. “Those other two stories aren’t finished yet…maybe you could go back and clean up my life? Go back and fix my story?”
I probably will.
But I won’t go into it without a better understanding of how difficult the process can be to take old work and make it new again.