Nancy Stohlman, Uncategorized, Writing Prompts & Craft Articles

Flash From Scratch: A Revision Exercise

Sometimes we’ve nitpicked and tinkered our work to death and it still isn’t right. Anaïs Nin says, “Intensive correcting may lead to monotony, to working on dead matter, whereas continuing to write and to write until perfection is achieved through repetition is a way to elude this monotony, to avoid performing an autopsy.”

Once our editing starts to feel like an autopsy, like a Frankenstein of parts stuck together (particularly if we have been working on it for a long time), then the best and quickest way to tackle revision is to write it over, from scratch, without looking.

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If that sounds like a huge waste of time, then be grateful you’re writing flash fiction! I give this same advice to all writers, and I have rewritten entire novels from scratch. For real.

Rewriting without looking, while initially infuriating, works wonders, especially if you are stuck. Why? Because all the good stuff from that first draft will make it into the second draft. And all the stuff that was just so-so will improve in the rewrite. Almost magically.

Consider how it works in the visual arts There are often dozens of pre-sketches, studies, and “running starts” at an idea, maybe second, third and fourth attempts at a famous painting. In the Dali museum there are multiple renditions of the melting clocks, for instance; rather than obsessing over one single canvas he made dozens of attempts and filled dozens of canvases until he hit on the famous versions we recognize today.

I remember the first time I had to rewrite without looking. I had a creative writing teacher in college who liked us to compose drafts by hand in class, and then at the end of the class we had to rip out those pages in our notebooks, turn them in, go home and write it over again!

What?!!

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But because we had no choice, we’d all go home and rewrite our drafts from scratch. Surprisingly, the second version was almost always better. Once we quit resisting the process, we discovered that the rewritten drafts were an organic improvement, a maturation of our original ideas, containing all the best parts of the first draft. And all the stuff that was initially weak would automatically improve in the rewrite.

This process works especially well for flash because you can usually rewrite a draft in one sitting. But the process works for everything—poems, novel chapters, scenes, essays, as I said even a whole book at its most extreme. Jack Kerouac rewrote his book On the Road from scratch three times before he hit on the version we read today. A photographer will shoot the same subject hundreds of times to get just one perfect shot.

And as a bonus, when rewritten all at once, the narrative voice of a story will have a natural cohesion, something that may have been missing in a previous version, particularly if it was composed over a long stretch of time or at various intervals.

So for this reason, I suggest closing that document, opening a new one, and rewrite it from scratch, without looking or reading the first draft.

When Hemingway was asked why he rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms 39 times, he said, “To get the words right.”

Kathy fish

“Just Read” (from an essay originally published in Lascaux Review)

I’m often asked my advice to writers. Mostly I say, just read.

Read Flannery O’Connor. Read Joy Williams. Read William Maxwell.  (Please read  William  Maxwell.)

Read about the universe. Read about neuroanatomy. Read “On the Origin of Species.”

Read “Nine Stories.” Read Tolstoy. Read Carson McCullers. Read Edward P. Jones. Read Willa Cather. Read Yasunari Kawabata. Study atlases and maps. Read E.B. White. Read fairy tales.

Remember that “fresh new voices” can come from people over forty. Find those writers and read them.

Read Shakespeare. Read Amy Hempel and Lydia Davis. Compare. At least once a week, read a book published by a small press. Read, read, read poetry.

Find a book on Entomology. Learn the names of all the insects that inhabit your backyard. (Or make up names for them.) Read Freud. Read graphic novels. Read prose poetry and flash fiction. Study the dictionary.

Read a book about a place you never been to from a writer whose name you can’t pronounce.

Read naked. But not in public.

Find and read a newspaper from the day you were born. Or any old newspaper. Learn another language, then read a novel or poetry in that language.

Read “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” out loud with no children present.

Read philosophy.

Buy a thick notebook and write “Sentences I Love” on the cover. Fill it up and buy another one.

Read collections of short stories and flash fiction.

Read the history of the town you grew up in.

Read Jane Austen and Edith Wharton and the Bronte sisters. Read Katherine Mansfield and Shirley Jackson and Kõbõ Abe. Read Grace Paley. Read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Read long into the night until the characters walk around in your dreams. Read “The Dead” at least one winter afternoon a year.

Or don’t read any of these and just read whatever the hell you want. Whatever books strike your fancy at any moment in time. The only mistake you can make as a writer is not reading.

But should your mother or your aunt or your grandmother or grandfather want to tell you their stories, close whatever book you’re reading and listen.

~Kathy