I’ve just completed 4 short story revisions in 2 months, so I’m now going through a combination of relief, satisfaction, shock (that I actually did it) and disbelief (that it’s finally over). This last writing project was pretty intense, but it helped me to rethink, reinvent and revise stories that I didn’t think were ready to look at yet.
It was pretty exhilarating once I got into it – all the way down to the grueling end when you’re proofing a story for the millionth time. My editor told me during the middle of the process, “This is writing–all this revision, this digging deeper.”
It’s even more intense when you’re doing 3 stories at once to make a deadline. No wonder I feel shell-shocked. Actually, I feel as if I’ve just spent the last 2 months at sea and I’m now trying to adjust to land. I’m taking a little time out now from writing fiction.
This was my first time participating in Southeast Review’s (SER) 30-day regimen program. Their next regimen begins in June. I highly recommend all writers – fiction, non-fiction and poets – to try it at least once. For $15, it’s a pretty inexpensive yet effective way to jump start your writing. Plus it’s designed to help you build a large body of work in a short period of time. By body of work, I’m assuming they mean drafts of brand new pieces. However, I used their writing prompts to breathe new life into my existing stories. Every morning for 30 days, I received an SER email with a craft talk, writing exercise, reading and writing exercise, podcast and a riff word, each meant to inspire writing every day.
It was a very different and revealing revision process for me. Their exercises and reading were often very close to the themes of my stories, so I used them to expand or focus on particular aspect of a story, like characterization, voice, theme, or interiority, etc.
For example, here are a couple of the “Writing Exercises”:
Day 7 – Heredity (voice)
Heredity plays a huge role in shaping our personalities. Think about traits you have inherited from your mother or your father. Now, imagine how they were before you were born. Write about someone who could have been your mother or father in a different life. Think about how he or she may have acted in their youth and perhaps place the character in the past. For a bigger challenge, write in his or her voice.
Day 12 – Memory (blurring boundaries)
Think about three distinct memories from your past. Try to reconstruct them in your mind, in as much detail as you can muster. For whatever you can’t remember, fill in the gaps with invented details. Now write a poem, essay, or story that deliberately blurs fiction and fact. Try to lose track of which is which and just allow yourself to write within and without the bounds of reality and fiction.
Day 4 – From The Crying of Lot 6 by Thomas Pynchon:
“One summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary. Oedipa stood in the living room, stared at by the greenish dead eye of the TV tube, spoke the name of God, tried to feel as drunk as possible. But this did not work.”This is the first paragraph of Pynchon’s book. Notice how he incorporates character description while simultaneously throwing the reader directly into the action of the story. Write the first lines of a short story, poem, or essay that does this. Include as much character description as you can while also providing an opening into narrative.
Day 23 – From “Death and the Compass” by Jorge Luis Borges:
“Of the many problems which exercised the reckless discernment of Lonnrot, none was so strange — so rigorously strange, shall we say — as the periodic series of bloody events which culminated at the Triste-le-Roy, amid the ceaseless aroma of the eucalypti. It is true that Erik Lonnrot failed to prevent the last murder, but that he foresaw it is indisputable. Neither did he guess the identity of Yarmolinsky’s luckless assassin, but he did succeed in divining the secret morphology behind the fiendish series as well as the participation of Red Scharlach, whose other nickname is Scharlach the Dandy. That criminal (as countless others) had sworn on his honor to kill Lonnrot, but the latter could never be intimidated. Lonnrot believed himself a pure reasoner, an Auguste Dupin, but there was something of the adventurer in him, and even a little of the gambler.”
In this first paragraph of “Death and the Compass” Borges gives us a great example of an effective hook into a story. He begins not only by giving us the conflict and the mystery, but he also characterizes his protagonist for us. Use Borges as inspiration and write a piece with a compelling beginning.
Out of all the revising I did, I was also able to create something entirely new, when I took out an extended flashback from an existing story and made it into a standalone story. It is now a blurred boundary piece which employs 1st person omniscient and includes both fiction and non-fiction elements. The scene was reinvented, because of the writing I did in this regimen. I’m now considering submitting it as a piece of flash fiction.
The regimen, though, is only as effective as you make it. For me, it was well worth it, but then I was committed to write every day, based on at least one of the exercises, craft talk or riff word. It didn’t matter that most of this writing didn’t make it into my final submissions to Southeast Review, because I now have pieces of prose which may be useful in the future.
Serious writers will certainly get more out of it than hobbyists, but part-time writers can still gain a lot of ground in their writing using this program. And the bonus to joining the program is that participants get to submit up to 3 pieces for publication consideration, whereas regular submissions are one at a time.