The Ferns, the Detective, & the Magi


Note: This entry was written back in June when I was revising my novel, The Singing Bone. I waited until I got good news about the revision to put it up. I hope to share that good news with you in my next post.


I remember sitting on the floor in my old apartment in the city with scissors and tape, cutting a story apart and taping the words back together in different spots. I needed the tangibles of scissors and clear tape, the tactility of change. By the time I was finished, my story looked like the sort of old cartoon ransom note cut from newspaper letters, but I liked the pacing better.

On Wednesday, you can read one of my revised short stories on Necessary Fiction. It’s called “The Twenty-Third of June” and features ferns–as in the plant. The original story had no ferns. No ferns! But the ferns are the glue of the story. A few times, I sent the story out without ferns. I knew it was missing something, but I didn’t know what.

Revising a novel, though–oh dear–and the recently written novel at that, is different than altering a short story. A short story is an elegant bird. A novel is a one-thousand-eyed beast that lolls on its side in your basement and heckles you through the floorboards.


Visual Revision

When I’m working on a longer piece, I have to know its shape. If there are multiple POVs as well as a past and present story (check), I try to keep chapters organized and of equal length. I thought I’d done that, but when I reread, I can see that I went around falling in love with my characters all over the place and when they began to speak, I couldn’t quiet them down. No one wants to say, “Shh, sweetheart. Be quiet” to their new favorite character.

I owe a lot of my ability to revise this novel to my talented friend Nora Maynard. It was her idea to turn one character into a sort-of detective figure who’s piecing things together throughout. It’s the best revision idea I’ve heard for this book–it’s a bit like the ferns in “The Twenty-Third of June.” It’s a through-line.

I read Nora’s novel, too. It’s so well written and realized, and I drew her a diagram for revision. We met at Pete’s Tavern near Gramercy Park. You know, the place where O’Henry apparently wrote “The Gift of the Magi.” We even sat in the O’Henry booth. I mean, if you’re talking about structural through-lines, you better sit in “The Gift of the Magi” booth.


The O’Henry Booth

The O’Henry booth is dark and wood-paneled with lots of O’Henry paraphernalia. Do I believe O’Henry wrote in this booth? It’s probably folklore, but I adore folklore, and while his story may seem somewhat old-fashioned now, it’s still one of those pieces that everyone knows as a sort-of perfectly turned and metered short story.

Nora and I became friends at Bread Loaf. We dormed in same white clapboard house and sat across from each other in Amy Hempel’s workshop. You might say we’re kindred writing spirits, because one of the reasons I sent a piece to Necessary Fiction is because Nora’s work is there, so I thought they might like my work, too.


Revision notes, publishing houses

My desk is now covered with coffee-stained ramblings. It took me two weeks of staring out of windows, cleaning the house, and jotting notes to begin the task of revising, but yesterday, I made my first inroads. I once dreaded this moment, but now I’m slightly obsessed with the new version and glad for the chance to make the book better.

This is my mantra: Revision is writing. Writing is revision.

The day I used scissors as a revision tool, I learned something about writing that I hadn’t anticipated. For weeks afterward, I kept finding bits of text sticking to my shoes and socks. I plucked them off and read them, slightly puzzled, as if someone else had composed them. I couldn’t place where they’d been in the story. And that’s the best thing about revision. You never remember what you’ve cut. You only remember what works.

In the end, you only remember the ferns.


While there is no universal formula to revising a novel, here are few articles that might help:

Seven Tips for Revising a Novel by James Duncan

Revision Checklist by Nathan Bransford

And if getting out scissors and tape is what you need to do, disregard everything and do it.


2 responses

  1. “A short story is an elegant bird. A novel is a one-thousand-eyed beast that lolls on its side in your basement and heckles you through the floorboards.” Such a great line! And so true. Sigh. Thanks so much for including me in your beast-taming process and for being such an important part of mine. I’m so glad we met in that workshop all those years ago.

    • Me too. Having excellent reader-writer friends makes the writing life manageable. Thank you, Bread Loaf!

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