Friday, July 12, 2013

Entry # 160 – “Turning Up The Heat On Revisions”

Photo by Jan Bowman - Hawaii - April 2013
How many revisions are necessary to finish a story? Someone asked me this. And I said, “It depends on so many factors that I can’t say anything definitive.” In fact, most stories can continue to be improved even after first publication and they often are revised extensively before being republished again in collections. But I am reminded that in response to this same question, S. J. Perelman was reported to have said, “Thirty-seven. I once tried doing thirty-three, but something was lacking.” Now clearly that was intended to be humorous and it did make me laugh the first time I read this in David Madden’s useful book, Revising Fiction. Writers spend many more hours revising than they ever spend on writing the first draft. That reality surprises most people.

So. How long do you bake a cake? And the answer depends on the kind of cake, the experience of the baker, the recipe, stove, and the intended results. But if it’s not baked long enough, it will be half-baked. It seems particularly useful to notice though, that the experience of the writer (or baker) does play an important role in the process.

Madden describes the process studied by Wallace Hildick in his book, Word for Word in which Hildick examined D. H. Lawrence’s body of work and described the four revision stages writers go through in their development.
[The writer]

1.  makes a mistake, but fails to see it.

2.  makes a mistake, sees it, but doesn’t know how to fix it.

3.  makes a mistake, sees it, has learned techniques of fiction,

              but he/she just can’t quite fix it.

4.  makes a mistake, sees it, has learned that solving technical

    problems in the creative process is just as exciting as writing the first


Of course - Madden dryly says, “Then book reviewers come along and tell him he only thinks he fixed the problems.”

Like baking a cake, the revision process takes knowledge of techniques, but unlike the baking of a cake, revision involves a long, difficult process, that can be as exhilarating as exhausting. It helps me to remember this when I am grinding along hour-after-hour revising work.

Photo: Jan Bowman - Hawaii - April 2013
I read somewhere that Raymond Carver said that if his first draft was around forty pages, it would be half that by the time he was finished cutting, adding, and editing, while he was “loving the process of putting words in and taking words out.”  
About Jan Bowman 
Jan Bowman’s fiction has appeared in numerous publications including, Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, The Broadkill Review, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes and others. Glimmer Train named a recent story as Honorable Mention in the November 2012 Short Story Awards for New Writers. Winner of the 2011 Roanoke Review Fiction Award, her stories have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, Best American Short Stories, a Pen/O’Henry award and a recent story was a finalist in the 2013 Phoebe Fiction Contest; another was a 2012 finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two collections of short stories while shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection. She has nonfiction publications in Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers.   Learn more at or
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