David Niall WilsonI had about a dozen plans for what I would write this month. Some of the words and phrases were written in my mind. Some of them ended up in my journal, and one nicely ordered set became my column for http://www.chizine.com/. Then, as so often happens, inspiration came to me in the form of life, e-mail, and the pursuit of perfection.
Recently a long term goal of mine was reached. I sold a collection of short fiction to a respected publisher. To top that off, the editor/publisher selected pretty much the same stories, from a large pool of my work, that I would have selected myself. The project, thus far, has been a dream. Along the way, though, I made a fateful promise that I thought was meant to make the editor happy, and learned that – subconsciously at least – it was meant to make me happy. It is one of those things, as it turns out, that will make us both happy, though it requires a lot of work.
The promise I made was simple. I would revise every story. All thirteen tales, all 98,000 words, would be freshly gone over, poked, prodded and re-shaped. Some of these stories were written as long ago as 1995 (I think that’s the oldest) and my “voice” has changed a lot since then. My understanding and application of style and grammar has evolved. Hopefully I’m even a bit wiser and have matured somewhat, emotionally and professionally. Still, when I said I would revise the stories, what I really meant was, ‘please, please, please let me revise the stories,’ and it was a selfish request.
Over the two plus decades of my career, one thing has never changed. When my work makes it to publication, and I read it, I cringe. Often. There is always something I would change, or rearrange, or excise completely. The biggest nightmare of this sort I recall was a story titled “The Dungeon Renewal Plan,” which was published in Cemetery Dance Magazine. That story was originally written during the lat 1980s when I was studying under J. N. Williamson in the Writer’s Digest School course on writing to sell fiction. It was an assignment. I wrote a simple tale about ghosts materializing from a drainage system on the anniversary of an attempted prison break. That was how it started.
After ‘graduating,’ I began submitting the stories I’d written during the course. One editor pointed out that my story left too many unanswered questions, and that the ending was ambiguous, so I sat back down and added the second half of the story. Being a very clever fellow, I broke up sections with the pithy discourse of a DJ on the radio, sort of giving a play-by-play of the action. More on that in a moment.
I sold that story to an anthology that never appeared. It was titled H2Orrors, and the stories all had to do with water in some way. The editor held the work a long time, but never managed to land a sale. Then another editor / publisher decided he was going to do an anthology. He’d published a collection of his own short stories, and was big on branching out. The anthology, as its predecessor, died with my story still unpublished. Since Rich Chizmar was involved, somewhat, he had the story in question, and eventually he asked to publish it in Cemetery Dance Magazine. I was thrilled.
You see, I knew this was a ‘great’ story. I was convinced, in fact, that it was among my strongest work, and that it would open some eyes when it finally saw print. I’ll tell you one thing; it certainly opened mine. The very first of the cleverly inserted radio DJ snippets gave away the entire plot to the story. How I didn’t see that in all the years I had that story in my hands, I do not know, but I certainly saw it when I read it, and I was mortified (remain mortified). That was the beginning of my new attitude about the sacrosanct quality of my work, and the process of revision.
Since then, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve regretted not giving something a final going over; how many manuscripts I’ve realized were perfect for a market and shot off out of the folder where I keep them without so much as a glance. It has resulted in world-class errors, like sending a story (again to Cemetery Dance) minus the final seven pages of the manuscript, only to find that the last page I DID send ended with a suitable “ambiguous” sort of horror finale. I even got a fan letter from a grad student in California commending me on the brilliance of ending it right there and leaving the imagination so fully engaged. That story has since been published as an Amazon Short at Amazon.com under a new title, “New Leather and Old Cognac,” with the final seven pages reinserted, but that’s not why I’m here.
I’m here to explain the joy of revising 98,000 words of short fiction that will represent me to the world as my first collection, Defining Moments. I’m here in the full knowledge that I’ll miss something, or regret something, eventually, when I read the book. I’m also here grateful that I have grown to have sense enough to want very badly to read and revise every page of the work involved, and to know that it needs it. Despite the fact most of these stories have been published, and that several have even been recommended for awards, I know they need work. When I turn them in they will be cleaner, brighter offerings – dusted and polished with love and affection. I also know that for many of these tales, it’s the first time they’ve experienced this. For being a bad parent to my work, I apologize. I will try to do better. Reading what I have wrought in black and white print I can’t erase has been very therapeutic.
As evidence of this, realize I wrote this essay, revised it, posted it, and this is the THIRD TIME since posting it that I have re-opened it to fix something (sigh).
So, in conclusion, thanks go out to Robert Morgan of Sarob Press for buying my work, and for giving me the time and opportunity to make it better than it was when he first liked it.
One last note, before I go. In my personal journal / blog I’ve been conducting some interviews, and publishing some book reviews. Since most of those involved in these interviews and reviews are fellow contributors to this site, I thought readers might enjoy dropping by for an extra glimpse into the minds that create Storytellers Unplugged daily. So far I’ve interviewed Elizabeth Massie and Thomas “Sully” Sullivan (of whom it has been said after reading my interview with him,‘The man writes like silk feels’) and I have “The Scariest Book I’ve Ever Read” reviews by Elizabeth Massie and the inimitable Janet Berliner. More will follow. You can find them in THE DEEP BLUE JOURNAL– hope you enjoy.