Revising Fiction by David Madden: Leading by Example (and with TOC Checklist)

(One version of the cover of the book; mine is green, but there wasn’t a good image online.)

I first discovered Revising Fiction: A Handbook for Writers by David Madden when I was 17 or 18, and it has been by my side ever since (I’m 40 now). I recommend this book at every workshop I’ve ever taught. Why? It changes as you change as a writer–sections that seem too complex reveal their meaning over time while easier sections that apply to any beginning writer provide a good refresher when you plateau.

But the truly wonderful thing about the book, besides the good advice, is that Madden has divided it into 185 sections that he calls “practical techniques for improving your story or novel.” And in each section, he provides not only the fruits of his own experience but examples from famous writers. Sometimes these examples are just samples of the technique under review. But he’s also done a great deal of research to unearth the rough drafts of various works, so that he can show you how someone iconic solved a similar problem, presenting both the flawed text and the final text. In so doing, Madden provides an invaluable service.

For example, under “123–Considering the context, should some metaphors be turned into similes, some similes into metaphors,” Madden writes:

In a version of The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane wrote “He saw that he was a speck, raising his tiny arms against all possible forces and fates which were swelling down upon him like storms.” “He was a speck” is a metaphor, but Crane wanted the effect of two metaphors, so he struck out the simile “like storms,” and substituted the metaphor “in black tempests.” In “Miss Lonelyhearts and the Dead Pan,” Nathaniel West wrote: “May 1932–And on most days I received more than thirty letters, all of them alike, as though stamped from the dough of suffering with a heart-shaped cookie knife.” West cut “as though,” thus converting a weak simile into a strong metaphor.

Sometimes Madden’s examples take the form of summary at a higher level, as in this paragraph about a Thomas Hardy novel, taken from “61–Are the relationships among the characters unclear?”:

An excellent example of the overall impact of changing and clarifying character relationships is seen in a comparison of Thomas Hardy’s early manuscript of The Return of the Native with the published version. For instance, the reddleman goes from very clear relationships with local characters to being a man of mysterious origins. The boy Johnny was originally not the son of Susan Nunsuch. The heroine, Eustacia Vye, originally lived with her father instead of her grandfather. Thomasin Yoebright was originally the sister of the hero, Clym. The shifting of relationships forced a massive reorganization, the cutting and adding of all types of passages, including narrative.

In the very next section, “62–Do you need to clarify the underlying motives of your characters,” Madden discusses James Jones’ The Pistol. Madden explains that in the second draft of the novel, Jones explains a character’s “motivation for struggling to keep his pistol and offers motivations for the efforts of others to buy or steal it” in this passage:

It was interesting to speculate upon just why everyone was desirous of possessing this particular pistol…Perhaps…he had not yet, at nineteen, acquired the equipment with which to speculate deeply enough to find the real reason. All he knew was that everyone wanted it, wanted it badly, and that he was having a hard time keeping it…The sense of personal safety it gave him, the awareness that here at last was one object which he could actually depend on, the almost positive knowledge that it would one day actually save him, all of these comforted him as he lay rolled up in his two blankets and one shelterhalf with the rocky ground jabbing him in the flanks or as he toiled backbreakingly all day long at the never-ending job of putting up barbed wire. The world was going to hell in a basket, but if he could only hold on to the pistol, remain in possession of that extra margin of safety its beautiful blue-steel pregnant weight offered him, he could be saved, could come through it. Obviously, a lot of other people seemed to feel the same way.

About the excerpt, Madden writes, “In having Mast ponder his own motives and speculate on those of the other men around him, Jones prepares a motivation for the behavior of O’Brien [another character] and an explanation of the conflict between O’Brien and Mast,” but makes some changes in the final draft:

It was interesting to speculate upon just why everyone was so desirous of possessing this particular pistol…Everybody had always wanted pistols of course, but this was somehow becoming a different thing, he felt…Certainly, a lot of it had to do with the fact that it was free, unattached…[here, Jones put other text between the remainder of what had been the original, now-revised passage–jv] All Mast knew was the feeling that the pistol gave him. And that was that it comforted him. As he lay rolled up in his two blankets and one shelterhalf at night with the rock ground jabbing him in the ribs or flanks and the wind buffeting his head and ears, or he worked with his arms numb to the shoulder all day long at the never-ending job of putting up recalcitrant barbed wire, it comforted hiim. Thy rod and thy staff. Perhaps he had no staff–unless you could call his rifle that–but he had a “rod.” And it would be his salvation. One day it would save him. The sense of personal defensive safety that it gave him was tremendous…The world was rocketing to hell in a bucket, but if he could only hold onto his pistol, remain in possession of the promise of salvation its beautiful blue-steel bullet-charged weight offered him, he could be saved.

Madden argues that while the two versions say essentially the same things, the difference in expression is crucial. “One way to make your characters’ motivations clear is to intrude in the omniscient voice of the author, saying, in effect, “Now here is why my character feels and acts he or she does.” In the first version, Madden finds Jones’ language stiff and formal, “even referring to Mast as an immature nineteen-year-old.” Jones also seems to call “attention to the fact that he is informing the reader of Mast’s motivations.” In the second version, “we see him trying to suggest that Mast is himself sorting out his motives: and such more specific images as ‘beautiful blue-steel bullet-charged weight’ (instead of ‘beautiful blue-steel pregnant weight’) help to eliminate the abstract language.”


Sometimes students who happen to write science fiction and fantasy do ask me how a book that does not include many examples of non-mimetic fiction can be valuable to them. The answer is simple: the core of creative writing is the same no matter what “genre” you’re working in; a fantastical element, for example, is often as much as expression of the writer’s view of the world as it is anything that differentiates that writer technically from non-fantasy writers.

Further, it’s arguable that Revising Fiction is more valuable to genre writers because it may expose them to examples and writers they have not encountered before. I strongly believe in Michael Moorcock’s advice for beginning writers saturated in genre to “Stop reading SF and fantasy at once and start reading everything else. The worst thing that can happen to a genre is that it starts to feed on itself and in my experience you can bring a lot more inspiration to your work if you read, for instance, the novels of Elizabeth Bowen, some Maigret (or other) fiction by Simenon and absorb yourself in, say, Walter Scott and Marcel Proust. It pays off a treat.”

Reading Revising Fiction as a teenager radically changed my perspective on revision, and the effects that could be achieved after creating the rush of inspiration and grit that is a first draft. In encountering questions that allowed me to test my fiction I grew immeasurably as a writer and began to exhibit more control. In encountering questions I didn’t even understand at the time, I also came to understand that there is no such thing as “mastery” in writing fiction–that there would always be more to learn, more to look forward to internalizing. These two lessons, and the presence of masters of fiction ghosting through the text, soon made Revising Fiction and me inseparable. And I still return to it every year to see what else I can learn from it.

To give you even more of a sense of the value of the book, I’m reproducing part of the TOC below, because the TOC actually functions as a kind of checklist. I would also note that the Introduction is brilliant, and will change many writers’ perspective on exactly what revision is and how you go about doing it.

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The New Weird Anthology – Notes and Introduction

When The New Weird came out in early 2008, Ann and I frankly expected much more of a firestorm. It’s not that we wanted one–it’s that the original arguments about the term had been so polarizing, with some writers and critics refusing to even look at the term seriously after a time, that we expected some kind of primeval roar of disapproval.

Instead, the book sold well, received mostly excellent reviews, and sometimes created a lively but measured debate. Readers sent in approving emails, and many twenty-something writers who had not encountered the authors included also let us know through blog entries and by emails that they appreciated being able to have this “weird” stuff all in one place.

Many also pointed approvingly to the anthology’s structure of Stimuli, Evidence, Discussion, and Laboratory, which we’d painstakingly worked on to allow both general and academic readers to enjoy the book.

Perhaps the best praise came in a recent email from Junot Diaz, who told me he has taught the introduction to The New Weird at MIT.

At this point, with the anthology having been out for more than a year, and with a resurgence of weird hybrids appearing from publishers, I thought it appropriate to post the introduction here. It previously appeared in print form in the New York Review of SF. I hope you find it of use.

As a further resource, MentatJack has begun a review of the anthology, with the first post reproducing our list of New Weird texts (with links) and the second briefly discussing the Stimuli section.

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Tap Tap. This Thing On? Podcast of Finch, Chapter One (with cell phone)

Yep, this is the rough, first take. Cough cough. Blork. Eeet always gets better. I will be podcasting the entire novel in November.

Stonewall–and Chart

John Coulthart has a short but good post about the fortieth anniversary of Stonewall. It includes a link to this page and the map reproduced above, which puts things in perspective. I knew it was institutionalized in places but seeing “life in prison” and “death penalty” so starkly portrayed, along with large gray areas of the United States. Oy. It’s continually mystified me why equal rights for all is such an issue for some people. It seems like a deep-seated insanity. Invariably, too, on shows like Spurlock’s 30 Days, when the intolerant spend time among the supposed ‘orribly immoral, it’s impossible to completely maintain their views faced with the truth of the individual.

Update: Great piece by Rick Bowes on the Mumpsimus.

Spotlight at B&N Review: The Angel’s Game

My thumbnail review of The Angel’s Game by Zafon is up at the B&N Review (lower left). To say I disagree with the NYT’s dissection of the book would be an understatement.

Ultimately, though, the appeal of The Angel’s Game lies in its careful portrait of Martin and its exploration of what it really means to love someone. Readers who appreciate books, romance, and intrigue will find this novel a subtle, unforgettable, and satisfying page-turner.

Rochita Loenen-Ruiz Blogging at Clarion West

From her livejournal at Talking to the Moon, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, a published writer and student at Clarion West this year, is posting about her experiences at the workshop. I’m not a big fan of students blogging while attending a workshop–it can be distracting to the person posting or fellow students, or worse. But in this particular case, Rochita being the kind of person she is and the kind of writer, the results are insightful, thoughtful, and well worth your time.

Capybara FACute at Giant Hamster

So you still have capybara questions?! STILL?!

Well, now Caplin Rous has answered your questions in his own FACute over at his site, along with tons of photos!

Just a couple of highlights:

– Our skin is very, very tough so, tragically, we makes good leather.
– I do not like fruit pieces in my yogurt. I have to eat around them.
– When I’m excited, I popcorn like a guinea pig.
– My tongue is so short it doesn’t come out of my mouth so I have to rub my nose on the wall and then lick the excess yogurt off the wall. I will also use a chair for that purpose.

Cat Texture (provided by Jackson)

Some relaxing cat texture for your Friday. Thank you, and good night. I must gets off the intratubes.

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Catching Up: Capybaras, Book Tour Schedule, and Linkage

(Taken from Giant Hamster. A photo of Melanie Typaldos and her capybara Caplin Rous. Who knew capybaras were so popular? The interview with Melanie just downstream not only is one of the most-visited posts in the history of Ecstatic Days but has possibly elicited the most diverse response, from ex-American Idol contestants to members of Geiger Counter societies.)

Who knew it would be capybaras, not Shared Worlds or linkage to a China Mieville guest-blogging week, that truly defined this blog in June. Heh. Somehow, it’s appropriate. Caplin Rous is wonderful.

Anyway, below find stuff related to my book tour schedule in the fall, and recent links related to our books. (Check out the book tour schedule in case you still want me to come to your favorite bookstore or other venue–things are shaping up fast. Part of my trip will be by car, so there’s the possibility of excursions and diversions.)

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The Fantastical Capybara: An Interview with Melanie Typaldos About Her Caplin Rous

Update: Caplin Rous’ FACute, answering many questions.

My first encounter with a capybara was sad and strange: I saw one in a cramped cage at a county fair as a teenager. In amongst the rides, the shooting galleries, and the weird food, just this tiny cage and this incredibly peculiar creature that I’d never seen before, or even imagined existed. It had unbelievably beautiful eyes. Ever since then, I’ve been fascinated with capybaras because they seem so fantastical and they also have this gruffly wise look to them. (I only wish I had found some way to rescue that first one from what couldn’t have been a great life.)

Recently, I had a dream about capybaras, and, astoundingly, a capybara named Caplin Rous, responded in the comments! This led to further investigations, and the discovery that Caplin Rous lives in Texas, and that Melanie Typaldos dons the Caplin Rous (Rodents of Unusual Size, if you remember your Princess Bride) persona for her website devoted to her capybara. Not only that, Typaldos has just released a kid’s book called Celeste and the Giant Hamster, which does include appearances by a capybara. (The book is well-written, clever and interesting–definitely worth buying.)

It seemed only natural, given the topics that crop up on Ecstatic Days, to interview Melanie Typaldos about Caplin Rous, as wonderful a capybara as I’ve ever seen. The answers about capybaras may surprise you, including what sounds they make! It’s just a great interview.

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