(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.