Mary Lane Potter‘s eight-session fiction class, Writing Through Revision, begins July 14. Register here.
How to Perform a “Shake It Up Baby Now” Revision
In my class, Writing Through Revision, we’re going to write a short story through a guided process of revising. Each week we’ll read classic and contemporary stories that demonstrate a specific element of fiction and revise our draft focusing on that one element of fiction only—for example, point of view, time management, or structure.
For one of our final revisions, once the story has taken shape and been given weight, we’ll challenge ourselves to what I call a “Shake It Up Baby Now revision.” You can perform this kind of revision anytime, but it’s especially helpful when you’re too invested in the existing manuscript to hack away at it, or when your story is stuck—say, for instance, it’s a mess that refuses coherence, a competent story that doesn’t engage the reader, or an anecdote that lies dead on the page. When that happens, try one of these radical revisions to shake your imagination and the story loose.
Here’s how to perform a Shake It Up Baby Now revision: Try something radical, something wild, and see what happens. Be bold. Don’t worry if the change you’re contemplating doesn’t seem to make sense. Here are a few options to try:
- Rewrite the story in a different point of view.
- What happens when you switch from a first-person to a second-person point of view?
- What happens if you switch the point-of-view character? What if you tell the story from a minor character’s point of view or the point of view of a non-human character, like a dog or a parrot?
- Play with the tense of the story. If it’s in present tense, switch it to past. If it’s told in the past tense, switch it to present.
- Play with the chronological order.
- What happens if you take a story told in straight-ahead chronological order and reverse it? Tell the story backwards, the way Charles Baxter does in his novel, First Light.
- What happens if you take a story told in a series of scenes in chronological order and weave in sections of reflections about the past, the way Amy Hempel does in her short story, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried”?
- Move the setting of the story to a surprising place. For example, Mercè Rodoreda set the story of a man’s sorrow in love on the moon in her story “The Gentleman and the Moon” (from her collection My Cristina and Other Stories).
- Add something wild, bizarre, magical, quirky, or extreme to the story. You don’t have to be a speculative or experimental fiction writer to do this. As Kevin Barry says, speaking of his novel based on the life of John Lennon, Beatlebone, “I guess where it’s similar to my stories and my previous novel, City of Bohane, is that it’s a tall tale, and that’s the area I’m always interested in bringing the reader out toward. That edge of believability, where the reader is thinking to themselves ‘ah c’mon, no fucking way…but maybe.’ Very often, with the stories, I find that on the surface they’ll be presented as a kind of realism but then very quickly that starts to fade away at the edges and you realize that you’re in a different kind of world altogether.”¹
Pushing a story to the edge of believability isn’t easy to do or appropriate for every realist story, but it’s definitely worth a try. Trying it and seeing what happens can shake your story loose so you can see more deeply into and through it.
Dino Buzzati’s “The Falling Girl”; Jim Harrison’s novella The River Swimmer; Donald Barthelme, “The School”; Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose”; Mercé Rodoreda’s “The Salamander”; Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles; almost any George Saunders story (try Sea Oak, for example); or almost any Kevin Barry story.
¹Excerpted from Madness At The Edges: A Conversation with Kevin Barry, Author of Beatlebone by Dan Sheehan. http://electricliterature.com/madness-at-the-edges-a-conversation-with-kevin-barry-author-of-beatlebone/
Mary Lane Potter is the author A Woman of Salt: A Novel (2001 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection) and Strangers and Sojourners: Stories from the Lowcountry. She was awarded a Washington State Arts Commission/Artist Trust Fellowship and MacDowell and Hedgebrook residencies.