My Goodreads review of “Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice”

Living Revision: A Writer's Craft as Spiritual PracticeLiving Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Beginning and even intermediate writers will find this book useful if they haven’t come to understand that revision — especially deep revision — gives them a chance to turn adequate work into something extraordinary. “Revision is a form of love,” Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew says. “Creativity is the capacity to see or make newness. Revision is the flourishing of creativity. It is the work of seeing with new eyes … revision is a natural consequence of growth.”

Experienced writers who have already learned that lesson will appreciate the step-by-step approach, helpful exercises, and “toolboxes” that she offers. For example, “Choose one moment in your story where a shift occurs … What of the before and after content belongs in your project?”

At every step, her voice is gentle, encouraging, practical, and, as the title says, spiritual. “The work of revision draws bits of heaven down to earth … the endeavor, regardless of success, is always worthwhile.”

But I think this book speaks too little of the joy of writing. It dwells on the struggles and painful self-discovery, as if writing was always grim labor, and glosses over the thrill of creation, the excitement of seeing a story shaped and reshaped into the thing of beauty you had hoped for, and the near-physical pleasure of doing work that feeds the soul. Writing is hard work, yes, but so is making music. Have you ever noticed how often singers and musicians are smiling onstage? When you write, it’s okay if you smile, too.

Revision doesn’t have to make your heart ache. Actors don’t bemoan rehearsal, and rewriting is the same process in a different art form. If revision is painful, maybe the problem is with your desk chair, not your writing skills or creative soul.

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Ending it right

Thats All FolksDid you like the last book you read or movie you saw? Why? Sometimes it can be hard to explain your reaction to a story because so many elements go into making it good or bad.
One of those elements is the ending. It should leave you feeling that the story was built right and all the parts fit together.

The beginning of the story sets out the conflict, the middle deepens the conflict, and the ending settles the conflict. The ending is the climax of a story, the exciting part when questions are resolved.

Not all kinds of endings are satisfactory.
* If we learn “it was all a dream,” then we have no reason to care about the story.
* If the story strays too far from the beginning, the ending will have no relationship to the beginning.
* If there is insufficient conflict, the story never actually reaches an ending, it just stops.
* If the resolution is too wide, it becomes unbelievable.
* If the resolution is too predictable or has no tension, it simply fails.
* If the ending suddenly introduces a new character or changes to be able to rescue the situation, it feels like cheating.

A variety of endings can feel satisfactory.
* Stories can return to the beginning situation or setting, which is now the right place for the character, who has come home.
* Stories can show that what seemed real at the beginning was false or intolerable, and the ending can deliver a new reality: the character can’t go home again.
* Some endings can be more complex. They can resolve the main conflict but leave secondary questions unresolved: an open-ended story.
* If an ending can resolve all the questions, it’s possible the story didn’t have enough questions.
* Sometimes endings redefine the questions posed by the story by asking new questions, giving them a new context.
* Endings can even resolve nothing clearly and count on the reader to provide the answers from the clues in the story.
* Sometimes endings can reveal that the central question was false or deceptive: a trick ending.

Overall, a good ending stops at the right time and provides just enough closure. The beginning supports the ending, and the ending supports the beginning. And, of course, the conflict is not too easy for the characters to resolve, because that would be boring.

The worst thing a story can do is be boring.

How the printing press changed “you”: when reading changed, so did writing


These photos show excerpts from Amadis of Gaul and Don Quixote. Upper excerpt: “…what happened to him shall be told farther on. At the time when these things took place, as ye have already heard, there reigned in Great Britain a king named Falagriz, who dying without an heir, left…” — Amadis of Gaul, Chapter 3.

Lower excerpt: “Idle reader: thou mayest believe me without any oath that I wish this book, as the child of my thoughts, were the most beautiful, charming, and prudent that could be imagined. But I have not…” — Don Quixote de la Mancha, Prologue.


In the introduction to the Spanish Royal Academy’s 400th Anniversary edition of Don Quixote de la Mancha, Mario Vargas Llosa writes:

“Cervantes, in order to tell Quixote’s deeds, revolutionized the narrative forms of his time and established the foundation on which the modern novel was born. […] Perhaps the most innovative aspect of Quixote is the way in which Cervantes faced the problem of the narrator, the basic problem that must be resolved by anyone who wants to write a novel: who is going to tell the story?”

I think we should also ask: to whom is the story going to be told, and how? The answer to that question helps explain the difference in narrative forms between Amadis and Quixote.

Amadis of Gaul was written in Castilla-León (now Spain) during the late Middle Ages by anonymous authors, and it was one of a number of novels of chivalry popular at that time. This was before the printing press, so books were copied by hand on parchment, which made them expensive and rare. Most people didn’t read much, especially for pleasure. Instead, they listened to books at group readings for entertainment. Pero López de Ayala wrote at the end of the 14th century, “It also pleased me to hear these books many times,” especially Amadis.

Often enough, these books were read aloud during meals to audiences distracted by the soup or their dinner partners. A good story required plenty of action to capture and recapture the audience’s attention, as well as a declamatory narrative style. You can see this in the text, which often addresses the listeners as “vos” in Castilian or “ye” in English, which is the plural form of “you.”

You would have heard this book, not read it, and listened along with many other people. Indeed, the style of the original Castilian makes Amadis a stirring book to read aloud to an audience.

But around 1440, Gutenberg invented the printing press. By 1604, when Quixote was published, books had become more common and relatively inexpensive. Reading had become a private activity, and so, in the prologue, Cervantes addresses his readers with the second-person singular familiar form of “you”: “thou.”

That reader would curl up in a sunny alcove with Quixote as if it were a close friend, and the words from the page would travel directly to his or her thoughts. Cervantes could count on attentive readers, and so the kind of story he could tell them could be different: intimate and nuanced.

Technology had revolutionized the act of reading. It had revolutionized “you.” As a result, it had also revolutionized writing — that is, it had changed what authors could do. The printing press initiated a period of great and fruitful literary experimentation.

Will the internet cause a similar revolutionary change? Will it change “you”? If so, writing will change again, and a new kind of novel will be born.

Ten Commandments for Storytellers

Quiroga1900aEvery writer has advice — good, bad, and unique.

Uruguayan writer Horacio Quiroga (1878-1937), a master of the short story, perfected an economic, naturalistic, and precise prose style. His works often contained irreal elements and themes of horror, illness, and death, and his achievements influenced the next generation of Latin American authors: Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Felisberto Hernández, and Julio Cortázar.

Here’s Quiroga’s advice on how to write (my translation):

Decálogo del perfecto cuentista
Ten Commandments for the Perfect Storyteller

Cree en un maestro —Poe, Maupassant, Kipling, Chejov— como en Dios mismo.
Believe in a master — Poe, Maupassant, Kipling, Chekhov — as in God Himself.

Cree que su arte es una cima inaccesible. No sueñes en domarla. Cuando puedas hacerlo, lo conseguirás sin saberlo tú mismo.
Think of your art as an unreachable mountaintop. Don’t dream of conquering it. When you can climb that high, you’ll manage to do it without realizing it.

Resiste cuanto puedas a la imitación, pero imita si el influjo es demasiado fuerte. Más que ninguna otra cosa, el desarrollo de la personalidad es una larga paciencia.
Resist imitation as much as you can, but imitate if the influence is too strong. More than anything else, it will take great patience to develop your own personality.

Ten fe ciega no en tu capacidad para el triunfo, sino en el ardor con que lo deseas. Ama a tu arte como a tu novia, dándole todo tu corazón.
Have a blind faith not in your capacity for success, but in your desire for it. Love your art like you love your bride, and give it your full heart.

No empieces a escribir sin saber desde la primera palabra adónde vas. En un cuento bien logrado, las tres primeras líneas tienen casi la importancia de las tres últimas.
Don’t start to write without knowing from the first word where you’re going. In a well-told story, the first three lines are almost as important as the last three.

Si quieres expresar con exactitud esta circunstancia: “Desde el río soplaba el viento frío”, no hay en lengua humana más palabras que las apuntadas para expresarla. Una vez dueño de tus palabras, no te preocupes de observar si son entre sí consonantes o asonantes.
If you want to express this with exactitude: “The cold wind blew from the river,” in human speech there are no better words than those with which to say it. Once you are master of your words, don’t worry about whether they sound sufficiently poetic.

No adjetives sin necesidad. Inútiles serán cuantas colas de color adhieras a un sustantivo débil. Si hallas el que es preciso, él solo tendrá un color incomparable. Pero hay que hallarlo.
Don’t use unnecessary adjectives. They’ll be as useless as taping colorful tails on a weak noun. If you find the precise noun, it will have an incomparable color all by itself. But you have to find it.

Toma a tus personajes de la mano y llévalos firmemente hasta el final, sin ver otra cosa que el camino que les trazaste. No te distraigas viendo tú lo que ellos no pueden o no les importa ver. No abuses del lector. Un cuento es una novela depurada de ripios. Ten esto por una verdad absoluta, aunque no lo sea.
Take your characters by the hand and lead them firmly to the end without letting them see anything other than the road you created for them. Don’t be distracted by what they themselves can’t or don’t need to see. Don’t abuse the reader. A short story is a novel without the padding. Take this as an absolute truth, although it isn’t.

No escribas bajo el imperio de la emoción. Déjala morir, y evócala luego. Si eres capaz entonces de revivirla tal cual fue, has llegado en arte a la mitad del camino.
Don’t write under the influence of your emotions. Let them die and evoke them later. If you can revive them the way they were, your art has taken you halfway toward your goal.

No pienses en tus amigos al escribir, ni en la impresión que hará tu historia. Cuenta como si tu relato no tuviera interés más que para el pequeño ambiente de tus personajes, de los que pudiste haber sido uno. No de otro modo se obtiene la vida del cuento.
Don’t think about your friends when you write or about the impact your story will make. Tell it as if your story were interesting only to the small world of its characters and as if you were one of them. You cannot breathe life into your story otherwise.

More about Horacio Quiroga

If writers are supposed to lead troubled and tragic lives, Quiroga’s is a paragon. His father died in an accident when he was two months old. His stepfather killed himself in front of Quiroga while he was an adolescent. Later his first wife and two of his children committed suicide. He made poor romantic decisions. His second wife left him. He accidentally killed a close friend. One after another, his business ventures failed. He was sickly and impulsive, and he drank too much. Finally, he was diagnosed with painful, terminal cancer, and he killed himself.

But in his early 20s, he discovered Poe and other writers and began his literary career. Later, he traveled to the Amazon jungle and fell in love with it. The harsh lessons of his life and of untamed nature fueled his fiction. Those resources, along with his attention to the technical aspects of style, made him Uruguay’s greatest short story writer, equal to his masters: Poe, Maupassant, Kipling, and Chekhov.

You can learn more about him and read his collection Jungle Tales translated into English at the Horacio Quiroga Foundation. You can also read one of his most famous short story collections in Spanish, Cuentos de amor de locura y de muerte [Stories of Love Madness and Death], 1917, at the Fundación Horacio Quiroga.

And, of course, there’s more at Wikipedia in English and Spanish.

Giveaway reminder and updates for ‘Interference’

InterferenceCover_SmallReminder: Goodreads is hosting a giveaway of 20 copies of Interference. Enter here before November 14.

Not sure if you’ll like the book? You can read the first chapter here. You can hear a preview of the audiobook here. You can also read a few reviews at Goodreads.

Ready to buy? Links to online and bookstore outlets for the hardcover, ebook, and digital audio are here.

Want to meet me? I’ll be at Windycon, a Chicago science fiction convention, on November 15, 16, and 17, at the Westin Lombard Yorktown Center, 70 Yorktown Center, Lombard, IL. On Saturday, I’ll be participating in the Writer’s Workshop in the morning; at a reading at noon; on the panel “Talking to Little Green Men (Alien Languages)” at 1 p.m.; and autographing at 2 p.m. The rest of the weekend I’ll be wandering around more or less aimlessly. Come say hi.

I’ll be at Magers & Quinn Booksellers, 3038 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, MN, on Thursday, November 21, at 7:00 p.m. It will be Sci-Fi Night with Naomi Kritzer and Marissa Lingen. Naomi’s YA technothriller novel, Catfishing on CatNet debuts on November 19.

Not sure if you’ll like me? You can read interviews at and the Verge.

Warmth and food!