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Bake Your Stories



I have learned over the years that it’s important to let my work sit for a while when I’ve completed a draft. I’ve come to call this “putting my work in the oven.” I heard once—from where, I can’t recall—that Zadie Smith sets her “finished” work aside for a year before returning to it. I read that Horace counseled writers to set aside their work for nine years (!) before deciding whether it was worth publishing. Nine years might be excessive—even a year is a stretch for most working writers, granted—but the idea is to get your work out of your mind for a while when you’re done with a draft.


Stepping away from your writing—for a week? a year? nine years?—will allow you to read it with fresh eyes when you return to it. When we read our stories soon after writing them, or as we write them, which of course we all do, we hear what I’ll call (allow me to make up a word) foreëchoes. Without really thinking about it, we know at some level what we will read before we get there. Simply, we remember what we’ve already written.


First of all, taking our work out of the oven too soon makes editing difficult. For example, today (as I write this) I was reading over a proof of a story of mine for a literary journal, and I came across the phrase:


“He’s read enough poetry to know not be fooled . . .”


(The phrase, of course, should be “. . . to know not to be fooled . . ”). In my early stages of editing the piece, I overlooked that missing “to” I don’t know how many times. I’m sure the months of distance I had, between finishing my final draft and the story’s eventual acceptance, allowed me to catch the mistake. So consider identifying errors of grammar and usage reason number one for putting our stories and essays in the oven.


But more importantly than copyediting, I think, is hearing the quality of our prose. It is as though, with enough time, we have fortuitously become strangers to our work. We have become new readers. And, thus, we can better recognize our infelicities of language. We may hear our clichéd metaphors, our awkward constructions, our unwitting word repetitions, our strained syntax. As anyone who has allowed me to edit their work knows, I am a stickler for language. Yes of course plot and yes of course structure and yes of course characters—these are givens, these things must work—but I want my clients’ writing to sing. Every story under the sun has already been written, so sayeth the narratologists (or at least the postmodernists). So it is the sound of our words, the play of our sentences, the moods we evoke from our words’ reverberations that are most important. Or at least, I fear, more important than many plot- and character-focused writers seem to think. (And let me state that based on my readings, the top literary journals are hyper-focused on the quality of their writers’ prose.)


But, you say, I’m not worried about the sound of my prose. You say: I believe in the all-encompassing importance of plot and character. You say: I don’t really care about my brush strokes (to use a painting analogy)—it’s the picture that counts! And I reply: you still must get away from your work. There is absolutely an art to allowing one’s prose to defer to the story. We’re still using words. And we need these words to work so fluidly, so unobtrusively, that they disappear behind the content of their forms. This is a skill, and even those not necessarily considered “stylists” understand that the choice and order of their words is essential.


Sometimes—too often—I have returned to a work of mine after a long absence and had that terrible, uneasy sensation that what I thought—oh so ecstatically! so immodestly!—was a work of genius, in fact needs a complete dismantling, a total rebuilding. Or perhaps, sadly, the work needs to be given a gentle and loving death. But this is important. We must read our work as others eventually will. We must be critical of our literary offspring (yes, I’m sorry to say, sometimes we must drown them in burlap bags). We must be honest with ourselves. And the only way to do this, I believe, is to allow the echoes of our words to dissipate with time. We must read our work anew.


I am, truth to tell, uncomfortable when a client quickly returns a piece to me that I felt required considerable work. I fear the story or essay will be undercooked—the dough unrisen, the crust not yet golden-brown. (And my fear is greater when I’m not asked to edit the piece again.) So please take your time with your revisions. Put your story or essay in the oven after making changes. Let it sit, let it breathe. For a few days, perhaps a few weeks. The more revising you do, the longer you should set the timer. In short, let your stories bake. Then, and only then, shall we partake.

 

Erik Harper Klass is the founder of Submitit, the WORLD’S FIRST full-service submissions and editing company. He has published stories and essays in a variety of journals, including New England Review, Yemassee, Slippery Elm, Summerset Review, and Open: Journal of Arts & Letters, and he has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes.

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