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On Revision: Pulling Up Widows

A Craft Short

from:

Pam Houston

Pulling Up Widows

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One of my primary goals in writing Contents May Have Shifted was to make a book in which each of my sentences worked harder than they ever had before. I was brought up in the post-Raymond Carver school of compression, and I still believe the poets are the real wizards, all that humanness crammed into just a few perfect lines.

So when I got to the 15th, and I believed final, draft, I decided to spend some weeks doing nothing but pulling up “widows.” Every time there was a word or two at the end of a paragraph that spilled over to the next line, I found a way to compress the language of the paragraph so that it got pulled “up” to the line above. My book is in 144 short sections, so I did the same thing if a sentence or two at the end of a section was “widowed” onto a blank page. You can see how this becomes a self-perpetuating process. If I pulled up a three-sentence widow from the end of a section and then pulled up word widows from every paragraph within that section, I might create, by the time I was finished, new widows to pull up at the section’s end. I knew, of course, that the layout of my manuscript would bear no resemblance to the typeset book. This process was simply a way to say to each sentence, “I know you think you’re as tight as you can get; now lets tighten you up just a little bit more.”

Weeks turned into months—four, to be exact—of rigorous, painstaking, highly enjoyable work, and what I had to show for it was a 250-page manuscript that was exactly 17 pages shorter than when I began. Not much, you say, for four months of work. But I’d beg to differ. When I contemplate putting back any of what I thought was muscle and turned out to be flab, I would say those excised 17 pages count for everything.

First draft of this craft short: 392 words

Final draft: 336

~

Pam Houston is an award-winning authorHer stories have been selected for The Best American Short Stories, the O. Henry Awards, the Pushcart Prize, and The Best American Short Stories of the Century. Pam teaches in the graduate writing program at the University of California, Davis. Photo of Pam by Adam Karsten.

More Pam Houston at HM:
Corn Maze and List #6

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Joan Kane Nichols December 21, 2012 at 10:31 am

I always do this. I thought of it as an annoying compulsion, a leftover from my copy-editing days. But like you, I came to realize what a great job it did tightening my prose. And it’s fun!

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Robert Lamb December 11, 2013 at 5:32 pm

This reminds me of a similar experience. In once re-designing Carolinian, USC’s alumni magazine, we (I was editor) inaugurated a last-page feature that had to be complete on the one page. (One does not jump stories backward through a magazine.) We were accustomed to having much more space for our literary gems; consequently we struggled to keep the story to one page. Try as we might, we couldn’t pack more than about 700 words on that page. But guess what. The more we cut, the sharper the story became — and the better writers and editors we became. Pascal put the point nicely in his famous line: “I’d have written a short letter if I’d had more time.”

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