By Stuart Phillips
Our home in the country came complete with grapevines, gnarled roots thick enough you needed two hands to encircle them. These vines had seen things. However, fifteen years of neglect had left them exhausted and sprawling across a rickety system of rusted metal poles. They were, to put it mildly, unkempt.
I began their rehabilitation with a diet of YouTube videos. First, the sitework: how to make a proper trellis, how to train the vines onto the wire, even how to install and use wire tensioners. Then, I moved to the viticulture itself, watching videos from around the world and learning how and when and why to prune the vines. Finally, I began pruning. The steady snick snick snick of my hand shears moving deliberately through the tendrils was intensely soothing. A small tensing of the hand triggered a collide of hardened steel and unwanted bits of vegetation. The blade usually won.
It was at once glorious and terrifying to see the quickly-growing piles of branches and heaps of vines; however, despite the visceral satisfaction I became increasingly convinced that each snip was the one bridge too far, that this one leaf was what kept the entire vine alive.
In the spring, I anxiously watched for the sap to bleed from the winter’s cuts. Finally, interminably, it came, as did the buds, and the leaves, until by midsummer the vines were producing so many clusters that I had to return to YouTube to learn how to make jelly (and wine).
The most important shift in my thinking came because of one Australian vintner’s advice to trim the leaves until the growing grapes “see sunlight.” He advised that this keeps down disease and allows them to ripen properly. I immediately saw the perceptiveness of his advice: I wasn’t trying to grow grape leaves—I was trying to grow grapes.
Just as I started with the tangle of vines, you begin with a draft – as Matt Bell advises, don’t overthink this, just get it done. Obviously, you need a superstructure of vines and trellis, the armature of a plot upon which you build. You need greenery to drive photosynthesis – descriptions of scenery, character-building, and the like.
Draft in hand, we come to revision. You already know there are many moving parts to revising a work, from looking for plot holes to deepening characterization; before you even begin that, you should shift your perception and realize that the end goal isn’t to put 80,000 clever words together—it’s to express something. And that something is the fruit. In a paper, it would be the thesis, in a lawsuit, the prayer for relief. In creative writing, it’s “the point.”
This is a critical time in the process, as you likely didn’t set out to write a book (or story) with a point. You were just writing. Indeed, John Gardner’s Art of Fiction opines that the best symbols, and substance, arise organically from the writing. If you had a point, it was likely amorphous when you first wrote, just a vague niggling at the back of your mind. But now is the time to examine your writing with gimlet eyes and discern the truth, the thought you want the reader to walk away with after they’re done with the piece. You should devote time to formally, deliberately, parsing the takeaway. Doing this now will guide the hours of revisions you’re facing.
What happens when you turn “kill your darlings” on its side? At its core, Faulkner’s advice meant to excise anything that doesn’t drive the story. The problem is that we lose focus of what our darlings are. The “darling” isn’t the pat phrase or the witty line you’re proud of generating, it isn’t the leaves—it’s the grapes. The darling is the story itself. Don’t kill it—showcase it!
This means that revision shouldn’t start by immediately going through the draft trying to clever up your phrases or come up with a more interesting way to describe the sound of rain or the feeling of impending divorce. Instead, don’t worry about the words; think about the message. Take a moment and get meta before you get micro. Reread the work with the goal of discerning what you want to say. Basically, figure out what are the grapes, and what are merely leaves?
Once you’re able to capture that essence in your mind, memorialize it in a sentence, or a paragraph. “I want my reader to walk away thinking/feeling/wondering . . . .”
Print it on a notecard and use it as a lodestar while you go through the draft with your shears, unafraid to lop a word, a paragraph, even an entire chapter if it is keeping sunlight from shining on your grapes. Cut it. Trim it. Prune it. And don’t be afraid to let your darlings show.
Stuart Phillips is an expatriate Mississippian, former Army officer, and recovering lawyer who now lives and writes in the Mohawk Valley of New York. A graduate of Ole Miss, Pepperdine (JD) and Fairfield University (MFA), Stuart is slowly driving himself mad with revisions on The Great Southern Novel. You can follow his descent at stuartphillips.work or on Instagram @deltawriter12.