Revision in action
This story's earliest version was as the draft of a poem called "Cafe." It began this way:
"You ask me how I like your mother.
Your mother, with lipstick clotting in the cracks in her lips, with grape lipstick smeared on her teeth,
Your mother, smiling at me, her blue eyes bobbling, the right one straying a little,
You, on the other side of the table, crumpling your napkin,
Smiling [winking] at me over her head,
You, leaving us to pay the check–"
Like any of my first drafts, it's a rambling style; I just try to capture the images as they come to me, without worrying about how to polish or best arrange them. While I noticed the repetition of "smiling" as I wrote, I didn't bother to fix it at the time. I added "winking" in brackets, which was the second verb that occurred to me there, but which wasn't necessarily right either. I didn't worry about it. The point of the first draft is just to get it down.
The final version of the opening of this story:
"After lunch at the cafe, we rise from the sidewalk table, my fiance and his mother and I. Rob puts out an arm to steady his mother. She plants her feet, her lips pressed thin with the effort. When she finds her balance, he lets go and pulls out his wallet."
A couple of things are obvious right away:
*This has become prose. The first draft came as a sort of poem, but poetry is not my strength. I kept the pacing and many of the images from the original poem, but I decided to use a form, the short-short story, that works much better for me.
*The second person is gone. The "you" of the first version, Rob the fiance, has become a third person in the final story. I did this for a couple of reasons. First, second person is unusual and can be difficult to pull off--but that alone did not dictate my choice. The main advantage of the final version is that we know right away where we are and who everyone is. This is the story of a woman meeting her future mother-in-law for the first time; an interesting situation with the potential for conflict, and I wanted to orient the reader even more specifically than I did in the original. But the best reason of all: the story contains a nasty interaction between the narrator and Rob's mother that Rob doesn't know about. While the original version reads as a sort of letter-never-sent to the fiance, the final version keeps the internal discussion between the narrator and the readers, centering the story more firmly in the main character and her emotions. A drawback of the switch is an increase in narrative distance, but the story is still first-person, and the distance closes quickly in the next paragraph or two.
As I revised, I kept many of the images from the original opening, but moved them around. For example, the bobbling blue eyes and clotted lipstick now appear in the fourth paragraph of the final story. The new second and third paragraphs contain details that weren't in the original version, details that make clear the intimate nature of Rob's relationship with the narrator and the narrator's fear that some of these details would be TMI for his mother.
I also changed the ending point of this story. The original version contains an exchange between Rob and the narrator that occurs after the lunch, and a couple of lines about how the narrator's relationship with her mother-in-law will play out over the years. In the final version, I cut all that out, ending the story while we're still in the cafe. I believe the reader doesn't need me to explain how the daughter-in-law/mother-in-law relationship will play out over the years; it can be extrapolated from the story, from this first meeting.
A darling I killed: The original version contains this line: "She knew where to dig the knife, and how to twist its cinnabar handle." I love the phrase "cinnabar handle," but ultimately the knife image is rather cliched, and it's unnecessary because it tells readers what they can already figure out for themselves. Loving the word "cinnabar" was not a good enough reason to keep it, so out it came.
A darling I kept: This description of the table where they have just had lunch is almost identical to the original version: "Sunlight touches the remains of our lunch scattered on the table: bread heels, strawberry caps, dabs of butter, wine glasses with pink or golden splashes deep in their throats." I wanted to create a sense of quality, satisfaction, mellowness; of a full stomach and a good taste in the mouth; of a mood which is about to be disturbed.