Mary Helen Stefeniak: “Lessons in Revision from a Tale Told Twice”

No writer worth their salt will dispute the utter importance of the rewrite. As Ernest Hemingway said: “The first draft of anything is shit.”

Cate Kennedy, the Australian writer, once said that the writer must write for themselves but rewrite for the reader.


Mary Helen Stefaniak, the author of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winning novel, “The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia” in her craft talk at the Pacific University residency gave that most valuable of tools for the writer: a structural analysis of two versions of the same story, Frank O’Connor’s “Repentance” from 1935, and “First Confession” from 1951.

A rewrite done sixteen years later!

Stefaniak broke the stories down into scenes, narratives and half scenes, enumerating them so that the same event, regardless of how much it had changed, could be identified in both stories.

Here are some of the structural decisions O’Connor made in the rewrite of the story.

A Change of Perspective.

The initial version is in third person limited, meaning that the predominant pronoun is “he” but the story is still told through the protagonist’s eyes. Conversely, the second version is in first person.

Third person limited hinders the dramatic irony (when the reader knows something the character does not) that is so important to conveying the story’s good-natured amusement at the young protagonist’s antics. This is, after all, a story about a young boy who thinks he wants to “do in” his grandmother, and who, upon confessing this sin to the priest, gets off with naught but a scolding, to the chagrin of his older sister. 

The boy’s foolish candidness and earnest self-assuredness comes across more effectively in the first person.

Getting Rid of Distractions

Late in the story in an important scene in the cathedral, a character in the second version is entirely omitted.  Stefeniak reminds us: put in a scene only those things that aid its purpose! 

A short form piece, Jack Driscoll reminded us in another talk, has far more in common with poetry than the novel or even a novella. Consequently, every detail should contribute to the forward motion of the story, not act as dead weight to slow it down.

A Grabby Ending

The 1935 version of the story concludes with a short narrative paragraph that traverses decades. This paragraph is omitted in the second version, which ends instead with the narrator’s older sister reeling in disbelief that her brother hasn’t been caned by the priest for admitting that he wants to kill his grandmother.

Looking at he narrative ending of the first version, it seems unwieldy and empty, as though O’Connor didn’t quite know how to end the story and opted for a conclusion that is poetically vague and allusive enough to things introduced earlier in the story, that presumably the reader will make his or her own connections! A literary Hail Mary if you will.

Or perhaps he is relying on the desire of the reader to create associations.

You be the judge; here is the final sentence of the first version.

But one night in a Paris hotel Micky remembered it all, and it was as if tears were falling within his mind, and then it seemed as though window of door were suddenly opened and magic caught him by the hair.

Mary Helen Stefeniak’s close read of these stories led me to my first “a hah” moment regarding the measured application and balance of narrative, scene and half-scene.

If you’re interested in seeing how a master of short form fiction rewrote one of his great pieces with sixteen more years of experience and maturity, I recommend looking at these two stories.

Mark Twain’s Rules for Good Writing

I recently listened to “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” in my work truck. I couldn’t believe he had written it back in the 1870s. He had such a finger on the pulse of life, then and now, and his ability to craft distinctive voices for his characters and narrators was second to none. There is a reason Twain is  still considered one of the greatest of American writers.

Of course, he is probably most well known for being a great wit. In this post from the blog “Interesting Literature”, Twain skewers another famous, if less proficient, American writer.

Interesting Literature

Mark Twain’s 18 rules for writing – part of his response to the fiction of James Fenimore Cooper

Mark Twain (1835-1910) is the writer who once observed, ‘The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.’ (We include that pithy gem in our selection of Mark Twain’s best one-liners.) In his essay, ‘Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses‘ (1895), Twain took the author of The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans to task for his flawed writing style. Scathingly, but hilariously, he writes:

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