The Story Only You Can Write
In the end, writers need readers. This lesson, the last of my eight on Writing the Story Only You Can Write, is about that.
This lesson is also about—more so than any of the other lessons in this course—writing the story only you can write.
This week, our lesson is about revision.
Three Things You Need to Finish a Story
In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway tells us that we need three things to revise our stories and get them ready for people to read:
- The conscious critic
- The creative instinct
- Readers you trust
The conscious critic is that part of ourselves we’re constantly yelling at to “SHUT UP!” when we’re trying to make something. The Critic is the voice in our heads that tells us we will never write anything worth reading because we are stupid and we don’t try hard enough and we would probably kill bunnies if given the chance. Critic is the one that tells us we are garbage people because, well, we are garbage people.
CRITIC, says I. SHUT UP!
Hopefully, you’ve succeeded at shutting Critic up until now—whether by writing late at night, after they’ve gone to sleep, or early in the morning (before they’ve woken up). But once you’ve finished writing your story (and maybe given yourself a week or two to celebrate), now it’s time to invite the critic to back your desk and let them take over. This is the moment they’ve been waiting for: to tear you apart. Give it to them.
Let them tear me apart, Clark?! You make no sense, man!
Okay. Yes, I see what you’re saying. But at this stage, you shouldn’t fear Critic any longer. Because you’ve got something in your corner that you didn’t even realize you had, and it’s something that Critic respects—grudgingly respects, but respects all the same: your Creative Instinct.
Ira Glass has a great bit about “the gap” between our taste and our ability to make things as good as the things we know (through our taste) to be good. Watch it:
What he’s talking about there is the creative instinct that Burroway refers to in Writing Fiction. When we’ve finally made something that satisfies Instinct, our old pal Critic can rip it to shreds all they want. But in the end, even Critic won’t be able to deny that, “Yeah—even though you use way too many commas there, buddy—you got something special here, kid.”
The partnership of Critic and Instinct will get you through the hardest parts of the revision process. Critic will keep telling you that you suck, but Instinct will always be there to remind you that “No, actually, you’re good enough. And you’re smart enough. And—goshdarnit!—people like you.”
And then, eventually, you’ll be done. I know that’s hard to believe, but you will get there. And when Instinct has helped you finally satisfy Critic—or at least get them to be quiet except for some mumbled grumbles—that’s when it’s time for the third item on Burroway’s list: readers you trust.
Two Kinds of Fixes
There are two kinds of fixes in fiction: the fixes you can make yourself, and the fixes that only come from others. That’s why you need readers you trust. Whether those are people you’re taking a class with, or the friends who are always turning you on to the coolest new stuff, or an editor you’ve hired because his free course on creative writing really turned your world around—you need readers who can spot the stuff that you’re not seeing. Revision is about re-seeing your work. There’s only so much you can do, unless you walk away from something for years, to re-see something you wrote. Eventually, you need to let someone else see it too.
Let me give you an example.
Here’s a paragraph from the December 2004 draft of what would eventually become my novel Missing Mr. Wingfield:
Veronica Silver hid inside the closet, chewing on a piece of bubble gum that had long ago lost its flavor. She felt the thin, rotting wall shudder behind her and listened as the shutters slapped open and closed, sighing, wishing with all of her heart for just a moment of that breeze. Sweat dripped down along the back of her neck and down in between her small breasts, puberty’s belated gift to her in this fourteenth summer of her youth. A spaghetti strap was sliding down her slick shoulder. Beyond the closet door, Veronica heard her cousin Ashley counting. “Three one-thousand,” she said. “Four one-thousand.”
Over the years, though I loved certain bits of that opening—the idea of Veronica chewing old bubblegum, the sweat, her inability to escape the moment she was in—it took a long time to get it to where I wanted it to be.
I went back and forth about why it mattered that her breasts were “small” until I finally admitted that, despite my initial idea that she was insecure about the size of her chest, it didn’t matter at all. Especially after I cut the “puberty’s belated gift to her line” when I moved the scene forward in time by eleven years. And I cut the cousin and the whole hide and seek angle because the book eventually became more about Veronica and her daughter. And I needed this bit of language in the section where Veronica’s daughter is about to find out Vern is filing for divorce.
It was a lot of work, but these are all things that I was able to figure out myself because the original scene had good bones to it and it wasn’t doing anything too controversial or obnoxious. It was a lot of work, but I got it there. And I knew that I got it there when I did. My critic kept me picking at it for years, but my instinct knew that it was too good to toss altogether.
Here’s the final version:
Veronica stood on a pedestal, chewing on a piece of bubblegum that had long ago lost its flavor. She watched the storefront window shudder in the November gale that raged outside and she sighed, wishing with all of her heart for just a moment of that breeze. Sweat dripped down along her bare back and down between her breasts. A spaghetti strap was sliding down her slick shoulder. On the couch in front of her sat two girls she hardly knew and the daughter who was becoming more of a stranger to her every day, each of them sweating as well, sleeves rolled up, sweaters discarded. And at her feet crouched a bony old seamstress, shivering in a shawl, fretting with the hemline of a dress that refused to fit, mumbling some kind of curse in some kind of old world tongue, the only kind of profanity which carried any weight anymore. Veronica gritted her teeth and swallowed her gum. It was going to be a while yet.
Good, right? I think so.
And yet, there were other parts of the novel that—no matter how many times I picked at them—I still couldn’t get right. Not until someone else helped me re-see what I’d written.
Here’s a great example from the draft of Wingfield that went out to my final set of editors:
Lydia waddled in, smile on her face. She was so much bigger since she’d quit the cigarettes, and Veronica found it an effort not to frown at her. Closing the door on one bad habit had just opened the doors to others. She bought a donut with her morning coffee now, and, at dinnertime, she always made room for dessert. The holidays had been one night after another of pie and cookies and giggled “just one more”s.
And here was one of the brilliant comments that came back to me on this passage. This was from a young woman, someone right in my target demographic—an ideal reader—and here’s what she had to say:
I think this view on Lydia’s health might read poorly to my generation of readers; the implication that being fat is inherently a bad thing. If Lydia’s weight is a major health concern, and thus gives Veronica one more thing to worry about, I would understand that. However, if quitting cigarettes means eating more of what she wants, and being overall happier, isn’t that arguably better than cancer?
Yes! I agreed with this editor 100%, and I couldn’t believe that I’d let something so out-of-character for Veronica slip through the cracks for so many years. But I’d fallen in love with this observation on the human condition and my way of phrasing it, and that had clouded my judgment.
That said, I still liked the paragraph. How else had it made it through 20 years of edits? So: I wanted to find a way to use it. Then, thanks to another overarching comment from that same editor (about the role of Veronica’s father in the book and consistency of his characterization), I found a way to use this bit of language that made way more sense.
Here’s the final version:
Lydia waddled in, smile on her face. She was much bigger since she’d quit the cigarettes, and Veronica saw that her father found it an effort not to frown. Closing the door on one bad habit, Robert had confided in Veronica, had just opened the doors to others. Lydia bought a donut with her morning coffee now, and at dinnertime she always made room for dessert. The holidays had been one night after another of pie and cookies and giggled “just one more”s. But what her father saw as folly, Veronica saw as good fortune. She remembered all too well the emphysemic hacking and wheezing of her grandfather near the end, and Veronica would much rather he had made the same trade her mother just had. After all, it was hard to hug a tombstone.
Much better, right? The language stays in there, but it’s used to characterize the father instead. And to characterize Veronica too, by showing us her reaction to her dad’s fat-shaming of her mom.
This change and so many others in Missing Mr. Wingfield wouldn’t have been possible without readers I could trust.
But, even when you trust your readers, there’s still one person you need to always trust more: yourself.
The trick to writing the story only you can write is always remembering what made you want to write in the first place.
For a lot of years, I struggled with completing the book that would become Missing Mr. Wingfield because I was trying to write the book I thought other people wanted out of me. For years, I kept trying to make the book more literary, more serious, more substantial.
I kept trying to write the Great American Novel, the one that agents would battle over and that would land me the Oprah's Book Club sticker and the Pulitzer Prize to boot.
Then a couple of friends asked me to do a quirky art project with them, which involved me re-writing part of my never-ending opus for the stage. And in trying to cram nearly 20 years of storytelling into a 20-minute staged reading, I re-discovered my love of the surreal. I made a dream sequence out of it, because that was the only way I could see how to transition quickly between so many moments of the past. But it wasn’t quite a dream sequence either, because it had the power to change the person’s real life in the process. It was more like an alternate reality, or maybe even time travel. Two things I could talk your head off about right now.
Unlike great American novels, many of which ain’t so great.
My friends and I threw music into the middle of our non-musical just because we thought that would be cool. And, because we wanted to limit our cast to three people, I had the older version of Veronica step into the shoes of people sitting across from her younger self. Which led to character moments I never could have imagined. Haven’t you ever wanted to have a chat with Young You?
I know I have.
I have also always wanted to write comics, and quote pop songs like they’re poetry, and publish my books in total DIY way—the way I did with my dad, when we produced five issues of a comic book series I wrote and drew back in the 90s.
My point: remember what makes you YOU. And put that into your story.
This is the number one thing I’m looking for with the writers I teach. I read every story they submit to me searching, ultimately, for one thing: their voice.
I want to find the places where each student writer’s voice comes shining through. The voice that jokes with me before class about the latest goofy thing they saw on the internet. The voice that gushes with me about Marvel movies as we walk back to our cars after class. The voice that loudly congratulates a classmates who finally write the stories only they can write, but which is afraid of letting itself be heard.
Whatever it is that makes you, put that into your work. And when someone tells you to take it out, even if it’s a reader you trust—even if it’s the editor who is offering to publish your book—take a chance on taking a stand and saying “No. That part is me. And we ain’t erasing me.”
Stay tuned for my next course on writing right here. In the meantime, if you have a story you’d like my feedback on, I’m available as a mentor for hire.