Story Surgery

A week or so ago, I re-read one of my short stories I hadn’t looked at in a while. I have to confess I’d felt a little smug about this one. (I almost never feel confident about what I write.) It’s unlike anything else I’ve written—a little edgy, playing around with POV and dialogue. Tight. Or so I thought. But I’d submitted it a few times with no luck–a sign the story isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s not as good as it could be.

I had never been truly satisfied with the ending, so I started there. I agonized. I lost sleep. I worked on the last two paragraphs for days (yes, sometimes that’s how long it takes), and finally, the ending seemed to gel. No small victory, that.

Then I read the entire story again—one last time, I told myself. I looked at white space, checked for typos. I had already read it for clichés, sentence variety, scene/narrative summary balance, tension, character arc/change, “flow” . . . If you’re a fiction writer, you know the drill. As I read, though, I realized the story was still heavy with gratuitous details and phrases, even whole sentences that didn’t contribute much.

Cutting Room Floor

"Possible Cut" by patpitchaya. Image courtesy of

“Possible Cut” by patpitchaya. Image courtesy of

So I started cutting. By the time I was done, the story was almost 500 words lighter. Tighter. Stronger. Why had it taken me so long to see what it needed?

Sometimes, time and distance give me perspective. I agree with the advice to “put it away for a while,” then reread with a sharp, critical eye. I often puzzle over a story for a long time before I figure out what it really needs. (Occasionally, I never figure it out, but that’s another post.)

Someone—surely more than one writer of advice on story craft—has said that nothing should go in the story that doesn’t advance it in some way. Nothing.

That, I believe, is the crux of revision whether you’re writing short or long fiction.

Ask yourself: Does this scene/ paragraph/dialogue/sentence/image/particular word (yes, word choice) move the story forward and/or grow the character? What does it add? Strike it out and read the passage aloud without it. See if you miss it, not because it was a brilliant turn of phrase but because without it, something absolutely essential has gone missing from the story. If not, cut. Cut. Cut. Painful, but necessary.

Be wary of language that calls attention to itself. In this story, I threw away a metaphor I loved. It was a beautiful image, but it didn’t do anything for the story. Sometimes we do indeed have to “kill our darlings.”

Granted, it’s possible to chop the life right out of a story. I know. I’ve done it. But sometimes, if we cut a story to its bones, we find a better way to tell it.

Before and After

I want to share a couple of examples. This story, “Miracle of Doors,” is about a woman recovering from breast cancer. Out of context, these passages won’t mean much, but they illustrate the kind of cutting and refining I’m talking about. (Her cat, Miso, plays an important role in the story.)

Here they are, side by side:


Before, after

This gives you an idea of my “tightening” process when I’m down to the last passes through a story. Sometimes it’s not the number of words but the words themselves that matter most. Maybe you’re able to write concisely or revise as you go. I tend to discover as I go; I write long drafts and whittle them down.

A story draft is the easy part. Revision is key to a polished piece of writing you can be proud of. Before you send the story out into the world: Refine. Make every word count!

Do you have favorite revision strategies? Share one with me!

Posted in Fiction, Novelist, Short Fiction, Writing Craft | Tagged , , , | 27 Comments

The Happiness Project: End, or Beginning?

Gretchen Rubin has a way of getting my hackles up (that’s Southern for irritating/ annoying/making me angry), and I’ll tell you why: I think I’m a lot like her.

No, I’m not a commercially successful writer. I’m not a young woman balancing career and home and young children. I’m probably—well, no probably about it—I’m not as smart or well-read as she. But here’s what she and I have in common, and here’s why, I think, The Happiness Project has gotten under my skin more than once.

Convicted, Count # 1

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

In Chapter 10, “Pay Attention: Mindfulness,” Gretchen writes:

I have several tendencies that run counter to mindfulness. I constantly multitask in ways that pull me away from my present experience . . . . I tend to dwell on anxieties and hopes for the future, instead of staying fully aware in the present moment.

I know that woman. She looks back at me from the mirror every morning. High on my list, if I were to embark on my own Happiness Project, would have to be Pay Attention. Be Still. Don’t skip life. Be in the moment because, as trite as it sounds, that’s what we have.

If I would pay attention more, be still more, listen more, be open more, live in the moment more, laugh more, I would, no doubt, be happier.

Convicted, Count #2

And in Chapter 11, “Keep a Contented Heart: Attitude,” there’s this:

Did I have a heart to be contented? Well, no, not particularly. I had a tendency to be discontented: ambitious, dissatisfied, fretful, and tough to please.

Gretchen goes on to say that in some instances, these qualities serve her well, but in others, her “critical streak wasn’t helpful.”

I can vouch for that. I am quick to criticize, I sometimes speak without thinking (and regret it), I’m often fretful without knowing exactly why. I can be tough to please. I’m a perfectionist. I keep a low level of anxiety most of the time.

Procrastination feeds anxiety. I can be the world’s greatest procrastinator, when not procrastinating–knocking out some of these tasks and marking them off the BIG LIST, or sitting down and writing for an hour without worrying about the outcome–would make me a more relaxed, contented, and yes, even happier person.


Work in Progress / Gerry Wilson

Work in Progress / Gerry Wilson

So there are practical aspects of Gretchen’s “truths” and strategies I can’t ignore.

I’ve resisted her idea of the Resolution Chart, but making a list, at least, of areas where I might improve the quality of my life (and therefore improve my level of contentment) would be a good starting point. Initially, the goals will be nebulous: Organize, for example. Or Stop Procrastinating. Until they’re accompanied by concrete, measurable steps, those goals will never see daylight. So I might start organizing by cleaning out one file cabinet drawer a week. Or going through only one box of old photos and dividing them into folders by relationship (said sorting to be continued, photos scanned, etc.). Yes, that might do as a start. But only one concrete goal at a time. Schedule them, yes, but leave time for some spontaneity, some laughter.

Some writing!

That’s where my procrastination hits hardest: I must have done fifty things this morning rather than write. The trick is to own the flaw and consider ways to change. In some ways, I’m a person who loves structure. In others, I’m very free-wheeling and creative. Can the two parts of me coexist? Yes, I believe they can, and they deserve to do so.

One final “Gretchen truth”

Rubin writes about “negativity bias” which simply means that people, especially women, are more geared to be negative than positive:

One consequence of the negativity bias is that when people’s minds are unoccupied, they tend to drift to anxious or angry thoughts. . . . [O]ne reason that women are more susceptible to depression than men may be their greater tendency to ruminate; . . .

Oh, my: a ruminator. That’s me. Gretchen goes on to offer the idea of a “mental ‘area of refuge.’” Areas of refuge can be just about anything we can call to mind–a favorite passage or quotation; a person; a memory; a phrase–that triggers good thoughts or soothes us so that when negativity threatens, we consciously call up something to take its place. Which, of course, requires discipline.

I think, for me, I should take the “area of refuge” more literally. I dream of building a little studio in our back yard–a place where I could go and write, away from distractions. That may never happen, though, so I want to consider where I might literally create a space of refuge inside the house. I don’t yet know where that might be or how I might make it work, but such a space would enhance my writing life and my levels of attentiveness and contentment considerably.

So this final Happiness Project post has been less book review than personal reflection, but maybe that’s not a bad way to approach any book. At some point I realized that I became impatient and irritated with this book when I saw myself in Gretchen Rubin’s attempts and especially in her failures. That’s an important “something” to carry away.

Thanks to Joy Weese Moll for the challenge to “read along” with The Happiness Project, and thanks to Gretchen Rubin for doing what I could never do: devoting a year to creating more happiness in her own life and then having the courage to write about it. She’s a  modern Benjamin Franklin (whom she acknowledges). Old Ben set his eyes on perfection, and even though he found it unattainable, believed he was a better man for having tried.

So I should try, too. So might we all. What can it hurt?

If you have followed these Happiness Project posts, I thank you! They were a kind of discipline practice for me, actually–a way of getting back into the blog in the new year. Now for new topics, new territory, maybe even a new look! Come along and see.

Posted in Books/Reading, Narrative, Opinion, Writers' Blogs | Tagged , , , , , | 17 Comments

Happiness, Continued . . .

New Year's Resolution Reading Challenge / Joy Weese Moll

New Year’s Resolution Reading Challenge / Joy Weese Moll

As part of Joy Weese Moll‘s New Year’s Resolution Reading Challenge, I’m spending the month of January reading (and blogging about) Gretchen Rubin’s bestseller, The Happiness Project.

Joy poses interesting questions for this week’s chapters:

1. Of the three topics covered in chapters 7, 8, and 9 (Money, Eternity, and Passion), which area would you like to improve the most in 2014? Why? Would some of Gretchen’s techniques work for you?

My most needed improvement? I stand convicted, Gretchen: I’m an “overbuyer” and my husband is an “underbuyer,” for sure. I tend to buy on impulse whereas he looks, walks away, and looks and looks some more before he makes up his mind. I’m not sure whether Gretchen’s techniques will work for me, but she’s made me more aware.

2. What idea from chapters 7, 8, and 9 could you use today that would likely make you happier?

I like Gretchen’s concept of “spending out,” not clinging to things. She confesses to being a “saver”–holding on to things for later or for a special occasion. I can relate to that. My grandmother owned a lovely robe she never wore because she was saving it for her burial! I occasionally tried to get her to wear it, but she refused. Now and then she would have me take it out of her closet and check its condition. Satisfied that it was still pristine, she’d tell me to put it away. She got her wish.

More importantly for me, Gretchen goes beyond the idea of not clinging to things. She says, “The most important meaning of ‘Spend out’ . . . is not to be a scorekeeper, not to stint on love and generosity.” She describes how easy it is to fall into a pattern of keeping score: Well, I did this, so he/she should do that. The key, Gretchen says, is “Don’t think about the return.” She quotes Sarah Bernhardt, the great actress: “It is by spending oneself that one becomes rich.” Spending out relates directly to a generous spirit, and that is something I want to cultivate!

3. What idea from chapters 7, 8, and 9 are you pretty sure wouldn’t make you happier at all, even if it seems to work for Gretchen?

Sky above, what's below?

Sky above, what’s below?

In chapter 8, “Contemplate the Heavens: Eternity,” Gretchen tackles spirituality and mortality. I appreciate her quest for spiritual wholeness—every person is entitled to approach her spiritual journey as she sees fit. But as a person of faith, I don’t think I would ever pursue finding a spiritual mentor as she does. Nor would I set out to read about others’ catastrophes in order to learn from them, as Gretchen describes it–a kind of vicarious experience of tragedy:

I went to the library and checked out an enormous stack of books. I started by collecting accounts by people grappling with serious illness and death, but then I broadened my search to include any kind of catastrophe: divorce, paralysis, addiction, and all the rest. I hoped that it would be possible for me to benefit from the knowledge that these people had won with so much pain, without undergoing the same ordeals. There are some kinds of profound wisdom that I hope never to gain from my own experience.

It’s one thing to feel deeply for the plight of someone else. It’s a fallacy to believe that we can know what another person’s trials and sorrows feel like.

Let me tell you a story:

When I was a young wife and mother, an older woman I admired very much lost her only son. He committed suicide. I went to that heartbreaking funeral, and after, I knew I wasn’t done. I felt compelled to visit her. I dreaded it, but one afternoon, I got a sitter for my two young sons (oh, imagine the death of a son!), picked up a plant or something, I don’t remember, and went. I remember walking up to her front door, practically trembling, my heart racing, a huge lump in my throat. What could I possibly say?

I didn’t have to worry about it. She saw my helplessness. She consoled me.

What did I learn? The important thing is to show up. Speechless, empty-handed, it doesn’t matter. A hug, a grasped hand. Offer what I can.

But, Gretchen, there’s no “learning about pain” without going through it. And all of us, most likely, will at some point experience our own.

4. I suspect all of us share Gretchen’s passion for books. How do books make you happy?

Budding artist/writer

Budding artist/writer/ me

Books do make me happy. Or sad. Or angry. Books are so much a part of my life (and always have been; see the photo, left), that I can’t imagine life without them. The two novels I’ve written, although they’re unpublished at this point, fill me with pride. I have labored and laughed, bled and cried all over those pages. They are my own, which brings an entirely different perspective to the word book.

Have you read The Happiness Project? If so, please share your take on Gretchen’s ideas (and mine, too)!

If you would like to read the earlier Happiness posts, you’ll find them here:

Week One: January Read Along: The Happiness Project

Week Two: And How Was Your Day?

Posted in Books/Reading, Narrative | Tagged , , , , , | 12 Comments