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 freedigitalphotos.net
“Possible Cut” by patpitchaya. Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

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:

Old_new_best.pdf
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!

Close Encounter in the P.O.: Two Soldiers

I want to tell you a true story.

At the P. O.

This morning, I stood in line for a long time in our neighborhood post office. As usual, there was only one person working–a woman who, in spite of the line, seemed determined to keep her wits about her by not hurrying. So I did some people-watching. That’s what writers do, right?

A young African American man wearing camouflage stood just in front of me. He was clearly a soldier—muscular build, clean-cut, his head shaved—and when he turned, I saw his clear, beautiful dark eyes. In front of him, a couple of suspicious looking white guys waited. One wore a baseball cap over his dirty hair (he was sending a money order, it turned out, for $57 and some cents); and the other, with his unkempt beard and beady eyes, looking like a character out of Deliverance, struggled with a box so big he had to rest it now and then on the Priority Boxes kiosk next to us.

The line grew behind me, too. I couldn’t help noticing a scruffy, bearded, older white guy when he came in. He wore a prosthetic leg and a sour expression. In pain? I wondered. Deliverance guy turned and stared pointedly at the prosthetic leg (the older man was wearing shorts).

Finally, the line moved, and the soldier in front of me was next. He had been working on a package at the kiosk, and apparently, he’d stuffed something too large into the envelope. It bulged and gapped open at the ends. The postal clerk told him he’d have to tape it up. “I don’t have any tape,” she said, nodding toward the tape for sale.

“What about that tape right over there?” the soldier asked. He was right; there was tape, in clear view on the counter.

“I can only let you have tape if you’re sending it Priority,” the clerk said. The soldier nodded, and she handed him the roll. He taped up his package, paid, and turned to go.

Encounter

Soldier Cloth by lobster 20 Image courtesy of www.freedigitalphotos.net
Soldier Cloth by lobster 20
Image courtesy of http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

As he walked out, the scruffy older man behind me said, “Soldier!” His tone sharp, commanding. I turned. Oh Lord, I thought, not a confrontation.

The young soldier turned, too, and looked at the man.

“Vietnam vet,” the older guy said, as though that was all the explanation needed. “You been in it over there?”

“Yes sir,” the soldier answered, his tone like a salute. “Twice now.”

The Vietnam vet reached across the space between them and offered the younger soldier his hand. “I want to thank you for what you do for all of us,” the old vet said. They shook hands, black man and white, two soldiers standing on common ground in our little post office. The moment was entirely theirs. Choked up, I looked away.

The young soldier went on his way, and by that time, I was at the window, tending to my mundane errand but knowing I had just witnessed something remarkable.

Some Donald Maass Wisdom

Earlier this morning, I had read Donald Maass’s column, “Seasons of the Self,” at Writer Unboxed. First, Maass reflects on his personal past, his present, his future. Then he turns the reflection to the art of writing fictional characters. Every protagonist, he says, must possess personal awareness–a clear sense of where he’s been, where he is, and where he’s going. Here’s Maass:

How does your protagonist understand his or her own evolution? Powerful characters are real people. To become fully real we need to create their personal history.

He goes on to list ways to give protagonists the sense of self that renders them human. This is good stuff; I’d say go read it right now.

Witness

So what does the Maass article have to do with what I witnessed this morning? Just this: I was struck by the fact that each of the soldiers in the post office has his own story: a past self, a present, a future. Their stories crossed in that moment, unforgettable, I would think, for either of them, or for me. I just happened to be there; ten minutes earlier or later, a shorter wait, and I would have missed it. I could invent a story now about either of them, based on what I observed. I have all I need. Whether I will or not, I don’t know. For now, it’s enough to have been there.

A challenge for you!

First, read the Maass article. Then think about the protagonist in your current work-in-progress. How does his/her story interact with the stories of others? How does such a moment of encounter impact his/her self-knowledge? Write a “fresh” encounter your character has that reveals something about his or her sense of personal history.

Or, think about your personal story in this light: How has a moment of encounter changed you? Write about it!

Own the Emotion, Then Give It Away

Back in April, I volunteered as a studio monitor during the Southeast Regional Ballet Association’s festival here in Jackson, where some 800 ballet students and teachers gathered for three days of dance classes and evening performances. My sixteen-year-old granddaughter’s local dance company, Mississippi Metropolitan Ballet, hosted SERBA—a huge undertaking—and I wanted to help out. I also knew I would enjoy watching the dancers in class, so my motivation was partly selfish.

My duties? Introduce myself to the master teacher and the pianist, make sure the right dancers were in that studio, fetch whatever was needed, call for help if a dancer was injured, wipe down the barres after class. I knew what to do, but I didn’t expect the master teacher’s most important insight.

I’ve watched my granddaughter’s developing talent, hard work, and dedication over the years, so I wasn’t surprised at the young dancers’ talent and intensity. Some of them had arrived in the room by the time I got there, nearly 30 minutes before class began, and were already warming up. I sensed their nervousness; I was nervous, too, and worried that the teacher might be harsh or demanding. That couldn’t have been farther from the truth. I watched as he put the dancers through their paces, pushed, corrected, encouraged, and praised them.

Tutu, up close; a kind of artistry in itself
Tutu with hand-sewn ribbons

And then, toward the end of the first class, he said something remarkable: Technique, he said, isn’t enough. You can be technically proficient, but without emotion, you’ll never be a true artist. Repeatedly, he urged them to feel the music, to make their entire bodies expressions of emotion.

Artistry on the page

The same is true of writing. Artistry on the page isn’t about skill alone or even about eloquent writing. We can study and master craft; we can have a gift for language and story-telling; but if we can’t create emotion in ways that compel readers to feel, the prose will be flat, no matter how well written.

I learned a long time ago that my best work comes from an emotional place deep inside me where, quite often, I’d rather not go. When I become aware that a story isn’t working, I have to look at what I’m holding back.

One of the first stories I ever wrote and published (“Appendix,” published in the wonderful but now defunct Crescent Review) gave me a lot of trouble as I tried to write it. It dealt with betrayal, a subject that should have been fraught with emotion, yet no matter how I tried, I knew it wasn’t working. My husband gave me great advice: Step back from it, he said; change the POV, and give those emotions to somebody who’s the opposite of you.

I tried what he suggested, and the story came pouring out of me. And yet, even though I’d successfully created distance, I’d go upstairs after spending hours at the computer late at night (I was teaching full time then; that was when I had time to write), lock myself in the bathroom, and sob.

I’m not saying that tapping that kind of painful experience is necessary for every story, nor is probing personal experience right for every writer. For example, if writing about an experience brings back too many raw, painful feelings, give it more time before you tackle transferring that emotion to a fictional character. There may very well be some places you can never go in your fiction.

Going the distance

But my husband’s advice holds true. Take what terrifies you or makes you angry or sad or jealous and pour that emotion into a character who isn’t you. I read somewhere once that a fictional character will always be the writer in some way, whether we intend it or not. I believe that’s true. But if you’re dealing with difficult feelings, gain some distance. Give them away to someone very different from you, or turn the circumstances on their pretty little heads and write.

So, as with any art—dance or music or visual art or photography—writing techniques and skills must be mastered. We have to learn the rules before we can successfully break them. So we learn the craft. There’s no end to that, is there? We’re always learning! And then we reach inside and pull out our own hearts and examine them in the harsh light of day. We mine our experiences for feelings, and we make of them gifts for our readers.

How do you shape your characters’ emotions? Where do they come from?