When is a story actually a story?

Last night, I read an article entitled “How to Write a Story” (because, you know, one of these days I’m going to find the article that will make it all click!) and came across some advice that I didn’t really understand.

9. Don’t go back to fix the writing later.

You hear this so many times: somebody hands you a draft and says not to bother line-editing, as they’re going to get the story in place, then clean it up. Good fiction isn’t like that. Good fiction is more organic—the prose and the narrative are inextricable, they’re each expressions of the other.

When I first read this,I immediately leapt to the conclusion that the author was suggesting that I shouldn’t edit my work — that I have to get it right the first time. Wait a minute, that doesn’t make any sense. Who is this guy? Does he know what he is talking about?

Wait a minute Jeff, give the emergency handle a yank and put the brakes on the WhatTheFuck Express. You are a slobbering noob and maybe you just don’t understand.

Now that the train has been stopped and erroneous conclusions avoided, I wonder why the writer in question would be handing over a draft that he admits needs to be cleaned up. OK, maybe there are people who don’t suffer from my FeedbackAPhobia and want their work reviewed before it is ready, but if there are obvious things to fix, shouldn’t they fix them before asking somebody else to spend their time ? If you are going to rewrite it, won’t that change things?

Putting aside the uncomfortable question of asking people to review my work, I wonder if the story is actually a story if I still need to “clean it up”.

One of the first things I learned from reading Chuck Wendig’s XXX Ways To Be A Better Mammal series of eBooks was that my writing was going to suck. That gave me hope. My writing does suck (boyoboy, that  Wendig really knows his stuff!). He went on to explain that editing was the act of making the words “less shitty”.

Hey, if I can recognize that my work sucks and then change it to suck less, then maybe I can actually do this writing thing (even if I have to lather, rinse and repeat an embarrassingly large number of times).

Some time back, I started working on a short story. I took the theme from a writing contest — natural disaster. The contest notes included a nifty little suggestion that a natural disaster need not be a cataclysmic event like a hurricane or earthquake, but that natural disasters can occur within the human mind. I thought that was cool and set off to write a story that presented a situation where a woman was trapped, anxious and awaiting salvation. The story would be driven by the manner in which the woman experienced her surroundings and the resulting accumulation of anxiety and fear. At the end, the reader would be let in on the gag — the woman was “merely”  suffering through her daily commute on the subway.

I got through most of the story (yes, it sucked) before realizing that the woman I was writing about was actually an alcoholic and that she wasn’t on a train (that’s my way of saying that I couldn’t make my first attempt work, but if I changed the setting and the affliction, I figured I could). I ripped everything apart and things fell into place better. It was definitely less shitty. But, it still wasn’t working the way I wanted it to. Things felt forced. I really liked the character and *I* believed what she was feeling, but I didn’t think many other people would. I changed the setting of the story (one of the “big honking levers” of the world), ripped it apart and ended up with something that I thought the reader could believe.

Around the same time, Mrs. Cheffo asked me what I was writing (and WHY). She asked if I would mind letting her read it. Deep breath. I handed over a printed copy and said “I’ve still got to clean it up”. She was very kind, fixed a couple of typos, asked about a word she didn’t recognize and then asked a bunch of really good questions. Questions that should never have been raised or that should have already been answered.

When I sat back down with the story, I saw the reasons for her questions but I also saw that if I had “cleaned it up” before giving it to her, I would have solved 95% of the problems.It was very clear where the words were shitty — she wasn’t pointing out anything that I wouldn’t have seen — but, more importantly, I had fucked the story up by showing her something that wasn’t complete. The words were an intrinsic part of her experience and my unripened writing had soured the story.

Between the article and my wife’s test readings, I see that my story isn’t ready until the suckage has been reduced to a point where I can hand it over without caveats.

I don’t know if I fully understand what Dr. Jones (GREAT HANDLE!) is saying (I suspect there is more that I just don’t get … yet), but what I am taking away today is that the story can’t be separated from the telling. They are, in fact, one and if either aspect is incomplete, then they both are.

2 comments

  1. Hi Cheffy!
    You’ve done the hardest part (at least for me it is) already – showing someone your work. I’ve had four blogs to-date and I never tell anyone about them.
    And I even went to school to learn how to make the words “less shitty” (love that!).
    Keep it up, buddy!

    1. Thanks Jan, erm, buddy!

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