Research Notes · 09/04/2020

A Place Remote

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Gwen Goodkin writes about A Place Remote from West Virginia University Press.

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From Beginning to End: The Path a Story — and Its Book — Take to Arrive at Their Final Destination

I describe the act of writing like this: I’m essentially a taxi driver. A story comes in and it’s my job to get it to its destination in the best way I can. And, like passengers, all my stories are different. They have different personalities which I hope are reflected in the story itself.

Not all stories start as ideas. Some start as a voice. That’s how “Winnie” began. I heard RJ’s voice. He was talking to me. He had a story he wanted to tell — a story he wanted me to tell.

I started writing “Winnie” in September 2012.

I asked myself, what was my life at the time? I had a 3 year old and a nine-month-old baby. Whew. Ask anyone, those are rough years. Then I thought about RJ and his voice — he has a calm voice, quietly confident, yet somewhat bewildered at how he pulled off where he ended up in life. And I can’t say for sure, because it was so long ago, but maybe in the midst of the chaos of young children, RJ’s voice in my head might have been the counterweight I needed.

I wanted to see what the first draft looked like, and with one eye closed, I opened the file. Much to my surprise, it wasn’t too far off the published version. I immediately knew why. RJ’s voice. That never changed. It was steady throughout. No matter how I altered or rearranged the story’s events, his voice was dependable and solid.

I put the story through a few revisions then sent it out to a handful of places, one of which was The Dublin Review.

I got an email back from the editor, Brendan Barrington, about a month later that essentially said, this story has some good things going for it, but a few aspects aren’t working. If you want to send a revision, here are some notes.
Here’s the revision file run for The Dublin Review:

As you can see, there was more than one revision. That’s because I fumbled the first revision. “Soap operatic” is the term I think Brendan used. I could tell from his note that he was irritated and disappointed that I’d made it worse. I asked him if I could try one more time and he agreed.

There was one scene in particular that wasn’t working. I kept trying different dialogue, different action, different anything, but I just couldn’t get it right. So I decided to scrap it completely. But I was left with a gap in the story. As I was working out what to do, a bit of advice from my grad school screenwriting instructor, Sioux Browning, came to mind: go outside. When a script feels claustrophobic or hemmed in, send your characters outside. So that’s what I did — and it worked.

I think Brendan was surprised and relieved I’d managed to save my sinking ship. We went through one more round of edits, proofs, then publication.

It isn’t often a story gets this much care and attention from a career editor. I was grateful not only for the experience but also for how much improved “Winnie” was in the end.

To that end, when it came time to assemble the collection, I wanted “Winnie” up front. Even though RJ’s voice is quiet — yet steady — the story has momentum. I knew it would pull the reader into the next story, “A Boy with Sense” — another quiet protagonist finding his voice. With each story in the collection, the narrator’s voice turns the volume up a notch louder, more insistent — or anxious — until the pressure finally breaks and we find ourselves in a story that breathes, “A Month of Summer.”

I wanted “A Month of Summer” to be different from everything I’d written up to that point. I wanted it to take its time unfolding. I also challenged myself to write a joyous story. I even put a reminder for myself up front. The story begins:

Once, between the stage of life when time moves slowly, like a child’s school day in winter, and the stage when time leapfrogs overhead, I sat atop a grey-and-white dappled horse in the middle of a city neighborhood surrounded by narrow homes with slick-tiled roofs and flower boxes offering blooms in all the colors of joy.

I arranged and rearranged the order of stories in A Place Remote many, many times, but, throughout the process, I rarely moved “A Month of Summer” from the end because its offering of joy and beauty felt like the right kind of closure for book — and the reader.

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Gwen Goodkin writes fiction, non-fiction, screenplays, teleplays and stage plays. Her short story collection, A Place Remote, was published by West Virginia University Press in 2020. Her essay collection Mass for the Shut Ins was named a finalist for Eyewear Publishing’s Beverly Prize. She has won the Folio Editor’s Prize for Fiction as well as the John Steinbeck Award for Fiction. She has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Gwen’s novel, The Plant, was named a finalist in the Faulkner-Wisdom Novel-in-Progress competition. Her TV pilot script, The Plant, based on her own novel-in-progress was named a quarterfinalist for Cinestory’s TV/Digital retreat. She won the Silver Prize (Short Script) for her screenplay Winnie in the Beverly Hills Screenplay Contest. She has a B.A. from Ohio Wesleyan University, an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and has also studied at the Universität Heidelberg. Gwen was born and raised in Ohio and now lives in Encinitas, California with her husband and daughters.