Writer in Residence · 07/24/2012

What Matters in Our Stories

A linked list of all posts from Revision Month can be found here.

I led a workshop last night. What is always interesting to me is how workshop stories seem to have the same few problems. Stories lack stakes, lack change, lack desire. I feel as if these are all part of the same issue. In order for a character to change, she has to want something that matters to her and either get it or fail to get it. I think, at a certain point, this idea becomes something that writers start with, but it seems like there is an easy trap in which we end up writing about characters without well-defined wants. I’ve been there. Sometimes I still am. For some reason, these characters can seem more real to us, in our heads, than characters who want something specific.

What does the character want? Much of a story’s suspense comes from whether the character will get that thing or not and what the consequences will be. It doesn’t matter how inherently drama-filled an event may seem. Even a murder mystery is not exciting if it doesn’t matter to our protagonist whodunnit. If our protagonist doesn’t care, we don’t care. She has to want something, and it has to be important to her that she gets it.

It occurs to me that this might all be put another way, as a simple question: why this story? I tried to explain yesterday to my class: if the most important thing that ever happened to the character is not in this story, then I want to read that story. Why am I reading about the tenth most important, or fifth, or even second? Which story do you want to read?

I suspect that we may write stories in which characters don’t seem to want anything specific, in which characters are not in that most important moment, for the same reasons we become writers. Our lives seem slightly disappointing. We’ve never really felt comfortable. Nothing really important seems to happen to us. (Obviously I’m generalizing here, or maybe I’m speaking only about myself.) Yet we all want things — many many things. We want to write a good story. That matters to us. And, in truth, important things have happened to all of us. We know people who’ve died; we’ve had children; we’ve met lovers; we’ve lost lovers; we’ve done things we are extremely proud of or regret; we’ve made decisions that have cost us.

And say we never have, by some weird chance? Then we have our imaginations.

So where to go in our revisions? How to make things matter? Vanessa Blakeslee, offers some examples from her own shimmering work. In one example, she talks about finding the heart of a story she published in The Southern Review, with some useful editorial feedback. She’s got me thinking. It seems to me more and more that backstory’s primary use is stakes. That the past’s main job, in our stories, is to tell us why the present matters. The same for flash forwards. What I am saying is: we have various tools at our disposal and we need to be aware of their best effect. Though revision can seem like walking through a fog, we light the lamps we have, and the more we write, the more we know which lamps let us see most clearly the path we have been walking, why that path and no other.


The “Revision Spectrum”: A Summarized Breakdown, by Vanessa Blakeslee

The first thought that comes to mind when I consider fiction and the question of revision — what specific strategies I use, how the process has changed for me over time, how do I know when a story is done — is the following quote from Flannery O’Connor:

I have very little to say about short-story writing. It’s one thing to write short stories and another thing to talk about writing them, and I hope you realize that your asking me to talk about story-writing is just like asking a fish to lecture on swimming. The more stories I write, the more mysterious I find the process and the less I find myself capable of analyzing it. Before I started writing stories, I suppose I could have given you a pretty good lecture on the subject, but nothing produces silence like experience, and at this point I have very little to say about how stories are written.

(from Mystery and Manners, page 87, footnote).

This is not entirely true in my case: I have plenty to say about story-writing. But the more I write fiction, the more O’Connor’s words resound: The more stories I write, the more mysterious I find the process and the less I find myself capable of analyzing it. Fiction falls in the realm of art-making and therefore is consumed with the mysterious, the seen and the unseen. To date I have written a novel and about fifty or sixty short stories, and like a child, each fiction struggles to be born on its own terms, presents its own dilemmas, wrestles with its own particular form. The more you write, the more you discover how to let the vision within be your guide, and revising becomes second nature. When you’re in a workshop, you learn to hone in on the select readers who “get” the premise that’s on the page, and tune out the others. For as Margaret Atwood said, leading a novel workshop in which I recently participated, “There are many, many different types of readers.” This is something I didn’t fully comprehend until a few years ago; I would come away from workshops overwhelmed by all the voices, and skimming through readers’ comments afterward, my eyes would glaze over at what to fix, what to disregard. Your own vision behind the story is your best teacher.

In the interests of practicality, it may be useful to break down the “revision spectrum,” if you will, into the more common situational categories that fiction, in various stages of development, falls into.

1). Stories in need of minimal revision

Occasionally, I get the words right on the first pass, the story I wanted to tell is largely there, and only minor tweaks and edits are needed. My story “Teacher’s Aide” arrived that way. I awoke one morning, overwhelmed by a certain mood — that of the premise, about a rower on a collegiate crew team whose mentor is abruptly struck with cancer. I grabbed a pen and notebook, and didn’t look at the time until four o’clock. Some of the rowing terms and the details of the final scene, a boat race, weren’t accurate, but after I did my research and fixed those, the story was finished.

How does this happen, the star-aligning magic that renders a first draft largely whole? In my experience, the more I can hone in on whatever the initial vision is for a story — and vision doesn’t have to be visual, indeed, sometimes it is an emotion I am chasing, as mentioned above, or a voice — the closer I get to accurately capturing the fiction on the initial pass. This is, by far, the exception to the rule.

2) Stories in need of substantial changes

My first drafts fall into this camp most of the time. Maybe I thought I knew the vision for something, but when I translate the scenario onto paper, certain elements are off-key — or other elements arise unexpectedly, and so I have to revise to incorporate them more smoothly, or fully. I have several strategies for dealing with this, although I don’t think very much of why I choose to do what; my approach is more instinctive. Sometimes I find myself rewriting a draft from the top down, in a different point-of-view or tense, or some such combination. Sometimes the protagonist’s gender needs to be changed, or age, or the setting. In this case, the story you end up with may be unrecognizable from the draft with which you began. This happened with my story, “Hospice of the Au Pair,” originally called, “The Scholarship Student Learns about Debt.” I wrote several early attempts of a first-person female narrator, a college girl, who is working as an au pair and stealing from her employers to fund a trip for her and her boyfriend. Not only was she whiny and unlikeable, but the conflict never came together on the page the way I intended. So I changed the story’s vantage point from the au pair’s point of view to the husband’s, and to third person — and the story changed. The desire mechanism shifted to what the husband wanted, why his story was an important one, and the stakes needed to be greater than a college nanny stealing. Now the wife is dying of cancer, (thus the need for the au pair), the grief-maddened husband falls in love with her, and the au pair, of course, gets pregnant. I was working on this during my final semester in the MFA in Writing at Vermont College, and my advisor, Robin Hemley, suggested I change up the location: Florida was a kind of predictable setting, so how about moving the scenario to someplace more exotic? For instance, Costa Rica, where I was temporarily living for most of 2008.

I followed Robin’s advice, and an entirely different story was born upon changing the locale. The language, plot, and tone instantly took on a liveliness I would never have predicted; the rather grave drama I had been struggling with adopted a delightful, darkly comic, slant. The thieving quality of the nanny shifted to the kids, for whom the behavior was a better fit, a reaction to their mother’s death and their father’s inability to cope (a doctor, he still carries on an affair with the nanny, but becomes a morphine addict). With a few minor tweaks, the story was done.

3) Stories where rewriting is required to get to the heart of the matter

This can be the most frustrating, because what’s holding the draft back from coherence, resonance, mystery, etc. — all those elements we’re striving for when we set out to compose great literature — is murky. Maybe you thought you knew what the story was about, but do you, really? What is it about? And to make matters trickier, maybe quite a bit of the whole is working, and what’s needed is a certain building up of layers, of delicate surgery? Maybe you take a few long walks, set the piece aside for awhile, work on something else while your subconscious figures out what’s needed, and how to go about fixing things. The setting-aside may take a few weeks, a few months. Or maybe a few years.

A story I just finished today, prior to writing this essay, has lived in my laptop (was likely moved from my old laptop to this one, actually) for six years. “The Gardener,” as it is tentatively titled, was critiqued as a first draft at the very beginning of my MFA program. The voice of the narrator, a teenage boy who conspires in his older sister’s obtaining an abortion, largely captured the mood I was going for, but his motivations weren’t clear, nor was he active enough in furthering the plot. His political fantasies set against the Nixon impeachment hearings didn’t thematically parallel each other enough, either. Shortly after the workshop, I attempted a revision, which was subsequently (and rightly) torn apart by my next advisor, Douglas Glover. More importantly, however, Glover posed essential questions of the dramatic situation that needed to be answered. The boy’s family is Catholic, yet his supposed internal struggle over his long-held belief of abortion as a sin wasn’t rendered on the page — why wasn’t this front and center, and how might I accomplish this in scene? The father is a severe drinker and suicidal, but the impact of this on the boy’s decision to help his sister obtain an abortion was unclear; rather than deepening the conflict, his alcoholism undermined the story’s focus. What was the main desire-resistance pattern, the plot? Sometime after graduation, I opened the file in my computer and retyped from page one, preserving the voice of the original but addressing the pitfalls of the family’s situation: the father’s drinking, the boy as the caretaker and advocate for his sister.

For years, every so often, I would take the story out, work on it, forget about it. Until last night, when I was in the middle of rearranging my story collection manuscript, and thought of “The Gardener” — almost there, but I needed a new ending, one with a more powerful note. In the new version, the father’s alcoholism is set up from the outset, and the boy’s fears are grounded in an argument he overhears between his parents, when his father threatens to kill himself. In the following scenes, the sister’s revelation that she is pregnant and the narrator’s determination to keep this from their father, and thereby avoid his violent reaction, plays as logical. I added a flash-forward ending which ties up the boy’s political aspirations as well as the Nixon theme, and sheds a different light on the events that have come before. The narrator, now in his early forties and newly elected to Congress, has recently covered up a girlfriend’s abortion to avoid a scandal. The second abortion forces him to consider the complexities he was incapable of understanding as a teenager, as he reflects upon his past and who he has become.

A new story born. Or is it an old story? No matter. O’Connor’s quote again pops to mind, for the processes which fall under “revision” vary so widely, they resist neat answers.

4) Stories in need of input from trusted readers

Rarely do I compose a story completely on my own, and no matter how much I might believe in the solidity of a draft, I don’t submit fiction for publication without getting feedback from a trusted reader first. Even then, a story may not be “done” but instead result in a back-and-forth exchange. This happened with my story, “Welcome, Lost Dogs,” which appeared in The Southern Review. The story follows an unnamed female narrator as she searches for her pack of rescued strays that have been stolen by a criminal gang in Costa Rica. I was fortunate that The Southern Review editorial staff gave me lengthy feedback, and a chance to resubmit a new version. “The story needs more meat on its bones, more plot,” the editors said. More meat on its bones, I thought. What on earth does that mean? I struggled for a month trying to digest this before even sitting down to revise.

What “more meat on its bones” meant was yes, more plot — but also more character development. The two are opposite halves of the same coin. What “more meat on its bones” meant was that I needed to push my narrator through a big event that would further test her, and therefore reveal more of who she was, before searching for the stray dogs. After bouncing possible scenarios back and forth with my sister and boyfriend, who are my first readers for everything, I settled on having her be duped by a “gringo hoax” and risk her safety by entering the slum. I’ll add that I was extremely reluctant to do this — I have been through slums before in Central America, and I didn’t want to go back there in my imagination. It is often said that to be an artist, you must not be afraid to stare, no matter how frightening or ugly the subject.

I also added backstory. Unlike developing a character through forward-momentum action, where the character reveals herself to the reader on her own, backstory requires invention. The key question was: what kind of history could I invent for this woman that would pertain to her distress and obsession over the stolen strays? Whatever I came up with couldn’t overwhelm what was already working on the page, either. So I invented a scattered family, an age-gap relationship forced to end when the husband and wife realize they are at two very different phases of life, and I made the husband French rather than American for an additional gap between them. This avoided the more clichéd divorce situations of cheating, abuse, bitterness, etc. and fit with the story’s already established tone — I didn’t want to have to rewrite any scenes just for the sake of weaving in relevant history. The sum total of what I added was minimal, but crucial — two paragraphs capturing the husband’s decline, the moment in the restaurant when the narrator tells him “no more”, to his departure from the ranch. I found a point where adding this information felt natural and didn’t hold up the action — toward the end, after the major scenes were finished, so the revelation of her history factors into the story’s suspense.

With those changes in place, I resubmitted the story to The Southern Review. It had jumped from sixteen pages to just over twenty, but those four pages did the trick. The editors accepted the revision several months later.

Most memorable fiction doesn’t come to fruition on its own, but is a dance between the writer and the minds he or she has invited into the process. None of what I have shared here is meant to be exclusive, nor hard-and-fast. My intentions are simply to share what methods have worked for me again and again, to unearth the heart of a story and proclaim, it’s done.


posted by Matt Salesses