Story Trumps Writer

Dumbledore as portrayed by the late Richard Ha...

Dumbledore as portrayed by the late Richard Harris in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While waiting for my latest round of literary agent rejections to come in, I haven’t just been twiddling my thumbs, wondering what to do. I’ve been working on other writing projects, such as short stories. One is getting close to being publishable, and while I was wondering what in the world I would write next, a new one popped into my head. But, as usually happens with a little idea, it turned into a big one. A really big one. From March to June, I wrote close to thirty-three thousand words, mostly backstory. When I weave all that in with the present-day, how long is this thing going to be?

I was talking to my mom about how happy I’ve been writing this story – sometimes three thousand words in a day – except for that I don’t know exactly where it’s going. That’s kind of a problem when it comes to publishing. But I’m good at having epiphanies. Sometimes it takes two or four or seven years to get one, so this is most likely a long-term project, but I’ll get there. The funny thing is, the end scene is already done. It pretty much came fully blown into my head while driving home one night. I was frantic to write as much of it as I could remember when I finally sat down with my laptop. It’s a good scene, but a tragic one, one that I’d like to be able to change in an epilogue, although I can’t imagine how I would.

When I told my mom that I don’t really want to end my book like this, she said, “Well, you are the writer.”

“Yes,” I said, “but it’s the story. Story trumps writer.”

I know people think I’m being all mystical and strange when I say things like this. And I’m such a practical person that it seems uncharacteristic for me. But it’s so true. In 2007, when it seemed that everyone who had a life was waiting with bated breath for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7) to be published, I checked J.K. Rowling’s website all the time for possible insights and updates. And I remember her saying at one point that Dumbledore wasn’t cooperating. [Spoiler Alert] Nevermind that he was already dead, it intrigued me that her character was giving her trouble. None of my characters had done that to me. Yet.

Or maybe they had. Maybe that’s why I have so many broken-down manuscripts littering my hard drive. Maybe there’s an event that I don’t want to happen, so by not writing it, I delay the pain. Or there’s a character that I know needs to – gulp – die, but I can’t bear to kill.

I blogged last week about communication and when it breaks down between people (read it here). The same can happen between writers and their stories. It’s really obvious sometimes when a story desperately needs to go one way, but the writer just can’t do it – can’t kill the dashing suitor or separate the twins at birth or let the sickly-sweet heroine have a bad day for once. These stories suffer, I believe, because they are subverted from their true purpose. They’re stunted and can’t grow as they need to.

So when I was thinking about communication breakdowns, about the sad end to my new story, I remembered that pesky novel that I’m trying to get represented. I’ve revised it ten times over a period of ten years. And when I say “revised,” I don’t mean “proofread.” I mean top-to-bottom, scenes cut and added all over the place, names changed multiple times. And those epiphanies I mentioned? Yeah, they’ve caused a revision or four, as well. But is it done yet? Has it really had its say?

I’m having doubts about this book, which has been well-received by other writers. But is it because they’ve seen multiple versions, and my latest revision is so much better that they’re just glad to see improvement? Or are they complimenting it because they know me and don’t want to hurt my feelings? While doing some soul-searching, I’ve realized that some of the parts that I believe necessary to the story might need to go, which is tough. Even parts that get a lot of praise may not belong, like a silk ball gown on a trip to the beach.

One of the questions I’ve had to pose to myself is: do I know my story? I mean, do I truly, bone-deep know it? To the point that I could spell out the most important aspect in one sentence. And maybe I don’t. Maybe, if agents don’t accept it, it’s not ready to be accepted. Maybe I’m not ready for it to be accepted. Or it could be that I’m full of doubts because I really do know it, and they’re all just looking for the biggest sell, and my story isn’t “it.” And the struggle continues.

So while I should be writing, I’ve done a lot of stewing instead. You know, I prefer to let my favorite tomato sauce simmer on the back burner for hours before I eat it. Sure, it’s “ready” in twenty minutes or so, but it’s not nearly as good. Maybe that’s what my story needs to do. I think about it, mull it over, jot a few notes. . . and listen. Whenever it’s ready to give up the goods, I hope I hear it this time. Then, I’ll settle into revision number eleven.

3 thoughts on “Story Trumps Writer

  1. Story does trump writer. It’s like Michelangelo looking at blocks of marble, seeing the figures who need to be freed.

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