The Slippery Slope
Letter from the Editor, Fall 2008 originally appeared here at Our Stories Literary Journal
THE FIRST DRAFT IS ALWAYS THE SEXIEST; IT IS THE FLASH OF INSPIRATION THAT OVERCOMES THE WRITER, FULFILLING OUR DEEP- ROOTED DESIRES, TAKING OVER EVERY PART OF WHO WE ARE. It is the raw energy that bursts through your sleeves, down into your fingertips, and causes you to scream out loud, to rip off your shirt and scream, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” You type too fast; you skip over logic; your brain is firing scenes at you; bits of dialogue are weaved into passages; narrative is brief. And finally the last bit of the story is laid to bed and you hit save. You believe, soundly, that you are done with the story. But you’re not.
At the end of each quarter, I read between one hundred and two hundred stories. I have no idea how many of those stories are first drafts—we don’t conduct surveys on that sort of thing. However, I can tell the earmarks of a story that is a first draft. There is a not-so-subtle distinction between a piece that has been rewritten and one where patience and rethinking allowed the moments of beauty to be held and moments of excess to be excised.
When I finish a first draft of my own work, I get very scared, and something frightening occurs. I give a firm handshake to the artist, hold the door open for him, give him a quick kick in the ass, and lock the door. Out comes someone else: he’s impulsive and thinks in terms of logical structures, sequencing and grammar. He reads prose because it speaks to him, not because he wants to communicate with it. This is what I do: I turn on the “Track Changes” feature in Word and I begin to methodically question the premise of the story. I make notes in the margin. I cut, I paste. I delete and then read lines aloud. I highlight sections that work. I occasionally let the creative side back in through the window long enough to craft a few sentences, and then I throw him out the window again and give him the finger. I am a ruthless and brutal examiner of my own work—this goes past Hemingway’s shit detector. I am a structural engineer building a bridge between the artist and the reader.
When you rework a draft, you put to the test your weight as a writer. It is not what you do with the first draft; it is what you do with the fourth, fifth or twentieth. When that non-neurotic, anti-artist is in the room with you, hammering away at your draft, possessed of the will to get to that last draft, this a gift of the literary Gods. If you are not interested in rethinking your work, stick to the stuff of diary entries.
This quarter we published a short story by Tatjana Miloradovic-Lindes. It was reworked a number of times by Fiction Editor Josh Campbell. Here’s an illustration of her ability to rework a moment: in an early draft, she wrote, “He knocked at the windowpane twice, then looked back at the girl.” Now, that’s okay, but what’s missing? I mean, it’s devoid of any strong description. We don’t need too much—we don’t need to describe everything in that moment—but just “windowpane” and “girl” are dry. You cannot substitute nouns for the beauty of prose and the work of a writer. Here’s what she did: “He glanced at the mimosa trees blooming underneath and knocked at the windowpane twice, then turned around and looked back at the girl.” This is a nice, solid example of the writer meeting the moment head on. To see the full progression of the draft we’ve published, check out the workshop notes between Tatjana and Josh here.
When I am reading submissions, perhaps the greatest honor I can bestow on a story is to quote a line and say, “This is almost there, hold the moment,” or to quote another passage and say, “It’s just too much here.” Your writing must find a way to not only tell what is going on in a scene but to fully develop the scene so a reader can feel present there. But it’s hard to know what’s too much. You do not need to do a lot to make a moment just right, and if you do too much, your writing will become overburdened by details. You give just a little or take a little away.
This kind of moderation and control are crucial for moments when you need all your faculties to pull off something technically hairy or difficult. Let me give you an example that I can recall from this submission period. A writer submitted a piece where the letters of a dead father tell the entire story. The son finds these letters after his father’s funeral. Good idea right? It is. It is! There’s a flaw here that can get even the best writer in trouble, however: the writer is telling every moment in the story in the past, and then retelling it again through the medium of a letter (which again, don’t get me wrong is cool). Every scene is twice removed, so the reader has to work overdrive to connect directly to the action. Those moments of letter exchange have to be so breathtaking, so powerful, so “game changing,” as to carry the prose to an altogether wondrous height. The author must be composing at the absolute peak of his writerly talent to accomplish just this legerdemain, and that won’t even help him to flesh out , say, the funeral, the widow, the characters’ emotions, the scene, etc..
Removing the characters’ present from action strips away 90 percent of the interest from a story. My argument is similar to the strongest one I know against the flashback (of which this particular scene I’ve described is a version), for when you take readers away not only from the present of the story but from the present of the narrator in order to revisit the narrator’s past, you throw the readers into time machine after time machine with no regard for how they will come out on the other end. To do this, you have to match what you set up with the hard work of making prose, adding and subtracting all the right things, and making your writing so vivid that you create the fictional dream.
Such moments are revealed during rewrite: when you can turn a seemingly bland sentence into something magical, when you make every last word from a dying father matter. These moments, these precious moments that exist in 100 percent of the stories we receive, are where the real fight begins. This is where you must prove yourself, in rewriting your story, if you want to consider yourself a writer. So, hang out with that artist part of yourself but throw him out on his ass when you’re ready to work.