Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Permission to Speak Freely

A few years ago, I decided to submit an entry to the Washington Post Magazine's annual short story contest. Write a story about the photograph on this week's cover, they said, and they spelled out the rules of the contest, including the maximum word count and the deadline. The photograph showed two people riding in a convertible down a highway in the vast open spaces of the American Southwest, as viewed by someone in the back seat. All right, I told myself, I know this part of the country very well, and I'm very good at writing to fit the space and meet the deadline.

And so I wrote a pretty good story about two sisters who were supportive but not close. The younger one had her head in the clouds and the older one was practical but she hadn't quite given up all her dreams. I closed with a scene of the older sister driving the younger one home in her convertible after rescuing Little Sis from a sticky situation caused by a fanciful idea running head-on into an unforgiving reality.

My story didn't even make runner-up. I was not surprised. In a metropolitan area this large, a pretty-good story has a snowball's chance in hell of making it past the slush pile. Still, I wasn't ready to give up on my pretty-good story. I gave it to my sister and my mom's friend (a retired English teacher) to read. Their response was lukewarm. "Writing little stories is such a pleasant hobby," Mom's friend said. Ouch.

You see, my characters were all bottled up inside themselves. You knew that Little Sis ached to escape the small town where she grew up and go live in the city. You knew that Big Sis gave up a glamorous life for that of a domestic goddess. But neither one of them had room to speak for themselves, and so the whole story felt as though it had been painted in shades of pastel pink and lavender and laced up in a tight corset. It was a "that's very nice, dear" type of story.

I tried again last year, juicing it up a bit for a writer's group I was in. They helpfully pointed out a few places where they didn't quite follow what was going on, a few places where things left unsaid really ought to be said. I got seriously hung up on how much to explain about the big distances and small towns in the Southwest without getting bogged down or turning it into a travelogue. I shopped my pretty-good story around to a few small literary journals, but no one wanted to publish it.

This year, I tried one more time. I signed up for a fiction workshop at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, and I decided to use this story as my project. I even volunteered to be one of the first group to have our work critiqued by the instructor and the other group members. After all, if you're in the first group, they can't compare you to the budding Faulkners and Grishams who are already 300 pages into their debut novels.

The consensus of the group? Open this story up. Waaaaay up. This is a good strong start on a much bigger story. Forget the word count, you're not in the contest any more. Let the characters talk to each other. Show us what they do, how they react. Flesh out the secondary characters. Introduce us to them one by one, and let us get acquainted with each one before you bring in another character. Show us how the characters react to how things look, sound, smell.

So I sat on the story for a couple of weeks, until I suddenly realized that I was going to have to give my revisions to the group that Saturday in preparation for a second go-round. I printed out a copy of what I had, and I began to write. And write. And write. Freed from the word-count boundaries, the story seemed to flow. The scenes in my mind appeared on the paper. I looked up between-town distances and street scenes and bus schedules on the internet. I imagined myself walking alongside the characters. Oh yes, this was much better.

During second go-round of critiquing, I got many comments on how much more developed the story was, how the imagery was coming to life, the characters were more three-dimensional. But more questions arose. Did the sisters fight? Why was Little Sister's reaction to her big letdown so muted? What happened during the all-day bus trip? The two-mile walk? Was The Guy really a cad, or just a decent guy who let a little fling get out of hand? "Let the photograph go," the instructor said. Did I really need that last bit about riding the 200 miles home in an open convertible, or was it just something I saw in the photograph?

The people in my story needed biographies. The scenery needed a set design diagram. This theme came out for several of my fellow authors' work as well. Even though the final story might be short, the author must be very clear about who the characters are, why they do what they do. And this might require writing backstories and detailed descriptions that never appear in the final version.

Before I could edit and craft my story, I had to let it expand to its fullest extent. Great billowing clouds of expository prose. Adjectives and adverbs. Similes and sensory input. I had to know the people and places, the sights and smells and sounds as well as I knew my own friends and the inside of my apartment. Lay it all out in all its sprawling verbosity.

And then -- craft, edit, polish, distil. How do you describe the little "tells" when people are restrained on the outside but seething inside? Can a lifted eyebrow tell a reader that my character is furious but won't admit it? A clenched jaw, a lowered voice. Eyes briefly lowering when a character is lying. Search out all the excess adjectives, adverbs, and cliches, and find a way to show instead of tell. Delete the throat-clearing setups, the fluff words, the subjunctives and participles and other various ways of tap dancing around the main point. Oddly enough, Twitter is a lovely way of stripping out the extra verbiage. 140 characters makes you say what you mean.

This would have been torture while I was still developing my characters and plot. It would have been wrong. Like trying to make topiary from a one-inch seedling. No, the plot, characters, and scenery have to be fully grown, solid and strong, then you have at it with the crafting tools.

If I'm a person who doesn't express all the colorful scenery inside of me, how can this come out in my writing? It's very scary putting it all out there like that because now you know that all those passions are in my mind. I have to speak freely about what sex feels like, what anger and betrayal feel like, what it's like to dream. To be down but not out. Some of my old wounds might begin to hurt and bleed again. But I can't talk to you through a gauze curtain. If I paint only in pastel shades, how can you know how much I care? Am I brave enough to open up and talk about these things? To add bright colors to my pale palette? I'm going to have to do this if I'm going to write fiction that's any good. Or nonfiction. I can't hold it back and still be compelling. That's going to take an awful lot of courage on my part. I hope I can do it.


  1. Are you kidding? I've only been talking to you for a short time...and find you open, funny, hilarious in fact, communicative, thoughtful...hell girl! Open is what I see. You are a gutsy woman and share much. If there be wounds, there are so many of us out there willing and able to help you put some salve on that we have the opportunity to hear you laugh and share more of yourself. This blog is such a wonderful opportunity for us to have some insight in the thought processes of a gifted writer. Paint on my friend! Looking forward to your book!.

  2. Sounds like you just saw the next level... and got firm grasp on the ladder... and you're about to climb up. I wonder, does it help at all to speak from a different voice? I know that a lot of performers (actors, musicians...) mentally and emotionally put on a different character in order to give a less restrained performance. I don't know if that's "hiding" or if that's just practical protection of your own self, or it it's giving yourself "permission to speak freely."

    I'm glad you went back to that piece without having a word limit. I remember it; I got a little lost. I bet giving the characters some fleshing out will help the impact of them.

  3. Great post, Nancy!

    I'm with Toisons: if you can be this open writing about _yourself_ in this blog, I would think that being open about a fictional somebody else would be easy by comparison! You said, "I have to speak freely about what sex feels like, what anger and betrayal feel like, what it's like to dream," but is that really true? Isn't the goal to speak freely about what sex, anger, and the rest feel like _to your character_, and couldn't that be different than how they feel to you?

    I hasten to add that I've never done this myself, so my theory could be all wrong. Or maybe it's correct, but the skill of imagining feelings different from one's own comes later in one's development as a writer. Anyway, it just seemed like a logical question to ask.

    BTW, the book I'm reading and greatly enjoying right now is self-published...which suggests to me that if the story you're working on ends up being a book you're happy with, getting it out to the public may be a lot easier today than it would have been even a few years ago...

  4. Unlike your blog, which is obsessively all about you, fiction is fiction, even if is a fictionalized account of something true in your life So quit agonizing over what it may say or reveal about you. Your reader won't care if it says something convincing and real about your characters. Get to know them (your characters, not your readers).

  5. Well, you can't please everyone, can you. If you don't enjoy reading my blog, feel free to move on to another one.

  6. This has nothing to do with my enjoying the blog. Nor did I realize you wanted to "please" everyone. But if all you can abide are positive comments, how will you grow as a writer? And it wasn’t all that negative, unless you are exquisitely sensitive. If you are, don’t put yourself out there for comments.

    But here you are- have a go:


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