A couple of days ago I found myself in conversation about writing tips with a group of fellow writers at a critique group. One of the women explained how an art instructor had inadvertently taught her the cold, hard facts of re-writing.
“I had just finished my painting and was standing back admiring it, feeling really pleased with myself, thinking maybe I had some talent after all, “ she said. “The instructor walked over and asked if I thought I’d done well. When I nodded, she picked up a brush from a pot of thick black paint on the table beside me and daubed it all over my beautiful canvas. I was devastated. Then she ordered me to do it again. And this time to do it even better.”
While we all gasped and sympathized at her art instructor’s cruelty, she said, “I did paint the scene again. And the result was better the second time. That’s why I took your advice last week and re-did that chapter you all told me was slow and boring. You were right. It’s much livelier this time.”
My writing apprenticeship took a different form from that of my friend. I began as a journalist. My training dictated I stick to the facts of the story. Expressing an opinion was forbidden. Finding myself suddenly required to invent the facts required a whole new mindset. Most troublesome of all—for me—is the need to inject emotions into my characters’ made–up lives. I may remember to say that my heroine is upset when her cat fails to return from mousing in the garden at nightfall, but I’ll probably need an unbiased observer’s nudge to remember that good author’s show what’s going on rather than telling it. By the third or fourth attempt I may have figured out that Betsey is standing at the window, nibbling on a cuticle, straining for a glimpse of Timmy through the pouring rain while the potatoes burn and supper gets ruined.
One of my early fiction instructors used to insist that we “kill all (our) little darlings.” Those absolutely perfect little snippets that are so cute, or so touching, or so funny tend to be the totally unnecessary sentiments that detract from the story. Too often they are also the red herrings or inappropriate clues that drag the reader in a whole different direction from the one in which the story is intended to flow.
Most painful of all is the rewrite after a thoughtful editor has read your completed labour of love and pronounced it in need of major revisions. It took me over a year to bend my mind to following the advice of my the first story editor. Originally, Vlad was only a bumbler from whom Kate had no reason to flee. Ruth was married, having her first child, and comfortable with both her parents. Andreas loved Kate from his first appearance on page 20. My editor demanded conflict. Bend Vlad’s mind. Dump Ruth’s husband and child since they served no purpose. Drop Ruth too, unless there was a way to ramp up the tension between the generations. And what kind of wimp was Andreas if he couldn’t at least feel slighted that the love of his life turned out to be a two-faced traitor? Oh yes, and in passing be sure to accentuate the era because if it appeared to have a current setting no one would believe, of a woman who stayed with an abuser like Vladymyr Horbatsky.
Two years later, behold – Love, Obey and Betray.
by Maggie Petru