I’ve got a folder of unfinished stories right now. Being the organized type, I like to go on a purge through my folders once in a while, slashing and burning any story beginning that I don’t like. You had your chance to excite me, I tell the story, and send it flying to the trash. Sometimes, like now, the folder is filled with stories that are pretty far along; I’ve got at least three stories languishing in my “unfinished” folder that are nearly complete.
Wait — stop there. I may have gotten to the end of the story — but that doesn’t mean they’re complete. In fact, they are far from it. But this is the most delicate and dangerous stage in a story’s life. It’s the moment where I can choose to make it something good — or I can let all that work slip away.
The simple truth of the matter is that whatever you put into a first draft is going to be rough. It’s going to be too long in places, or missing whole necessary scenes. It will be relying on clichés in the parts where you were just a little sloppy that day. And often, you only discover what the story is about just about when you put that last sentence on the page. The story must be infused with its proper meaning — but how can it be in the first draft, when you just discovered what that meaning is?
First drafts are pretty bad, but it’s remarkable how many writers stop there. They feel the small sense of disappointment that the story wasn’t everything they hoped; then they either stick it in a folder, or half-heartedly (and ineffectually) send it out to a few magazines. When the rejection slips return, their already shaky convictions in their own writing abilities are toppled.
And that is honestly where the story ends for so many people.
So what is really the difference between those people — and the people who go on to become writers?
The answer is editing, but it might not be the editing you think. For many writers, editing means clearing up those plot holes and tweaking the grammar. Maybe freshening up the language a bit. Writers can go through an entire MFA program still thinking that’s all that editing is capable of. But if we throw a poorly-made garment in the washing machine, no matter how clean it is, it’s still poorly made.
A teacher reminded me recently that you aren’t married to the story the way it happened to first come to you. You aren’t married to that order of sentences on the page, and you aren’t married to that sequences of events in that order. It’s amazing what you can do to a story with good bones, if you’re willing to build an entirely new skeleton.
Try this editing exercise
Here’s a short exercise just to show you what editing can do: look at page one of your latest story draft and try re-arranging every sentence on the page. No sentence is allowed to stay where it first landed. What if you moved the last paragraph to the beginning of the page, and cut a few redundant lines in the first paragraph? What if you actually stitched together those two details about the one character, and had them all in one place? Try beginning the story with the most active sentence on the page.
With an exercise like this, you might end up with a mess. But it’s a good way to start seeing your story’s potential. It can show you that you aren’t chiseling words in stone when you lay down the first draft. Thanks to the magic of word processing technology, it’s easier than ever to shift and re-arrange and delete.
You thought you needed that whole extra scene to show the mother is kindly, right? Well, what if you just included that one sentence where she gives the kids money for ice cream — do you really need that whole extra page? Are you trying to prove something about your characters, or are you trying to keep a story moving forward?
When you’re editing, remember your priorities in the story. Go for the kernel, and shed what you can on the periphery. And don’t be afraid to shake things up. It’s the only thing that is going to keep that story from fading quietly into obscurity, and ending up in the Graveyard of Unfinished Stories.