A reader of this blog, Jack Payne, once left a comment in one of my posts:
"Only part I disagree with is, 'I write for the story.' What does that mean exactly? It's unclear.To me, that would be like the design engineer of a refrigerator saying, "I do it for the refrigerator."Don't we all write for the reader? I always did. Over my long career--55 business books--I always regarded the customer as king. Same way when I came out of retirement to write my first novel, Six Hours Past Thursday. If I couldn't create something beneficial or entertaining for the reader, I had nothing to offer. The story is automatically taken care of when you "score" with customer (reader) satisfaction.--Jack Payne"
Now finished with my edits, I haven't stopped thinking about what Mr. Payne had to say. While writing this book and then revising, I've had four readers: the three savvy women of The Writers' Group and my agent (some months ago, in a fit of panic, I asked Hank Phillippi Ryan to read the last chapter and in exchange for my undying gratitude, she dropped everything to do so). Over these many months, I've glowed under their praise and sometimes took to my bed because of their constructive criticism; their approval means so much. But never did I write for them.
The beginning and ending of the story were always clear to me. As soon as I realized I was writing a novel, I understood what my protagonist's transformation had to be, how it would be. But that wouldn't come until the end. There were many dark days slogging through the middle. I'll never forget going to a reading of Carol Goodman's The Ghost Orchid with Hannah, Lynne, and another writer, Caitlin, and telling them I had made page 100! Certainly I was elated to have reached that milestone, but stumbling around the parking lot afterward, the truth was that I was lost in the manuscript with no compass to guide me toward the end.
Part of the problem was that my story was so very dark. Bad enough to explore the life of an undertaker and her work, but now the story was pulling me toward a young girl and thrusting her in harm's way. With the exception of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones (a novel that has a "forever spot" on my desk), I can't read books where children are threatened. If I were writing this book for the reader, the story would have been neatly told, and I could have rested well, knowing the little girl was safe. Instead, I had to give myself over to the story, trust it to reveal itself.
It was a terrifying process, one I struggled with until the very last revision. It was uncompromising, not always kind, but in the end, it was what I hoped it to be all along: unfailingly honest.
That's what I mean by writing for the story. It's the best explanation I can give you, Mr. Payne.
Tuesday, September 18, 2007