Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Story

By Amy

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.

17 comments:

The Writers' Group said...

Amy,

As you and I have discussed so many times, writing for the story is never easy. There are so many obstacles the writer must hurdle to capture that unfailing honesty. But I believe that if you build a story with integrity, readers will come.

Lynne

John Elder Robison said...

I discussed this very thing with a writer from the Globe yesterday.

I write for the audience. Once I figured out the message of my book, I resolved to write it in way that would connect with the different audiences and show them what I wanted them to find.

For example, if you want to inspire young people, you need stories that will do that. If you want to enlighten moms, you need different stories for that. If you want to accomplish both, it becomes more complex, weaving them together.

We will soon see if I accomplished that in the public's eye. Reviewers seem to think I have.

Not all books have a larger message. As an Aspergian, I don't know if I could write books like that, though.

The only "writing for myself" component of Look Me in the Eye is this: I told people I wanted to get out of commerce and do work that was creative and benefited society. LMITE is an example of such work, I hope.

Manic Mom said...

Good debate here. I think I write for myself, and for the story. If it reaches an audience, that's icing on the cake.

If I wrote for the readers right now, I would have to throw some sharp teeth and blood on my characters...

WHAT is with all the vampire books??

Found you from Allison, read you're neighbors with Steve C... wondered where you both live because the article mentioned he was in Chicago for a time (that's where I live, kind of)...

anyway, going to check out more of your blog!

The Writers' Group said...

Lynne, I agree, it's all about truth. Let's hope they come.

John, with a memoir I think you have to write a different kind of truth -- your own. What you've accomplished is nothing short of inspired. Readers will be touched.

Manic Mom, I've been reading about your journey for some time. You're oh-so-close. I'm pulling for you. The excerpt of yours is in some places bitingly honest. Please let us know when you have good news. Oh, and we're based in southeastern Massachusetts. Steven Tyler lives nearby, too, and Claire Cook one town over. I'm surrounded by an eclectic mix of writers!

Amy

Lisa said...

I think about this question often because although I believe in writing for that one person (that's my Kurt Vonnegut writing rule that sticks with me -- I love his line that "if you open a window and make love to the whole world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia"), that one person is always someone who loves the same stories I do and so I suppose that really it's me -- and the story. There is a very real distinction to me between stories I read that feel like they were written for the stories themselves -- and stories that "feel" like they were written for a mass audience. Maybe it's a matter of taste. I have to be true to the story.

Side Note: I went to a party in 1978-79 that was in a house still under construction and we were told it was being built for Steven Tyler. I only ever half believed it, but, hmm, maybe it really was :)

moonrat said...

I write for the story, too. In fact, it's the only reason I write.

Larramie said...

Amy, if you follow your heart and write for the story, you're more than likely not writing alone. The characters join you in telling their story -- the real truth of an uncompromising book.

The Writers' Group said...

Lisa, I remember that Vonnegut quote. I started reading him the summer I was 12. To this day, I brush my teeth with hot water.

Moonie, so pleased to have you stop by. I didn't know you were a writer, too. Of course it makes sense.

Lovely Larramie, you are always so succinct, able to proffer true wisdom in a modicum of words when it takes me an essay. Impressive as usual.

Amy

Therese said...

Amy, I agree with Lynne: by telling the story the way you must tell it, you will inevitably create someone's "just right" story. So in that way, you ARE writing for the reader.

But you find those readers by first finding the story.

I think Jack's approach makes sense for his books, and John's for his, and yours for yours. And mine for mine, for that matter. Wow, isn't the literary life great?

The Writers' Group said...

Therese, exactly. It's like that old chestnut that writers must write every day in order to write well. I don't, I can't. Whatever gets the writer to The End with satisfaction is what works best. As for this literary life being great, it really depends on the day, doesn't it? When you've got the lead title (Souvenir), sold rights in every country (Souvenir), and glowing reviews on Amazon UK (Souvenir), it's a fabulous life. *Sigh* If I could just try on that glass slipper.

Amy

reality said...

Amy,
IMO we need to write for ourselves first. What else could sustain us for those hundreds and thousands of pain and solitude.
Of course, we all hope that our story shall also be enjoyed by the readers. But the starting point is ourselves. If I don't like my story, how can I honestly believe that someone else shall.

Therese said...

It really does depend on the day. I'm having some good ones now, to be sure...but I haven't forgotten my many days of raw, aching knees from scrubbing floors with a brush.

Speaking of Amazon UK, I just saw your review! Many thanks. The five-stars now fairly well eclipse the bizarre one-stars.

The Writers' Group said...

Reality, I agree with 1000% and your comment about the hundreds and thousands resonates with me. In the end, I hope you find the journey was worth the angst. I know I'm looking forward to reading your story.

Therese, good days to be sure. I noticed lots of other 5-Star ratings for Souvenir. I think Ballantine has themselves a winner!

Amy

Kira said...

I'm with you on writing for the story. I was always so glad JK Rowling said she had the whole seven Harry Potters mapped out before she started because, as I read along, I feared she might succumb to the desires of the readers and change things around. I don't believe she did and I needed to trust her on that. Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life, takes a similar tack when she says, "Novels written with film contracts in mind have a faint but unmistakable, and ruinous, odor." I feel that way about the reader, I guess. I don't know who it will be. Anyone could like anything. I writing for the one reader I know. Me.

The Writers' Group said...

Yes, exactly, odiferous! I like that line very much. Thanks for sharing, Kira.

Amy

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