About the Process – When It’s Wrong, It’s Not Right

Being Right and Wrong

Image via Fleur de Life

I was in a mad hurry when I wrote the draft of my story “The Face on the Coin.” My invitation to submit to the Vampire Predicament anthology came after a few of the participating authors had had to pull their stories. Since I’ve never been published in an anthology, I was delighted by the opportunity.

But 15,000 words in a short space of time. And the editor – Jacqueline Lichtenberg – chose the subject for me: my own ghost detective character versus a vampire ghost. I’d already thought of both a vampire and his predicament, but now I was going to have to start over.

First Things

I had to ask myself, what is a vampire ghost? And how would one go about falling afoul of one? For me, coming up with the plot line was the work of a couple of days. Once I defined vampire ghost and the possible reasons for one, the basic idea formed. Then it was the work of figuring out how the paths of my detective and the vampire ghost cross. This ended up involving two continents and eight characters.

As usual, I edited as I wrote, and was very happy to have finished the story in the time given. It hung together well and had some parts in it I really enjoyed. But I couldn’t say I liked it. That bothered me. I wasn’t sure if there was anything wrong with it and if there was, what it was. I had taken a year to write my first novel, including time for reflection, re-reading, and rewriting; I had much, much less for this story. Maybe that was why I couldn’t quite tell how I felt about it.

The Verdict Comes Back

Jacqueline said she was forwarding the story on to the copy editor, but thought it could use rewriting. I asked for specifics, which she was kind enough to give me. As I read through her analysis, I could almost instantly see she was right. There were two many characters with their own agendas, the climax was in the wrong place, and the detective wasn’t the hero. It was an interesting plot, but it was just a plot without much in the way of highs or lows; it didn’t engage the reader.

Everyone’s process is different, and I know quite a few writers who get discouraged when they get feedback of this sort. I’m lucky enough to be the opposite. When I can see what’s wrong with a story, is when I get really energized and nearly can’t wait to get things right in it. I started revising the story the same day, changing the roles of two characters and eliminating three others. I felt good about the changes and sent off the revision with a light heart.

Then…

A few days later, I got Jacqueline’s take on the changes, which she approved but felt didn’t go far enough. She also felt the climax was still in the wrong place, weakening the ending. I also got the copy editor’s comments, which echoed Jacqueline’s. Again I was told that the story was okay as-is if I was uncomfortable about making any other changes.

At this point, I got my back up a little. I really liked the story the way it was now. I made the grammatical corrections, but didn’t return the revision. I re-read Jacqueline’s comments several times. Finally, I returned to my story as a reader, rather than an editor, and read it through once more.

I was surprised to find I didn’t love it as I had a few days earlier. Then I moved to editor mode and thought about how I might rip everything apart and put it back together. It would require me to get rid of a pivotal character and I would have to figure out how to handle the actions that character would have taken and the information that character would have communicated. With a lot of ‘what-ifs’, I re-worked the story again from the beginning, moving the climax and changing the ending. I eliminated one more character and minimized another. Once I finished, I sent off both the grammatically corrected earlier version and the new version. It’s the new version that will be printed. I was happy when Jacqueline emailed, “much improved.”

And if I had had more time, I’d have found a way to eliminate one more character.

I Knew I’d Do It

I was pleased with the changes I made on the third go-round. I wasn’t as enthusiastic as on the second, that’s for sure. I think I was more annoyed with myself that I hadn’t accomplished quite the re-write that I had set out to do. I’d done more of a cosmetic retouching, than an actual re-write. And somewhere in my writer’s bones, underneath the irritation, I knew I was going to do a third version because the story still wasn’t right. That’s the nearest I can explain it.

I learned something from this about the way I work as a person. I may never be able to draw a map about where I’m going to go, but I understand now that there is a part of me that does know how to get there and can help me draw the map as I go. I’ve always been about the trip more than the destination, so this way of working is fine for me.

What Has Your Experience Been?

Have you gotten feedback like this? What was your reaction and how did you deal with it?

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