On Writing: Starts, Stops and Seabiscuit

Guest Blogger: Susi Lovell

IMG_1754I absolutely love writing first drafts.  Once started, I keep going until I run out of gas and my pencil stops.  My best first drafts (the ones that excite me most) feel… so intriguing and magical and right.  If I’ve been lucky enough to close with a definite ending that reveals what the story is about, all is fine, I start working to clarify and refine.  But that is rare.  More often there is no clear ending. For these stories, the problem is – what now?

Picking up from where I stopped, I forge on, trying to find ‘how it turns out’. More plot twists, scenes… Hit a dead-end, try again. And again. Jane Smiley could have been writing about me in her chapter ‘What Stories Teach their Writers: The Purpose and Practice of Revision’ when she describes a student coming to class “with what seemed to be an entirely different story, with different characters and different actions and swear[ing] that the two stories were the same…” (p.248 Creating Fiction, ed. Julie Checkoway). Truck loads of material and meandering plot lines and still no ending that feels true.

ww-ascension

In June this year I went to Kenyon Summer Writers Workshop (highly, highly recommended).  Lesley University colleague and friend Karin Davidson strongly urged me to request the workshop led by novelist, short story writer, critic/reader extraordinaire, Nancy Zafris. Nancy was fiction editor of The Kenyon Review for nine years and is present editor of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction book series so I thought if anyone could show me how to find an ending to a short story, it would be her.

Nancy, to whom I will be forever grateful, cut right to the chase. “You overwrite,” she told me after I read my first story. “Cut the last two-thirds.  Everything past that point flatlines.”  My second story: “You overwrite. Cut at that point where…”  Faced with yet another of my over-written stories, and my bleating that I had no choice but to write on if I wanted to find the ending, Nancy said: “You go on too long. Stop when the story stops.  Look back into the story for your ending, not outside.” She looked vaguely around the room (looking for all the world exactly how I feel when I’m stuck and thinking ‘what on earth am I going to do next?’), gestured at random towards a movie poster on the wall. “Seabiscuit,” she said. “Is not going to help you.”

‘That point’, the point where Nancy told me I should have stopped, the point where I started to meander around and lose my way, always turned out to have been where I had stopped in my first draft, where my pencil had naturally removed itself from the page.

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The first thing for me to do was to respect my pencil’s decision. I no longer write on, I write in…inside that first draft.  The framework of that draft grounds me as I dig into its “mysteries and clues” (Smiley, p. 248), into the characters, dialogues, plot points, interesting words, objects, locations.  I keep the original ‘non ending’ in mind as I work, even though I don’t yet know its full implications or how it will need adjusting/changing.  When I do, as has happened with the two stories I’ve been working on since Kenyon – oh yes!

I’d known the theory of course: Smiley couldn’t be more clear that the story is “there on the page” in one’s first draft but I suppose I’d been thinking in a horizontal linear sense of A leading to B to C to…. Nancy showed me a first draft offers a different kind of beginning, one more akin to entering a mineshaft and dropping down to explore the galleries below.

For more information on Susi Lovell, see an earlier HomenDunRoamin post: https://homendunroamin.wordpress.com/2012/03/18/the-wolffe-brothers/.

For more information on Nancy Zafris, see: http://nancyzafris.com.   Her new collection of short stories “The Home Jar: Stories” is available for preorder on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/The-Home-Jar-Nancy-Zafris/dp/0875806880

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About HomenDunRoamin

Teaching Artist & Writer: fiction, poetry & nonfiction. Recently completed work: a hybrid memoir. In progress: a novel set in an unnamed Latin American country on the brink of war. The book examines violent and nonviolent resistance and the choices women are forced to make to survive.
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