A Writer’s Journal, Day #1060
Day Five of “Journal of Finishing a Novel.” I’m in the “revisit” stage, meaning going back to finish a sequence that I bypassed in the march to THE END. We’re only a few hundred feet below the summit now; the idea of faltering has become unthinkable. Whatever it takes, we’ll do it.
As for this journal, I’m going to try something today that may be so obscure that it doesn’t communicate at all—but I’ll attempt it in the hope that it’ll be helpful to anyone who’s following these posts. What I want to do is share some of my friend/editor/agent Shawn Coyne’s notes. They may not make sense because they refer to characters and narrative that I haven’t even written about in this space and that you, the reader, have no way of knowing about. Nor am I going to say more about them here; I’m superstitious; it’s too early for them to be thrust into daylight. But Shawn’s notes are so good (and so well-shaped for assimilation by the writer, i.e. me) that maybe they’ll be illuminating, even if it’s difficult for the reader to connect all the specific dots.
The big story problem was that the central character, Gent, didn’t change much from one end of the tale to the other. He started out loyal to his commander, General James Salter (this is a war story, set a generation in the future, when mercenary armies do the work that conventional national militaries do today) and he finished up loyal. This is not good storytelling. It doesn’t mine the material or the characters deeply enough. It’s a serious, possibly fatal flaw.
Here are Shawn’s thoughts. Note how they address theme, rather than story specifics.
Gent’s story is that he has lived and relived the mercenary life through time. It’s who he is … how he defines himself. When Salter arrives on the scene, it seems natural and authentic that Gent serve him. This must be the guy I pledge myself to.
What is interesting about the stories we tell ourselves is that we misread them. What I mean by that is that Gent is convinced that his past is his destiny. He’s lived life after life according to that story. But the reality of the stories we tell ourselves is that they are wrong … that is, we interpret them the wrong way.
What’s interesting and startling to me (as happens so often, in writing almost anything) is that this issue of stories-we-tell-ourselves is one that has surfaced powerfully in my personal life as well, but I haven’t connected it emotionally or intellectually to this novel that I’ve been working on. Back to Shawn’s notes:
If you subscribe to the notion that we relive our earth lives again and again until we reach an acceptance of our authentic beings, then Gent is stuck. He’s not supposed to follow the mercenary code … that’s not who he is … he is supposed to reject it and fight against that romantic notion. He is supposed to protect not just his brothers, but an ideal much bigger than himself—the individual’s right to liberty and freedom.
In this book Gent finds his true self [in coming to the realization that he must resist Salter—and actually fight against him.] He knows that once Salter acquires the power that is at his fingertips and that Gent has helped him attain, it will corrupt him. Salter knows this too. Salter wants Gent to stop him. He practically begs him. But that is not who Gent is. Gent is on this earth to project choice.
What Shawn is expressing here (and what any good editor or publisher or agent or colleague would do) is not how the manuscript is shaped in its present form, but how he thinks it ought to be shaped. And he’s absolutely right. He has put into words what I’ve been struggling to articulate to myself since the idea for this story first seized me.
This level of insight is solid gold. It’s indispensable. It takes the story up a notch–and it sends me back to the drawing board.
I hope this post isn’t too obscure. I hope it makes at least a little sense. Anyway that’s enough journaling for today. Back to the salt mines!
Thank you for sharing this insider’s view, Steven! I’ve appreciated the past several days as you’ve wrapped up your initial work toward THE END because it has inspired me to dig out some older unfinished work that really should be completed and read. One of my primary areas of resistance has been my unwillingness to go back, polish the work, and publish it once I’ve typed THE END. Instead, I get bored and move on to the next subject instead of completing the one before me. Best wishes for growing success!
I’ll add my thanks for this week’s intimate look at your writing process!
What grabbed me about today’s post is that it captures what for me is always the scariest and most exciting part of creative work: when you’re almost done and someone or something rips away an entire layer of the onion – and you see the entire work in a completely different way.
It’s and end-of-process version of the old early-stage, how-to-get-past-the-trite brainstorming advice: take your idea and ask what would happen if the reverse were true instead. Take the obvious or logical next step and turn it on its head. Then take the next logical step from there, and turn IT on its head. Pretty soon you’re in uncharted waters – your own voice.
“But the reality of the stories we tell ourselves is that they are wrong … that is, we interpret them the wrong way.”
There is a lovely parallel here with writing a book and living a life and perhaps we could all benefit from an ‘editor’ like this, or a best friend with such perspective, someone to ‘send us back to the drawing board.’ Thanks for sharing.
Loving recent posts: Eric Proulx, and Humility…they resonate with the courage and necessity to live YOUR own story with tenacity and grace. Thank-you.
This post is not obscure at all. Your editor’s comments about “the stories we tell ourselves” are apt no matter what kind of writing we do, no matter what kind of business we’re in. They impel us all to consider how to be true to ourselves and to the truths we aim to share through writing, relationships, business, conduct.
I think you are quite lucky to have so thoughtful a reader-editor.
I couldn’t benefit more if I had journaled this myself! Thanks for the encouragement!
Great post, Steve. Reminds me of this Chesterton quote:
“The function of criticism, if it has a legitimate function at all, can only be one function – that of dealing with the subconscious part of the author’s mind which only the critic can express, and not with the conscious part of the author’s mind, which the author himself can express. Either criticism is no good at all (a very defensible position) or else criticism means saying about an author the very things that would have made him jump out of his boots.”
Perhaps, after the publication of the novel, you can publish both these essays alongside the various versions of your drafts, so we can revisit the posts while looking at both sides of the conversation?
My father leaves my family when I am seven, which means I did something wrong.
I got the story wrong. Unexamined, this unconscious cycle of “reasoning” continues: if I’m a screw-up, then I have to do what screw-ups do, like lie, cheat and steal.
Now that I lie, cheat and steal, it validates that this is who I am. Who are you to tell me different? I even have years of behavior to back me up.
Steve, you’ve pointed out that Resistance hates the idea of delayed gratification. Resistance/ego diverts us from true healing because it won’t tolerate the initial pain involved. Don’t rip off the bandage (ouch) to allow healing; keep the bandage on. But now you’ll have to treat the symptoms arising from a slowly infected bandage – with drugs and excuses, probably.
This is priceless insight Steven, thanks so much for sharing.