In a recent guest post on Sarah Selecky’s website — I am also a teaching assistant in her online school The Story Intensive — I shared an excerpt from a short story in progress, among other topics. I received a lot of very useful feedback from her readers, which I am still processing. Some asked to see the following drafts of the story, including the final version.
And as vulnerable as this makes me feel, I plan to keep sharing a new excerpt on this blog as I go along and explore different ways of telling the story and developing the characters. In each post, I’ll first talk about the associated writing process, then share a new excerpt, and end with a few comments about books and pop culture influences relevant for this story.
The excerpt initially shared is a messy middle draft. It was not supposed to be perfect, polished, or a story at all. Despite the vulnerability I felt, it once again seemed so important to do it. We all start our stories in imperfect places. But if they are honest spaces, dream-like spaces where things may not yet make sense but we can accept this uncertainty, then they are real spaces of raw honesty and mindfulness that can carry us forward.
Most of the excerpts that I’ll be posting won’t be coherent complete drafts; the reason is simple: I don’t always revise full drafts. Instead, I focus on single moments, or POV, or just images. I will very likely keep playing with POV, dialogue, scenes, and setting, and see how the story changes. To some extent, I follow Sarah’s 5-step Deep Revision guideline, except that I don’t spread printed fragments on the floor. Instead, I read my texts aloud, let them sit with me for some days, and rewrite (parts of) them. I keep in mind all the technicalities of craft but don’t let them take over. I let the story carry itself forward and go where it wants to go.
As writers, we also need to learn how to handle feedback. Sharing a rather early draft can be daunting, but the reactions to my guest post were warm and positive and at the same time insightful, analytical, and overall quite overwhelming; I am happy to be able to reach so many mindful readers through my writing. I am happy to be part of the Story is a State of Mind School community. Writers in this community are always supportive of one another. Their feedback is always thoughtful and serves the purpose of the writer; they don’t try to control the story, instead they have learnt the tools to help it become what it wants to become.
The excerpt went live at the end of May. So my goal is — as I also mentioned in my author spotlight – to finish this story by the end of the month. Perhaps it will not be perfect by then — we can drive ourselves crazy until we call something final — but I plan to stick to this self-imposed deadline. This means that I also need to leave my characters plenty of time to play inside my head off the page. Planning 3 hours of writing one weekend would not be enough for me. It is Sunday afternoon here in Europe while I write this, and while doing various other writing-related things this last weekend, I also spent quite a bit of time hanging out with my characters. Even as I did my house chores, in the background, they’ve constantly been there.
The male character had little weight in the draft initially shared on Sarah’s website, so I wrote a somewhat dry version of what the male and female character would say if they said exactly what they meant. In real life we often do not say exactly what we mean, and written dialogues would be very boring if we did. I even thought of letting the characters alternate consciousness without necessarily marking the paragraphs as parts of a fluent dialogue. When I wrote this… — let’s call it sketch — I did not necessarily picture the characters sitting and talking to each other. I tried to focus on their fundamental cravings and inner dilemmas and how they could come in conflict with the one another.
There are also quite a few cliche-like bits in this excerpt, so obviously I am going to have to work on it if I choose to incorporate it in the final text. But it does take me one level further, so it serves its purpose. I see how the two characters may long for each other but be incompatible. There are things they don’t understand about each other but in doing so they also challenge each other; they challenge each other’s world view and life choices. There is longing but there is also a certain envy, and a slight tone of accusation.
Seeing you again is like reconnecting with a part of myself I thought I had lost. But then knowing that tomorrow I will loose that again, it hurts even more than loosing it to begin with. What I do with an incomplete puzzle? I can never put all the pieces back together.
I chose, but you see; being in a relationship, staying married to someone — it is a choice, things are not in black and white. You make a choice, and you stick to it.
Sustaining a relationship? It is based on much more pragmatic things than love.
You see, my wife and I, we have a functional relationship. She will mother my children, our children, and for that I might learn to love her. But the idea of her leaving me like you did does not infuriate me; it does not make me want to scream. She doesn’t enter my dream space, perhaps at the end of the day love is actually endurance, not love.
She: I shouldn’t have left you the way I did. I didn’t know what I was doing.
He: We didn’t belong together. All I wanted was a home, a normal life.
She: I didn’t know what I wanted. I had all these illusions about myself.
He: What do you want now?
She: I want to go home. I want to belong.
He: Nobody belongs, not really. At least not to anyone else.
She: Your genes belong to your wife’s belly now.
He: But not for long. They’ll be lives of their own soon; maybe one day they’ll run away to see the world like you did.
I have also finally found a name for the female character after writing this: she is Sara, he is David. I don’t know why, but these two names keep haunting me. In the excerpt I shared on Sarah’s website, the female character refers to the male character as “he”. In a next version, I might make him “you”. I might even show Sara struggling to make more room in her story for David but without success. She can — after all — only experience life through her consciousness. But I will also put them in a confined space and make them really talk to each other, and after this dialogue, something will need to change for each of them.
I also need to be careful not to overdrive this process. I’ve always longed to read and write texts that make me first of all feel, and only afterwards think. When we overwork a text we risk overthinking it and losing the rawness (the feeling part) of the early drafts.
The tone that I’d like to be able to maintain even upon several rounds of revision, which is to large extent the same mood I try to access each time when I am writing, is heavily influenced by two female writers (both self-published) who have marked my teenage reading years:
- Virginia Woolf; my favourite book by her is The Waves, which I have read and reread in my mother tongue (Romanian) almost 20 years ago and it is only now that I am discovering this book in English – each sentence, each paragraph sounds like magic;
- Anais Nin; I love her books, incuding her high-quality erotica novel Delta of Venus, but what really gets me each time are her Diaries.
And yes, I did listen to Purple Rain on repeat when working on the very first versions of the text, so I did cheat it a bit with the title. Then I came across these great photos that a friend took, which matched the initial opening and closing images. It all seemed to fit with the image of a sky in many colours and the lost childhood home. So I allowed this mood to carry me and my characters forward. Strangely enough, I worked on this piece just before Prince died. I did tap into my own teenage memories to some extent, but there are several ways in which this character is not me. I don’t want her to have my life answers. I want her to find her own way. She — on the other hand — may have a few plans of her own, so we’ll just have to wait and see what the next excerpt will bring.
In relation to this post, I would also encourage you to:
- watch the video series created by Robert Olen Butler on his writing process;
- read his book From Where You Dream; then read
- Janet Burroway’s book Imaginative Writing – The Elements of Craft.
A lot of people refer to these two books as being opposite to each other in terms of approaching writing, whereas I chose to see them as complementing each other. I write my first drafts like Robert, and stay in these magical surreal surroundings for quite some time. Later I revise like Janet. Highly analytical, highly structured, focusing on how everything comes together in terms of dialogue, setting, pacing, language. However, with this piece, I am not there yet.
Soon, I’ll be posting more information on my blog about:
- books on creative writing that I value and will forever keep on my bookshelves;
- books of writers (some contemporary) who are not necessarily well known nowadays but who have heavily influenced or are still influencing my development as a writer.
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And of course, I’d love to know more about:
- what parts of the two excerpts shared so far resonate with you most?
- how is your writing process different from mine?
Simply add a comment in the box below.
If you feel like there is a connection between us in the way we approach writing, or that we could both learn from challenging each other’s approach to writing, I’d love to work with you.
Thank you for reading, and for connecting.