I recently read an interview with Sarah Vowell in the magazine Mental Floss. In the interview she says: “…there is no one rule. Every story deserves to be told differently.” In the interview she’s talking about nonfiction writing, but the same sentiment can be applied to fiction writing as well.
I want to start off by saying, this statement was made from a perspective of confidence and experience in one’s own writing. Indeed it could be said, correctly, that as a writer you have to know what your voice is before you try finding the story’s voice, and intertwining your voice with it.
However, if you’re struggling to find your voice, listening to how the story wants to be told can be liberating and even fun. As a way to try this out, look at a story you’ve written. Pick one at random, pick one you might be having a hard time editing-you can try one of the stories that you love, but it might be harder to see it as something else. Read the story. Once you’ve re-familiarized yourself with the story, try to see it as something else. If it’s in third person, what would it look like in first person? What would change about the story? Try writing a few pages that way. If it’s already in first person, what would it look like as a series of letters/journal entries/blog posts. Again, what would change about the story? Would you lose important scenes? How could you re-incorporate them into the story? If the story follows one character, look at the other characters-supporting characters-of the story. What would the story be like from their perspective? Take a look at a short story, what would it look like as a play? Given the limitations of space in a theatre, on a stage, could the story be played out in one setting? Do you need the same amount of characters? Look at the characters in one of your stories, what would happen if you took out one of those characters and all the information/actions they do in the story? Do you still have a story? Probably, but is it the same story? If you have the same story even though you took out an entire character, then did you really need that character in the first place?
The point of doing this is to look at writing in general, and your writing specifically, in a different way. In a way that you wouldn’t normally, but may surprise you by being a way you like.
This is also a way to take chances with your writing. I’ve been in several writing groups over the past couple years, and I’ve found that many people don’t take chances with their writing; are resistant to feedback that veers the story off the path they’ve chosen for it (I’d like to sidebar the comment: this is entirely their right to do as the author, but they may be missing opportunities for the story to grow). It’s not just stubbornness that keep a writer from changing the way a story is told. It can be fear that keeps a writer from changing a story they’ve spent so much time finding in the first place. Our profession is highly subjective, and entails a lot of rejection and questioning of motives (mainly of characters). So I can understand the anxiety ensues when it’s suggested that a story you thought was done-it just needs some tweaks-could be re-written a different way.
Oh, my God! What if I fail writing it like that?!?!
It’s true. You could fail. You could fail spectacularly. There is an old saying, that people learn more from their mistakes than their successes. It may be clichéd, but it’s true. You can learn a lot from everything you do wrong, as long as you learn from it.
Let me share with you a recent writing group experience. I read someone’s story (as you do in a writing group). I’ve read this person’s work before. They are heavily influenced by H.P. Lovecraft. (I may have mentioned this person before.) So, they give the group their story. It’s a story about a society oppressed and a resistance. It’s set in an alternate, sub-reality, of magic. Here’s where I want to say that this person knows this genre. I know they know this genre, because this story hit all the beats this type of resistance-uprising story should. In the end that’s why, I felt, the story doesn’t work. It hits ALL the beats for this type of story. There were no surprises. There was nothing that jumped off the page as unique or special.
I want to put this simply: I’m NOT saying this was written poorly. It was written with thought and knowledge. What I’m saying is that it’s a bad story. A fan of this genre of story could pick up this story and enjoy it, but they won’t remember it. When asked about good stories in the genre they probably won’t mention this story by name.
I know it’s odd to say that someone who didn’t do anything wrong wrote a bad story. (If you’re totally confused about how this happens; you clearly haven’t read the last post.) But they did do something wrong: They didn’t take any chances. They stayed exactly inside the lines for this genre of story. They didn’t think about this story in a new way, and because of that it is destined to fall into the background noise of the genre.
This is sad to me, because I like this person. They are very passionate about writing, and about what they write. They’ve reached the point where they’ve modeled/molded themselves into a writer of the horror genre. Now all they need to do (What all of us need to do as writers), is break the mold.
That’s the thing to take away today: think about your stories in more than one way. Just because it’s challenging doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. Remember, at the end of the day it’s your writing. If you don’t like the way your risk turned out, trash it and go back to the original.
Well, I think that’s it for me. Until next time: Be yourself, be well. Write yourself, write well.