“The best part of your story hasn’t been written yet.”

I joined the Boulder Writers’ Workshop. It feels so good to be part of a writers’ group again! Last Saturday I attended my first session. It was a Literary Salon, hosted by memoir author Priscilla Stuckey (Kissed by a Fox,  © 2012). She read some beautiful passages from her book, and when she was done she answered questions.

Naturally, it being a writers’ group, the discussion turned to process.

She said that it took nine years (!) from inception to publication (she’s a professor of environmental humanities at Prescott College in Prescott, Arizona, and said she had to learn the creative process), but when she first started trying to query agents she wasn’t getting any bites. She took her story to an editor for help. The editor got back to her with, “The best part of your story hasn’t been written yet.”

Can you imagine being told something like that? After having worked soooo hard for soooo long… and thinking you were done…!?! Of course Priscilla was devastated, but when she calmed down and digested the editor’s words, she really went back and thought about her book. It was a series of nature experiences she’d had. But that was all. That’s when, she said, she went back and wrote the “thinking parts” of her book – the things that would ultimately weave and tie her real-life stories together. She attributes her ensuing ability to get an agent to the fact that she’d found a theme.

I thought about this, and at first I dismissed it. Fortunately, I thought, I’m a fiction writer, and fiction doesn’t have to have a theme. It’s not like I have to be out to convey some higher message through allegory or anything. Some writers do this, and it’s fine, but it’s not an absolute necessity. In fact, for thrillers, the main “theme” is the plot, itself, right? All I have to do is to tell a good story, and tell it well.

Or so I thought.

Then I thought about it some more. And I remembered something I’d read by one of the best-selling authors of all-time:

Mostly I don’t see stuff like that until the story’s done. Once it is, I’m able to kick back, read over what I’ve written, and look for underlying patterns. If I see some, (and I almost always do), I can work at bringing them out in a second, more fully realized, draft of the story. Two examples of the sort of work second drafts were made for are symbolism and theme….

But wait. Symbolism doesn’t have to be difficult and relentlessly brainy. Nor does it have to be consciously crafted as a kind of ornamental Turkish rug upon which the furniture of the story stands. If you can go along with the concept of the story as a pre-existing thing, a fossil in the ground, then symbolism must also be pre-existing, right? Just another bone (or set of them) in your new discovery. That’s if it’s there. If it isn’t, so what? You’ve still got the story itself, don’t you?

If it is there and if you notice it, I think you should bring it out as well as you can, polishing it until it shines and then cutting it the way a jeweler would cut a precious or semi-precious stone….

Does that make it necessary to the success of your story or novel? Indeed not, and it can actually hurt, especially if you get carried away. Symbolism exists to adorn and enrich, not to create a sense of artificial profundity. None of the bells and whistles are about story, all right? Only story is about story.  (Are you tired of hearing that yet? I hope not, ’cause I’m not even close to getting tired of saying it.)

Symbolism (and the other adornments, too) does serve a useful purpose, though — it’s more than just chrome on the grille. It can serve as a focusing device for both you and your reader, helping to create a more unified and pleasing work. I think that, when you read your manuscript over (and when you talk it over), you’ll see if symbolism, or the potential for it, exists. If it doesn’t, leave well enough alone. If it does, however, if it’s clearly a part of the fossil you’re working to unearth — go for it. Enhance it. You’re a monkey if you don’t.

[From On Writing: A memoir of the craft, by Stephen King, © 2000, pp. 197-200.]

I don’t have to have a theme. My stories are what they are, and they come out of my head in whatever way they choose to do so — and not for the primary purpose of having some hideously clunky message imposed upon them. But if one or two of them did have a message that was already there, I’d better make sure I find it. And to do that, I have to listen.

In first drafts I’m little more than a scribe, desperately trying to type as fast as the story wants to come out. But the next time around, I need to think and hear what it was that did come out. I have to make sure I’ve shown the tale for what it really is. After all, I don’t ever want to be told that I’m a monkey.

Or that the best part of my story hasn’t been written yet.

14 thoughts on ““The best part of your story hasn’t been written yet.”

  1. Now that’s gave me a ton to think about when I go to edit. I started asking myself whether I’ve asked all the right questions. I’ll definitely be more conscientious.

      • Forgive my below par proofreading. I was apparently thinking too hard and not paying near enough attention when I commented.

        • Ummm, I’m sensing tension. CC, have I upset you in some way…? If so, please forgive me. It was not my intent to disparage you or your writing in any way. To clarify my initial response: When I was at the writers’ group, I thought to myself, “Wow, I think that I have a story that’s been polished multiple times, and is good-to-go. But after what the speaker said, and after I’d thought more about how it applied to me, and about what Stephen King said, I wanted to polish/edit my work again. I consider you an excellent writer, and I’d thought your comment meant that you were thinking along the same lines as me. Please don’t take my response as anything other than my perceived fellowship with you. And please don’t think that I think that you are any less of a writer than me; on the contrary!

          • I just felt silly about my original comment. I should’ve just let it go, but I had to say something disparaging toward myself. Bad habit that I need to stop. 🙂

  2. I now see that I’ll be visiting your site often. My sister told me this morning that I should consider taking creative writing classes because she thinks I could really do something amazing with my writing. The woman who provided the inspiration for one of my first blog entries, Beautiful Mermaid, said something similar. Truthfully, I’m a little intimidated. The way you described your process was very helpful because it’s precisely what I do, but sometimes I’m afraid to even go back over it for editing because I’m afraid that I will back out of posting it. So much to learn, but I truly feel inspired. Thanks again.

    • Hey, Inner World, thanks for visiting! 🙂

      If you are serious about learning the craft, I highly recommend starting with Stephen King’s book, On Writing, which I’ve quoted here. It’s such an easy read, but he really walks you through the process, as he sees it. It was interesting, because I was already writing in the “unearthing a fossil” method that he describes, before I ever read his book. Many other professionals will tell you not to write this way, but the truth is that every writer is unique and has a style that works for him/her. In my case, reading Stephen King’s process helped me further solidify my own.

      Additionally, I’d recommend that you find a good writers’ group (if it’s a critiquing group, even better!) near you. As great as it is to find other writers online, it’s not the same as having your words, on paper, in the hands of people sitting next to you. (And having someone you can go have a drink with, who truly appreciates it when you turn “broccoli” into a verb and sympathizes when you bitch about the characters who live in your head.) 😉

  3. Thank you for taking time to respond, it means a lot. I will definitely buy the book. Perhaps I’ll find a group to join after I’ve learned some of the basics. Again, thank you and I can’t wait to read more of your posts.

  4. Hi, Mouse, thanks SO much for writing up your responses to that salon! It’s taken me six months to discover it, unfortunately. Sorry I missed it at the time. I really go along with Stephen King’s idea of the “already there” symbolism or theme. Discovering it can be a big help in the second draft. If you just let go and write the piece as it comes out–the recommended way–then it can be sharpened in the second round by paying attention to what’s already there.

    • Thank, Priscilla! I really enjoyed your Salon. Your insights (particularly when you shared your setbacks), were such a source of encouragement to me. Thank you for your honesty; you deserve all the success you’re getting! 🙂

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