A couple of weeks ago I attended two workshops at the Wyoming Writers Conference here in Sheridan, Wyoming. Mark Spragg, author of Where Rivers Change Directions, An Unfinished Life and Fruit of Stone, among others, presented a workshop on “The Final Edits,” but what he talked about was really more than that. He is an author who refines and refines his work before anyone else sees it, and he spoke to the importance of deleting our favorite sentences, our favorite words and our most artful metaphors. Like Anne Sexton said, “kill your darlings.”
My daughter-in –law, also a writer, attended these workshops with me, and after the conference I gave her what I consider to be the second draft of a novel that didn’t seem to be going anywhere. The first draft of the story had come in a rush of obsession, where the characters themselves led me on their quest, let me into their hearts and minds. However, that was the first draft. I did a round of edits, but not real revisions. For example, I realized that this story, which takes place mostly in the outdoors, had no birds in it, so I went back and inserted birds in appropriate places. Not a major change, but one that did make the setting richer. Through a somewhat unusual process, I submitted this draft to an agent who began circulating the story. Editors sent back comments like “the stakes aren’t high enough.” And a year ago, I began taking the story apart again. I changed from a first- person narrative to a third-person omniscient one, but the plot stayed essentially the same. I got about half way through the story on this draft, and while I was happy with some it, other parts felt draggy.
Then yesterday, my daughter-in-law sent me her thoughts on the draft, and I began to really understand what those “stakes aren’t high enough” comments meant. Part of it is thinking about, and writing about not just what is happening externally to characters, but what is happening inside them. What is it that makes them tick, and what is it that drives them, and how to they change in the process?
I am completely rethinking this book. The summer will not be long enough to complete it, but I see now that the most interesting parts of the story are the parts that I sort of took for granted in the first drafts, and that those are the parts that I have to examine more closely. I think that I didn’t understand who the main character really is, nor did I see why. I now see that there’s a much richer and more interesting book hiding in there, and that I just have to find it.
Once again, I am relearning that revision is the heart of writing. That first draft is fun. It’s a kind of adventure in its way, and it’s the place where new writers stop, but it’s never the “true” story, (or at least rarely). It’s the starting place, but that first draft is never the end