It’s Your Call

In creative writing classes, students often study exemplary essays, stories, poems, and novels. Learn from the masters — makes sense, doesn’t it?

It does indeed. Nevertheless, much can be learned from flawed works as well.

Does that sound paradoxical?

Think about it. A top-notch work seems inevitable. There’s no trace of the earlier drafts, the ones where sentences and whole paragraphs have been deleted or moved around. There’s no hint of all the back-and-forth second-guessing the author did before settling on that word that strikes you as exactly right. A major character may have dwindled draft by draft and finally disappeared entirely. A bit player in the first draft may have wound up the star of the show.

We editors are lucky: we’re continually immersed in works that aren’t done yet. Copyeditors focus primarily on words and sentences. Substantive editors focus on structure. We develop a knack for identifying, diagnosing, and recommending fixes for whatever problems arise. (For a quickie rundown on the various levels of editing, see “Editing? What’s Editing?”) Sometimes the problem is simply an error that needs to be corrected. Other times it’s that something just doesn’t work.

On a recent job, a novel, I was supposed to be focusing on words and sentences, but before long I was acutely aware that the manuscript needed big-picture help. The novel’s title character — let’s call her Renée — has interesting adventures. She’s a spy behind enemy lines in wartime. But the author has chosen to use a first-person narrator for the entire novel — and this narrator has no contact with Renée while she’s having her interesting adventures. As a result, neither does the reader. The most interesting stuff happens off-stage.

Interesting choices open up possibilities. Not-so-interesting choices choke them off.

Travvy, whom these days I frequently call Wolfie.

Travvy, whom these days I frequently call Wolfie.

Recently, after forging bravely ahead in Wolfie, my novel in progress, I reached a crossroads — a point where choices have to be made. Wolfie, the title character, is an Alaskan malamute who’s been saved from probable death by Shannon, who already has one dog and does not want another. (See this excerpt in the Writers and Other Animals blog.)

What was Shannon most afraid of?

That Wolfie would get loose again. Wolfie’s life and Shannon’s credibility are on the line.

Well, that made it a no-brainer: Wolfie was going to get loose again. The big question was, What then?

Out walking one morning with Travvy, Wolfie’s inspiration and alter ego, I played with possible choices:

  • Wolfie is shot and killed by a farmer.
  • Wolfie is shot and disappears into the woods.

I don’t want to kill Wolfie off. He’s my title character, my wild card, and the first draft of the novel isn’t half done yet. He’s not going to die. Shannon’s going to find him first. The question is how. Shannon can’t run nearly as fast as Wolfie, so these were the obvious options:

  • The leash he’s trailing snags on a tree and he can’t get loose.
  • Wolfie finds Shannon before she finds him.

The second choice startled me: Wolfie comes back of his own accord? I ran with it. It startles Shannon too. It opens up possibilities — the sure sign of a good choice.

The rougher road often makes the more interesting choice.

The rougher road often makes the more interesting choice.

Often it’s not till the second or third draft that you recognize that more interesting choices are possible. What if the author of my recent job had thought, “Aha! If I made Renée a point-of-view character, or even a narrator, her wartime experiences would be so much more immediate and vivid”?

It would have been a much more interesting novel.

When you’re first-drafting and you reach a crossroads, ask yourself: What’s the most interesting choice I could make? What do I want to learn about my characters?

Your readers probably want to learn it too.

When you’re revising and a scene falls flat, ask yourself: What am I missing here? Where’s the conflict? Who’s the wild card? How do I make things happen?

You’re in the driver’s seat. It’s your call.



8 thoughts on “It’s Your Call

  1. “When you’re first-drafting and you reach a crossroads, ask yourself: What’s the most interesting choice I could make? What do I want to learn about my characters? Your readers probably want to learn it too.”

    I’m really glad you didn’t offer the usual advice of “tighten the screws on your character.” I’m getting weary of books that just keep piling it on and piling it on . . . I’m more interested in “interesting.”

    Maybe, for a particular story, piling on the miseries and dangers is appropriate, but not always.


    • Maybe it could be called the “Book of Job approach”? 🙂 My hunch is that it’s easier for a writer, especially a writer in a hurry, to pile on more dangers and challenges than to give the characters room to respond to the ones that have already appeared. Also “tightening the screws” can involve quietly closing off a character’s options until she has to face a dilemma that she’d rather avoid or make a decision that she doesn’t want to make. Which, come to think of it, is why the dog’s coming back on his own struck me as the best one. It was the least dramatic option but also the least expected, and the one that complicates Shannon’s life the most.


      • “Book of Job” approach — LOL!

        I’m not sure it’s necessarily easier for a writer to do the pile-on, though it may be in some instances. Placing people between rocks and hard places is much easier than getting them out. That is, getting them out credibly, which I think is important.

        I recall some years ago, when I was attempting to raise the conflict level in one of my novels, I asked a few creative friends for ideas — and the ones that popped immediately into their heads bore no resemblance to anything I would have imagined on my own. In particular, a guy suggested, “Burn the house down.”

        Okaaaaaaay . . . Sure, that would have been exciting and majorly complicated the characters’ lives, but also would have necessitated introducing a thousand more things for them to deal with that would have bunted the actual story way off stride. Or else I would have had to take a cop-out approach along the lines of, “The house burned down. Six months later, she was living in blah-blah-blah” in order to get back to the story. Doesn’t seem fair to a character to him/her rob them of page time to react to something that horrendous — unless, of course, the story is about what happened to them when the house burned down.

        The experience showed me that many modern readers like their stories to be Exciting, which may be why gurus suggest perpetually tightening the screws. The page-turner syndrome and all that. This is discouraging, because I don’t think that way and thus don’t write very exciting stories (a fact reflected in my sales!).


      • This brings up another huge area where choices are so important: Why do you write? Who do you write for? I’ve got a couple of rough-draft blog posts that I really need to finish and cut loose. One’s about audience. The other’s called “Write for a Living?” If you choose to write for those hypothetical modern readers who want page-turning excitement (whatever that is), well, that’s going to affect what you write. That’s not a road I want to walk down, either as a writer or as an editor.


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