When it’s finished enough for the reader

These days some of my favorite daily encounters come at our city’s indoor pool, where I swim laps. In addition to the familiar faces of fellow swimmers, there are the interactions with the lifeguards, many of them still in high school. When they’re not actively watching us in the water, they have rounds manning the front desk, where they might also be doing their physics homework or working on a paper. In other words, they were the right age to help me with my novel What’s Left, not that I’m ever that direct. No, just a wild question or subtle ear’s enough to keep me grounded in their direction.

In revising a manuscript, I sometimes chance upon a “zipper” that seems to run along the entire piece and releases something trapped within it. Tugging along page after page is an amazing experience, when it happens, which is not nearly as often as I’d hope. Mercifully, that’s what’s happened in the ninth revision of What’s Left, my novel thanks to comments from some of the early readers. The key this round came in having her talking to her father throughout, at least in her head and often in the midst of other people, rather than simply about him. It gives the work a whole new dimension and makes the story far more intimate, especially when she makes irrational leaps that match her emotions.

This, in turn, allowed her to relate much of her investigation as it happened as a young teen, rather than looking back on it from her early twenties, and had her aunt Nita and her best friend, cousin Sandra, present as co-conspirators.

Note that none of these revisions changed the way I saw the novel as an author — I knew how it begins, develops, and ends — but they change it entirely for the reader.

Yes, the changes were extensive. When one of the lifeguards remarked, “What? You’re not done yet?” I came back the next week with two pages from the hardcopy I was working from — half of the sentences containing crossed-out words and phrases, several moved to new locations, and a taped-on flap of new notes to add in, all needing to be keyboarded. It’s typical professional work, as you’ll discover reading the Paris Review or any number of writer-oriented magazines.

Still, they were astonished. I doubt they’ll look at a 500-word assignment quite the same again.

The point is that all of these changes are for the reader. Curiously, the very shift of having Cassia speak directly to her father throughout soon has the reader stepping into his shoes, hearing through his ears in a new intimacy.

And now I trust the story’s ready for you, as its reader.

~*~

It’s not always simply a coincidence, is it?

Have you ever started out on your way to one place and wound up somewhere quite different? Somewhere that turned out to be right? Tell us about what happened.

~*~

Working with photographic film, as Cassia learns to do with her father’s archives, means learning to “read” negatives like this one by Yuukikatrarra. She’s good.

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