The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Progress of a Story: Mess

He swaddled the children and led them outside. One hot hand in each hand. They went to the edge of the pool and sat, dipping their little legs into the water. The other bathers were giving them funny looks. He wondered if they looked like little Arab children. He supposed not with their pale British faces.

I always thought that I worked on stories in three discrete stages: inspiration (the most mysterious stage, in which a promising but rough first draft bursts forth), perspiration (the least satisfying stage, where you have to think, be a bit of a butcher and a bit of a landscaper- hack that chunk off there, plant something there…) and then the polishing (my favourite stage, where I take commas in and out, play around with finding more and more perfect words, cut a 44 word paragraph down to a 38 word one, and then a 32 word one, and finally a 27 word one, boiling down, fluffing up, shining, adding value… it’s essentially good enough, but you keep teasing it into greater and greater glory! Oh the feelings! The feelings! I love this stage.)

He swaddled the feverish children in the giant fluffy white towels and led them outside, one hot hand in each of his. The three of them went to the edge of the pool and sat. The kids dipped their little legs into the water beside his giant hairy ones. The other bathers gave them funny looks. He wondered if they looked like little Arabs.

In my theory of writing, these stages don’t overlap one iota. But as I’m blogging about writing this particular story, I’m observing my process as much less linear. For example, I can’t help but polish a sentence even though I’m not sure this particular scenic detour will survive the perspiration stage; as well, a scene that felt almost finished with polishing suddenly has a mini-damn burst and a new angle is inserted. It’s all really sloppy and out of control. I don’t know if it’s always been like this or if the action of self-observation is changing the process. But the result: I’m not happy. There’s much more anxiety than I remember.

He swaddled the feverish children in fluffy white towels. He took one hot little hand from each and led them outside to the edge of the pool. The kids dipped their pale spotty legs into the water on either side of his giant hairy ones. The other bathers stopped splashing around to look their way. Simon turned shy and tucked his nose into his father’s armpit. Kate waved excitedly at the little Canadians. The towels fell away from her body, the angry red sores crusty with yellowing pus. Parents came running to scoop their children out of the pool. This was a giant mistake, he thought, but oh, my, sweet, lord, the coolness of the water.


Blogger Darby said...

Nice piece! The post is very revealing of your process.

I probably go through your three stages on a micro level at each sentence more than at the whole story level. That's for flash though. Your process sounds closer to my novel-writing process. And for a novel, the stages cannot overlap because otherwise you'll go insane.

Wed Jun 04, 02:45:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

I have difficulty going through phases neatly, too, Andrew. Can't resist going over and over a section before I move on. It's not efficient -- Joyce Carol Oates can't possibly work my may given her prodigious output -- but it seems to be hired wired in me.

Thu Jun 05, 12:10:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

my way and hard-wired, I meant -- too sleepy, still, this morning. Darn this program that doesn't let you edit your comments.

Thu Jun 05, 12:11:00 pm GMT-4  

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