The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Progress of a Story: Versions


Once upon a time I fell in love with a whole family. Not my own. The one next door...

I have about five stories that exist in different versions. I went through a phase where I would completely recast a story to see what that did to the material.

When I was fourteen, my sister went away on exchange to Japan. Left alone with our parents, I fell for the family next door...

Shift first person to third person.

When Simon was in grade ten his sister went to do grade twelve in Japan…

Shift points of view.

When Kate’s little brother Simon was fourteen, she left him alone with their parents for year...

Shift tenses.

There goes my sister Kate, off to Japan for a year, leaving me alone with our parents...

Indulge stylistic shenanigans.

Gone. She’s gone. My sister Kate—who appears to have started all conversations in our family—is away for a year. The silence is the sound of the phone not ringing with news of her travels, mixed with the sound of what I’m not telling my parents, and what they aren’t asking…

Etc… But seriously: the entire story through a new filter! Many, many times!

This cubist reworking has never really born fruit for me. And now I have all these versions. It’s hard to pull together a proper working draft. So I start from scratch. And then I have another version! They seem to be breeding.

What a mess! I’ve learned not to do this. All of the stories I’ve published began with finding the right tone. All of those parameters—the ones my unfinished stories have played around with—were settled on from the beginning, from the first sentence. That first sentence became the ax that cracked the frozen sea and let the first draft flow. Subsequent drafts were about polishing and about structural and narrative revision, not about shading.

It may be true in visual art that you begin with the main objects and do the shading afterwards, but I’ve found in my writing, that it’s the shading that has to come first!

Driving me home from trombone lessons, my mother rounds the corner of our lane, gets a glimpse of the greenhouse my father nailed together from old doors and windows, closes her eyes, shakes her head and moans, "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, we’re the shame of the neighbourhood," like she’s done every drive home since he built the monstrosity at the end of summer, but with today’s freezing rain, she loses control of the car and smashes into a hydro pole in front of the Zych’s house...

Much better! I can hear the voice of the story at last and we're off. The sentence may not survive the whole process, but it’s doing it’s job for now.

However, while this old story is back on the drafting table, the more recent story about my father is now firmly between worlds, awaiting the proper shade in which to incarnate, awaiting it's voice, awaiting it's true version; it's progress, limboed.

(Shading drawing from www.wetcanvas.com, a really great site for learning art techniques!)

6 Comments:

Blogger Tania Hershman said...

Andrew, what a wonderful post, thanks so much for sharing the process by which you find the story. I have a story like this, that I have tried in so many different ways. I haven't found the voice yet. I love the final version, "Driving me home from trombone lessons..." , that just feels so right. But how long did it take to get there? And did it just come to you, suddenly??

Wed Jul 16, 11:41:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Yes, I know this one intimately. You're smart not to go as far into it as I sometimes do. I have one, and it's been lingering in different shades of undress for years. I've finally just chopped out four characters and shifted tenses and am now commiting to this new outfit. But damn if the echoes of those I left behind don't keep haunting me!

Wed Jul 16, 11:51:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

Tania! It's funny, but it did 'just come to me', however I think of all the failed efforts as compost. In a good way! Tealeaf (T.Lee), 'echoes of those left behind... keep haunting me'- yes that's exactly the problem with this method for me. Versions that don't work don't disappear they linger getting in the way of discovering the one that does.
Thanks for reading you two marvellous beings!

Wed Jul 16, 02:13:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Darby said...

Shading. I like thinking of it like that.

Wed Jul 16, 04:10:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

I remember this story! You workshopped it in somebody else's office with me. Funny and touching. I like the voice you settled on and I agree that it's critical to get that going-in voice right.

Thu Jul 17, 02:28:00 am GMT-4  
Anonymous Neetu said...

I love this post. Adore it!

Sun Jul 20, 09:09:00 pm GMT-4  

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