I’ve been revising a story I wrote last year, and I’m getting very close to finishing. It’s been a long pregnancy.
Last year it was called “The City of Destiny, Featuring Eric Lipschitz.” I submitted the story last year, in its then-finished form, to MFA programs across the country, who in turn soundly rejected it. No sweat. It’s a good story, but it was poorly told. No: not poorly. Inadequately.
You can argue both ways: either good is good and my piece wasn’t good enough, or else it’s a subjective process, and when you an admissions committee has to choose a handful of students from among the hundreds of applicants, all of whom fancy themselves decent writers and many of whom are, then you are left with some percentage of really great stories. Many of those simply get cut in the second or third round.
I imagine heated late-night debates in a smoky cellar around a patchy green velvet card table. Professor A jumps out of his chair and jabbing his finger at Professor B, “If you get Caitlin then I get Scott!” and Professor B shaking his head, “Scott is a pretentious nitwit, if you want Scott, then I should get Caitlin PLUS Sarah to even out the crap we’ll be reading for the next two years.” Professor C motions for them to settle down. “Boys, boys. Come on now. We can take both of them, Scott and Caitlin, both with full funding. No problem. But someone else has got to go. Let’s look at Zak.” They all settle back into their seats looking at each other, taking measure of the others’ will, and agree to look at Zak. His submission leaped out at them at first—such an unusual subject, glassblowing and octopuses—and a strong sense of place. Good specificity. Good voice. But now, looking at it again under the bluish light of the fluorescent light, it seems a bit ragged. Unfinished. “We’re only looking for promise,” Professor A reminds them. “Not perfection.” At which Professor B slams his hands down on the table, sending several stapled and collated packets spilling off the side. “If that’s promise then I’m a monkey’s uncle.” To which Professor A puffs out his cheeks and eyes and scratches his armpits at his colleague. “All of these pieces show promise,” says Professor C, again playing mediator. “But can we all agree that Zak’s is … unfinished?” They do agree. “Maybe this’ll encourage him to work on it some more,” offers B. A nods, but wavers. “Or he’ll go jump off a tall building. It’s not like we’re giving him notes.” “True,” says B, “but the force is strong with this one. I can feel it. He’ll survive, and he’ll bring us something stronger next year.” And the three members of the shadowy AdCom proceed to throw Cheetos at one another and mock-fight with imaginary light sabers.
In any event, at the beginning of this month I took a look at my writing from this past year. Since the last application season, I’d written nearly 100,000 words. That’s a 300-page novel, or thereabouts.
Roughly half that was taken up by a novel. I got 170 pages into before tabling it; I thought I might be able to use the first chapter in my application packet, but after several attempts to rewrite and revise it, I realized the characters just weren’t fully baked.
So I went back through my other material. I was pretty amazed at how much I had written this past year—getting up and sitting at your desk for four to give hours a day will do that—but they were all unfinished first drafts. A story about an abusive plumber and his son who unearth some ancient bones. A story I had high hopes for, about an expectant couple whose careful planning is thwarted by fate. A sci-fi piece that was inspired in part by Buckaroo Bonzai and in part by a B-52s song. A humorous elegy by a petty widower. The novel, which is (sort of) about a homeless man in Orange County who thinks he’s a cowboy. A mythical bit of historical fiction dealing with a foul-mouthed and apparently immortal beekeeper (also in Orange County). And this weird little story that sprang whole cloth from a dream I had, about a mentally ill person who wanders down the street and finds a baby in a storm drain.
Sounds great, but it’s a list of ideas and concepts. The characters themselves are all roughly drawn. The only draft I had actually completed and revised a few times was that last one, about the baby. And that one is in the hopper to be submitted, along with this other one, to programs wanting more than 25 pages. And it too needs a couple more revisions to work out some issues in character development.
So the main piece that I will be submitting, ladies and gentlemen, is a revision of last year’s centerpiece.
It’s not just a revision. I’ve completely rewritten the story. Twice.
The first version went through about eight drafts (each with several sub-drafts). It was written as a series of diary entries by an apathetic main character. It was rather jocular in tone. It hinted at some tension between the protagonist and his sister, but proceeded to ignore that conflict in favor of one that excited me more: that of misplaced ambition, and the object of that ambition, a glass octopus. In addition to some rudimentary knowledge, I researched glassblowing online, and layered in some of that technical authority that became one of the story’s strongest points.
The second version I only put through about three drafts before realizing it was troublesome. In that one, I developed the relationship with the sister more, but still focused on the octopus, and extruded the demonic elements and chopped up the sentences until I had something noirish. But it was too dark fantasy—a genre piece that could be fine as far as that goes. But (a) I hadn’t read much dark fantasy, aside from comics and Neil Gaiman novels, and my footing was unsure; and (b) I really felt like something was up with these characters—particularly the sister—and while I wanted the narrator to remain the brother, I wanted to develop that relationship more. Especially if I was aiming for a more literary piece (here I mean literary fiction as a genre/category, as opposed to fantasy or sci-fi).
The current incarnation has been through about five more drafts (again, depending on what you call a draft: it’s all the same piece, I just decide at certain points that it’s become something different, and save it as such). I’ve varied up the sentence length so it’s not so gumshoe-noir. I gave the sister more screen time, and rather than try to build a complex human purely from imagination and circumstance, I used a couple real-life people I know, as well as an actor, as the basis. (I’m finding it very useful to imagine known actors in the roles of my characters: it helps me write dialogue and embody them.) I toned down some of the dark fantasy, shifting much of those elements away from the author’s voice and finding homes for them in the narrator’s world of heavy metal music; they add to tone and voice but do not overwhelm it. I’ve kept elements of the fantastic and surreal, because I like them and because I think they work. I took out several scenes entirely, cutting the current draft down from 27 double-spaced pages to a leaner 23. I’ve also shortened the title, in keeping with the new tone of the piece.
I’m in the home stretch with this piece. In a couple hours I’m going down to the Tacoma Glassblowing Studio (the real one, not the fictional one in my story) to talk with some real glass artists about the details of the octopus and other technical aspects of the story.
I am still playing with the beginning, trying to find the right hook. And, perhaps most critically, I am trying to make a final decision about the narrator’s sister. She sort of disappears from the final third of the piece, and I need to resolve her character a bit more satisfactorily.
In order for the narrator to have his revelation at the end (which he does), he needs to come to terms with his own destiny (which he does, though the impetus for this coming-to-grace still seems a bit shaky). So his cathartic night session in the glass studio is not enough; he needs to be reacting more to his sister, and not to his own thoughts. So she needs to be more present toward that climax, such as it is. And she needs to do or say something that makes him realize that (a) he loves her but doesn’t need her any longer, and (b) that plenty of good basketball players who never make it to the NBA, that greatness is more about passion and vision and less about leaving your hometown or succeeding with a particular project.
So. We’ll see. AdCom, I’m looking at you…