This is the second part of a feature that I’m writing to let others in on my creative process and show how my new story “Catch and Release” evolved over the length of its pre-publication lifespan. You can read the first part here.
For those who haven’t read that first part, I’ll give a brief summary. I originally intended to write the story as a 5,00 word piece, but it grew in ways that I couldn’t have predicted. By the time it was finished, the story topped out at just over 10,000 words and transcended my original vision of what it was and what it could be.
I learned that it’s important to follow my stories if they lead me in unexpected directions, and that sometimes editing actually does mean expanding, not just cutting fat and revising what’s already there.
What else did I learn from writing this story?
I learned that my characters need to be present in their stories, and that this isn’t as simple as finding their voice or knowing who they are–if the reader can’t form an image of the character in their mind, then they might as well be a cardboard cutout. This is something that I thought I already knew, but the truth is that, as a writer, I have to be open to relearning these lessons and finding ways to act upon them.
When I sent the story to Angela for editing, I felt pretty good about it. I never thought it was a perfect story, but overall I thought it was close to where I needed it to be.
Wow, I was way wrong.
One of Angela’s comments on the manuscript stood out from all the others. There’s a brief moment early in the story where Carter, the protagonist, makes a joking remark about how he was a “diversity hire” at his job. In the original draft, this remark was never explored elsewhere in the text. Angela wrote a comment that said, “Oh, I like this. But I never learn what makes Carter diverse.” In other words, it was merely a distraction since this aspect of the character was deliberately left vague in the text.
When I emailed her to ask about her comment, I asked if it would change her view of Carter if she did find out the reason for him saying that. Her response was short but incredibly helpful, especially this bit: “I want to see how YOU see Carter.”
I realized that, although I had a good idea of who Carter is and what defines his character, I simply hadn’t done enough in the context of my story to show this to the reader. Even worse, I’d hinted at an important part of the character without making good on the implied promise of such a hint. I was only showing pieces of Carter, so how could anyone be expected to fully embrace him as the protagonist of the story?
On an even more basic level, I was forced to admit a painful truth about my original version of this story: I didn’t start out by writing the full story that I wanted to, because my fears about portraying a character with a different background from my own stopped me from exploring some of the most essential parts of Carter’s experiences. I worried more about how other people would perceive my story than I did about how I wanted to tell my story. It wasn’t until I realized how much this fear had crippled my story that I found the courage to write what I’d wanted to write all along.
The version of “Catch and Release” that’s debuting this month is the one I should have written from the start. I had to learn this the hard way, but it’s a lesson that I intend to build on and share with others.
As writers, we need to find the courage to write without fear and show our reader what it is that we want them to see. If we don’t, we’re doing a disservice to them and to ourselves.