Do all writers love puns? I’m not sure, but I couldn’t resist the pun in the title for this piece, which is about two kinds of moving: moving a household, and moving a story forward.
Are all writers insane? I’m not certain, but I seem to be. In the middle of the last thirty-one days allowed for major revision of the manuscript that will become my second published novel, I am moving from my small apartment into a modest but larger house my fella and I were able to buy. It’s a terrific house and a bargain, which made it irresistible. (Having a second bathroom didn’t hurt.) And instead of looking at this as a major blunder in timing, I’ve decided to use both experiences – moving and revising – to help me be a better writer.
See, I hate moving more than just about any other aspect of normal life. And the reason I hate it is that it forces me to make decisions about every single thing I own. Every item must be packed, given away, sold, or trashed. Believe it or not, I’m pretty good with the large decisions of life (the decision to buy a house and move in the middle of winter in a cold climate and so close to the deadline for my manuscript is a major exception, I swear, though my friends and family might disagree). But admittedly, I am terrible at small decisions. What to wear to an event, whether or not to do laundry, what to make myself for supper – I can easily find myself paralyzed at these moments, staring in my closet or cupboard, unable to bring the closure needed to move on.
So the idea of determining the fate of every item in my home is overwhelming. Books, papers, blankets, dishes, pictures on my refrigerator, business cards I’ve collected, radios, spoons, a chef’s apron sent by a friend in Switzerland, the local bus schedule, the leftover Halloween candy, office supplies, extra pillows, the growler bottles leftover from my first book party, old birthday and holiday cards, a bottle cap with a saying from Gandhi (“the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in service to others”) that I found on a bottle of iced tea during a very difficult time in my life, a bizarre collection of key chains, multiple flash drives, an old Rolling Stone with David Bowie on the cover: which do I keep? Which do I give away? Which of these items are cherished keepsakes, and which are trash? In the middle of wading through it all, I lose my ability to discern. I fight equally powerful urges to throw it all in a box and move it and deal with it later, and to throw it all in the garbage and pretend I never owned it.
And if we are honest, we writers, that’s often what the process of revision feels like, too. Every page, paragraph, sentence, and word creates the need for discernment: keep it, rewrite it, move it, or delete it. But which of these words and phrases are cherished keepsakes, and which are trash? How do we tell?
In life, there are a few deceptively simple principles we use to make these decisions. Have I used it in the last year? Does it still fit? Is it broken, and if so, is it reparable? Do I have more than one? Is there someone who would love it more than I do? If so, can I give it to that person now? The questions are easy, the answers sometimes difficult. Usually, though, it’s the dread that is the worst part of the experience. Once I start the sorting process, I find a rhythm. I also find the level of brutality with which I am comfortable. Two years ago when I moved out of a house as part of the end of a marriage, and moved across the state, I found myself comfortable with quite strict interpretations of these questions, and divested myself of great piles of stuff. I can only recall one or two items in those piles I wish I’d kept, and even those memories don’t cause profound grief. Just a twinge of mild regret. And once I’m in the rhythm of the process, I can swing through. I remember the huge satisfaction of giving boxes and bags of unused items to Goodwill, and seeing the tidy piles left behind. It’s a strong sensation of freedom, letting go of things, and moving forward with less baggage.
In writing, the principle by which we make these discernments also seems deceptively simple. It is this: does it move the story forward? The art comes into play in seeing how this movement can be created, and in how severely we apply the principle.
A story can move forward via plot, character, or setting. You might subdivide these into other categories, like dialogue and point of view (which I see as being fundamentally character driven). Essentially, these three aspects of a tale provide the fodder for its telling: What happens, to whom, and where. In revision, we ask ourselves these questions about the words and scenes we’ve created in the production phase.
What does it show about the major events in the story? And, is it important for the reader not only to know this, but to know it now? (We need to examine this through the experience of reading. Timing becomes primary. Writers often like to keep plot points secret from their readers when the reader needs to know what’s happened to understand the characters, or vice versa.)
What does it show about one or more characters in the story? And, is it important for the reader to know this about the character(s)? (Make sure to ask whether it is important to the reader, rather than to the writer. There are so many things we need to know about our characters that our readers simply don’t.)
What does it show about the setting in which this story takes place? And, is it important for the reader to know this about the setting in order to understand what happens or why the characters behave as they do? (I often wind up adding description of setting to help ground a scene in a place and time, because I forget to do so when I’m whirling through the drafting process. Other writers need to cut long explanations of flora and fauna; these explanations appear in their drafts to help situate their tales, but aren’t necessary to the reader.)
And, like life, as writers we need to settle into a comfortable level of brutality. “Well, it’s close enough” or “yeah, that might work” or “the reader won’t notice” won’t cut it. If we want our work to be the best it can be, each paragraph must elicit a strong “yes, that’s it.” We must be the primary readers of our work, the first to have the experience of letting the story take us on its wonderful ride. For if we can’t let ourselves become lost in the story, no one else will be able to, either.
So I am working hard to divest life and manuscript of all that is unnecessary. It takes time, but I find my rhythms and sure enough, with each pass through the piles, whether they are of stuff or of words, the result is cleaner, stronger, better. More free. I’m more free to move forward, and my story is more free of anything that would hold it back.
I don’t know if all writers are insane, but if we are, there might be a method in our madness after all. In the process of moving our lives forward, we learn about moving our stories forward, and vice versa. We learn to move right along.
Elizabeth Fountain left a demanding job as a university administrator in Seattle to move to the small town of Ellensburg, Washington, and pursue her dream of writing novels. She started writing in grade school; fortunately, most of her tortured high school poetry and song lyrics are lost to posterity.
Her first book, An Alien’s Guide to World Domination (BURST Books, 2013), is a tale of people, aliens, and dogs who face the impossible, and do it anyway. Now Liz has three more novels in progress, including You, Jane, which will be published by Champagne Book Group in spring of 2014.
She takes breaks from writing to teach university courses, spend time with family and friends, and take long walks while leaning into the diabolical Kittitas Valley wind. Her degrees in philosophy, psychology, and leadership contribute to a gently humorous view of humanity well suited to tales of aliens and angels, love and death, friendship and dogs. Liz strives to live according to a line from British singer-songwriter Chris Rea: “Every day, good luck comes in the strangest of ways.”
Read more of her work at her website.
Louise Armstrong Holliday is the last person on Earth you’d expect to save the human race. But when she uncovers proof that her boss is an alien the color of lime Jell-o ™ gone horribly wrong, and is at the center of a plot to destroy humanity, Louie decides to do exactly that. She begins a journey from her company’s suburban Seattle office park to the old cities and castles of Eastern Europe. Along the way, Louie is attacked by flying books, overly-sensitive bat-crow monsters, and her own self-doubts. She must learn the truth about her closest friend, stand up to her boss, confront her oldest enemy, and make peace with her Aunt Emma, who annoys her in the way only true family can. She also has to rely on Buddy, the little blind mini-Schnauzer who saves her life twice – and really is from Mars.