Of course, few writers know how a story should progress from start to finish, so surprise just happens. Say, like me, the writer usually knows the end and the beginning. Well, that means the middle is just a surprise waiting to happen. In the novel “The Good Thief,” Hannah Tinti had a vision of a scene in the middle of the novel. That means everything leading up to that point and everything that comes after it were a surprise to some extent. That’s how surprising yourself when you write works.
Likewise, most writers will talk about the importance of revision, but not many writers talk about the process of revision. More to the point, how they keep that sense of surprise in the writing. There are a lot of post-MFA student writers out there who get criticized for lifeless and/or boring MFA-style stories. The idea is that the MFA teaches a certain kind of writing that tends to be lifeless and boring. That may well be, but I think the larger issue is that an MFA shows you how to write and better ways and techniques of writing, not how to revise to retain that initial spark that made the writer want to write the story in the first place. This spark, inevitably, will always be that the writer has an idea for a character or a scene or a beginning, and that writer is curious to see where it all goes.
Revision lacks that curiosity. The story is more or less laid out, so when an MFA story gets criticized for being an MFA story, chances are that means it has been over-revised with no sense of surprise. Often, the aspects of my writing that surprise me are the things I fall in love with. That means, I find ways to retain them and this, I think, helps keep some of that surprise in the mix. (Others, of course, might disagree. And if so, I apologize for my MFA stories, but I did just get an MFA.)
I am not a proponent of the “Murder Your Darlings” School of Writing, as my darlings are one of the joys that keep me writing. Take, for example, my revision yesterday of one of the stories in my novel called “Sandwich Earl.” It was one of the stories more peripherally connected and I’d been struggling to make it work with the rest of the book. The entire story itself was a darling whose first person narrator just started talking to me one day and wouldn’t stop until I’d finished his story, and it did connect to the rest of the novel in a very definite, if more remote way. I was tasked to increase the level of that connection, perhaps by changing narrative points of view (one advisee suggested adding the element of “It’s a Wonderful Life” style omniscience), or perhaps by extending the duration of its narrative. I didn’t like either of these ideas. The story felt done when it ended and I just love the voice of the narrator, bright but colloquial.
I had no idea how to fix this problem. It was unplanned when I sat done to work on it and then, I got an idea. I could sandwich “Sandwich” in an omniscient third point of view. This would broaden out the perspective to fit better with the rest of the book but also retain that voice I so enjoyed crafting. Of course, the real surprise came when I started writing that third person scene, in which the reader sees the first person narrator from an outside perspective. It’s all of about five sentences, so it wasn’t a lengthy revision. It didn’t change much of anything to the rest of the story, and yet, I felt like I’d really added depth to the story with the suggested revision, like I’d made that revision work for me. Moreover, I’m fairly sure it happened because I didn’t know what would happen. That, and I allowed myself to consider outside advice about a movie made in the 1940s.
What I’m saying here for other new writers like myself, especially if you come with an MFA background, is this: Don’t plan it all out. Allow the happy accidents even when you feel like the story is “done.” Open yourself up to the possibility that there is more to say, another piece to the puzzle that you didn’t even know existed.
I’m as guilty of thinking my work was beyond reproach as much as the next writer, but listening to new ideas, trying out outside suggestions, pushing your “finished” story just a little bit farther than you thought it could go. These are the risks that, when taken, just might make your story beyond MFA-style and become your style. Revision isn’t just about cutting pages and chopping sentences and rewriting sentences to reduce syntactical confusion. It’s about being willing to see your story from a new angle.
Suggested reads that come from unique POVS (i.e. new angles) that I’ve been reading lately: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks (not the best writing style wise but some interesting true-story psychological accounts nonetheless) and God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens (insightful view on how religion negatively affects our culture and our lives). I’m also a chapter or two into Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, the first in the lengthy saga of the Kashpaws and the Lamartines. So far, I’m loving it. Interestingly enough, it is a book told in a combination of first and third POVs.