This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.
Joyce Carol Oates said once that she doesn’t know what the first page of a novel should be until she has written the last page. Since she’s Joyce Carol Oates, the period between those two events is probably on the order of weeks, but the lesson stands for the rest of us: we often need to write to the end of a story before we truly discover what that story is about.
It might not be until we reach the climax that we realize what the climax should be, and we might not discover that the story is really all about the sister relationship rather than the romantic one (like Frozen!) until we’ve gotten to the end. Once you HAVE gotten to the end of a draft, though, it’s time to look back and actually do some hard thinking about what tensions and characters really floated to the top, regardless of what you originally intended.
This happens to me all the time: I’ll set out with teeth gritted, telling myself I’m writing a story about a husband and wife; but by the end, I realize I’ve been writing about the wife’s past, not really about her current relationship. Surprises like this can come along even in concrete plot points: Flannery O’Connor wrote about one story that she didn’t know a wayward Bible salesman was going to steal a woman’s artificial leg until he up and did.
But here’s a great pleasure of the editing process: now that you know what the story is really about, you can go back and plant some seeds to make it look like you were planning that all along. We often marvel at the cunning ways writers foreshadow or show themes or threads all along, but guess what: many of those have been planted retroactively.
It’s fun! Go ahead and re-visit that late night conversation, and throw in some flirtation now that you know they’re secretly in love. Add flower imagery to the first paragraph now that you know someone will be killed for her rare and priceless orchid collection. Show themes of growing up, now that you know the story is about growing up. This is one of my favorite editing tricks because it’s one of those things that looks hard, but is actually easy.
Did you ever read The Lupin Lady when you were a kid? It’s a delightful picture book about a woman who wants to spread beauty in the world, so she spends years merrily galavanting about her town, dropping lupin seeds wherever she goes. Years later, the town is a riot of beautiful purple flowers. So today, become the Lupin Lady — prance merrily through your story and plant seeds so that the climax and ending will feel natural and inevitable.
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