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Thursday, February 23, 2012



The Death of a Story


Deborah Jackson

How to Find the Balance Between Modification and Destruction

Have you ever wondered about those stories buried in an author’s filing cabinet? Well, perhaps nowadays they’re buried in a layer of digital dust. They’re labeled and relabeled until they’re finally scrubbed.

I once wrote a middle grade story called Ghost in the Piano. I’d already had a couple of novels published, but I wanted to improve my writing, so I joined a critique group. Now I think critiquing is the best way to improve writing, but when you’re first introduced to it you have this notion you have to listen, erase, rewrite until every line is absolutely perfect, according to someone else’s vision.

Here are my relabeled examples:

Ghost in the Piano

Ghost in the Piano Another Revision

Ghost in the Piano Version 3, 4, 5, 6 etc.

Ghost in the Piano A New Beginning

Ghost in the Piano Whatever

The “Whatever” stage is when you scrub. It’s rather sad, actually. I think I did some of my best writing on that story, but eventually I couldn’t look at it anymore. I pull it out every once in a while, intent on finally finishing it, but I always sigh and shove it back into that bloated digital file.

Critiquing to the nth power is an effective way to kill a story.

It all started with the beginning. Beginnings are so difficult. They need to acquire that magical power to draw the reader in. So we write and rewrite our beginnings. But there has to be a point where a red flag appears, where you stop bringing the story to a critique group because they will ALWAYS find something to criticize. Eventually the magic gets warped from the strain of too many rewrites.

I loved Ghost in the Piano. Now I despise it. And yet, I still love some of it. It was my greatest failure.

I know most authors don’t talk about their failures. They came from a time when the writer struggled through the mire to get to solid footing. They feel like children that died in utero. But I think it’s important to remember, in everything, that too much criticism can be devastating. Our failures are shining examples of what never to do again.

Now I only bring my beginnings to a critique session once, maybe twice, at the most three times. Of course I’ve polished it many times before it reaches this stage, but it can only tolerate major upheaval a few more times before it explodes. I’m serious. I have fragments of Chapter One all over that file. They resemble rotting flesh. I will only ever bring a full manuscript to my critique group once. I get several ideas of what others think is wrong from this one session and I can sift through these ideas to zero in on the problems. But I won’t be replotting ten more times. It won’t help the book and it will destroy my sanity.

Sometimes your sanity is more important than a perfect book or great reviews. Think about it.

Besides, once you hack it apart, it’s sometimes hard to recapture the voice you began with, or the smooth-tender flow. The style can become choppy and inconsistent. The magic of that storytelling voice taking you through the trials of time travel, or the deadly burrows of a cave, or the terror of a haunted piano is lost, never to be found again.

I have other dead stories, buried in that digital drawer, but they were never of sufficient caliber to mourn. By the time I wrote the ghost story, I’d grown as a writer and I was hoping the story would touch many young hearts and give them hope and courage. But it will remain forever locked away, an unfulfilled wish.

I will leave you with this. Fragments, unrequited love, rotting bits of flesh.

There was a single clang—one jarring chord that rang crisp through the bottom level of the house and vibrated in my head. That’s how it all began, exactly a month after I’d quit playing the piano—a month after the worst day of my life.

I crept over the icy floor tiles in my bare feet. I shivered, but didn’t stop. After all, it must have been only gravity that had caused the piano to sound off. Into the living room, across the hardwood strips—that seemed even colder, although that wasn’t possible—right up to the ribbed keys. There wasn’t a book in sight. Only a wispy cloud above the keyboard, as if someone had blown the dust off the keys.

I kept playing over his sharp and painful notes. Soon I was drowning him out, my own less than perfect music chopping through the angry melody. Eventually the dreadful sound petered out and there was nothing between the notes. Now there was no one else but me—licking notes that were soft and belting out those that needed to be bellowed. As my fingers flew over the keys, and caught the elusive harmony, I knew, then, for sure, that I would never hear the ghost in the piano again.

About the Author:
Deborah Jackson received a science degree from the University of Ottawa in 1986, graduated from The Writing School in Ottawa in 2001, and is the author of several science fiction and historical fiction novels. She gives school presentations throughout North America as well as developing and teaching writing courses at the Shenkman Arts Centre. Deborah is a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and Speculative Fiction Canada. Her novels include: Ice Tomb, an adult science fiction thriller, and the Time Meddlers series for children, ages 9 – 14: Time Meddlers, Time Meddlers Undercover, and upcoming release Time Meddlers on the Nile. Articles about Deborah and reviews of her books have appeared in The Ottawa Citizen, MORE Magazine, The RT Bookclub Magazine, Canadian Teacher Magazine, SF Site, Neo-opsis Science Fiction Magazine and many more.

Time Meddlers on the Nile

Thirteen-year-old Matt Barnes and Sarah Sachs, while attempting to rescue Matt's father from multiple universes, face an even more challenging obstacle: the erasure of their own timeline. What can they do before they, themselves, are erased?

Somewhere along the Nile the two teens must prevent the ultimate meddling during the time of Nubian pharaohs and princes, palaces and temples to rival the ancient Egyptians and fearsome desert raiders. They must puzzle out the moment and event where Matt's father or his arch nemesis, Nadine, interfered with history. If they don't, it could mean the end of time as we know it, or a never-ending loop of time.

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