A few years ago I was out shopping, and the woman in the dressing room next to me was having a crisis. The skirt she wanted was only available in one size and that one size was a tad too small on her. You could tell she knew this by the way she studied herself in the mirror and by the way she asked the salesclerk, “Do you think it fits? Or that it will stretch out? What if I wore it with a different shirt?” I was fully expecting the salesclerk to tell her it fit just fine and go ring her up.
But instead the salesclerk said, “To be honest, it’s a little too tight.” She didn’t say this in a mean way. She was just confirming what the customer had suspected all along—the skirt wasn’t working. I like to think that the salesclerk then found this woman a better skirt, and the customer left the store feeling happy and empowered. (I don’t know if this happened. I hope she didn’t leave feeling insulted and upset. I hope she found a new better skirt that made her forget all about the slightly-too tight one. Maybe someone could write a short story about this woman and her skirt and her newfound positive body image so I don’t worry about her.)
As writers, we all know we need to stop prancing around in ill-fitting clothes. This is more commonly known as “killing your darlings.” The problem is that we often can’t identify our darlings. When we write something that we think is really, really great, we actually think it’s… really, really great.
After I write something I’m very proud of, I don’t think, “Since I like this so much, it’s probably overworked or gimmicky or clichéd.” Because, unfortunately, I’m too busy basking in the genius of my own words.
Here’s an example. Last fall I wrote a short story about a woman named Ellen who stayed out of the workforce for thirteen years to raise her son, and when she went back to work, she fell for a quirky co-worker. And here’s the part I was the proudest of: I didn’t name her love interest/co-worker UNTIL THE VERY END. So I sent the story to two of my trusted early readers, and I waited for them to marvel at the genius that the male co-worker wasn’t named UNTIL THE VERY END.
And they, very nicely and very diplomatically, let me know that not naming a pivotal character until the last page of a short story is not clever but confusing. They did this by asking questions like, “Why does this guy not have a name until the end? Who’s the he Ellen keeps talking about? Am I the only one a little confused about what’s going on?”
I wrote my dear, trusted readers back, something along the lines of, “See the thing is, once she names him, she’s made a decision about him. And the reader gets to make up his own mind what that decision is. Does she start an affair? Does she not? It’s all how the reader wants to interpret it!”
Disclaimer: If you ever have to say, See the thing is for anything in your story, it’s not working. Trust me. I’m the queen of See the thing is so I can tell you that the average reader is not going to send you an e-mail and ask you why you didn’t provide a name for one of the main characters. You know why they won’t send you an e-mail? Because they won’t have read it since it won’t be published.
I thought I was leaving space for the reader to make his own interpretations about the story. But there’s leaving space for your reader and then there’s throwing your reader off a ship blindfolded and gagged and then being confused when they drown. (This is a terrible analogy by the way. I know it because I feel a little proud of it.)
Sometimes I need to be told something multiple times before I tune in and listen. After a third person told me that it would really help if I named Ellen’s love interest, I grudgingly set aside the first draft and started writing one where (sigh) the male co-worker had a name from page one. Amazingly the story expanded in a way I liked even more because once the co-worker had a name (Peter), he became a real character, and once he became a real character, he was able to interact with the plot. Added bonus: the story suddenly made sense to readers.
In fact, I liked this character Peter so much I ended up writing a short story from his point of view. And then I made him the boyfriend in another short story. And then I realized I was writing a collection of linked short stories, and two of those stories have been accepted for publication. And I know that none of the stories in that collection would have been written if I hadn’t named Ellen’s co-worker.
In other words, without my writer friends, I’d still be sending out a short story with an unnamed love interest. In other words, I’d be prancing around town in a short, unflattering skirt thinking I looked sophisticated. Here’s the skinny: if you don’t have trusted readers, go find some. (Read Julia’s lovely post about where to find your tribe, if you need help.)
And as for that little voice in your head that tells you that you don’t need feedback, that you are perfectly capable of writing a story that is publication-ready immediately? Please ignore that voice. It’s probably the same voice that infamous emperor heard before he walked around town naked, convinced he was wearing clothes.