Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Art of Improving a Story.

It's no secret that I love to tell stories.  The fact is when I'm out with friends I sometimes have to shut myself up; if I don't, I'll dominate the conversation with stories and they won't be my friends anymore.  But, as much as  I love reeling off  anecdotes, I'm not that sure I can tell one well. For that, I need the crew at Arc Stories.

Arc Stories is a group of top-notch raconteurs who help amateurs (like me) tell the stories of their lives. I've been envious of every person they ever put behind a microphone and for years I've been working up the nerve to pitch a story to them. I finally sent in an idea this fall and got a call back from one of the coaches.   Send me the full story, he said.

Writing isn't that easy for me, especially when the material is personal. I wrote, rewrote and rewrote my tale, choking up when some memories came back. Once I dried my eyes, I sent it off, wondering what the coach would think of my draft.  He thought it needed work.

My mentor was extremely kind and polite but he pointed out a big flaw in my narrative.  It had one of the underlying themes we hear all through December. Not a bad message but definitely not original. Closer to a cliche.

Now, even kind, honest criticism can be hard to take (like medicine) but both are meant to make the subject better and the subject here was the story, not my ego. Talking with him showed me a fresher angle of approach so I rehammered out the story.  Same difficult memories, same catch in the throat, the same deliberation over every sentence.  When this draft was finished, I knew it was better and was happy to send it in.  Then the producer called.

Yes, the story isn't bad (she said) but this time I'd left out the stakes. Why was what happened so important to me at the time?  What unknown outcome might keep people interested?  Please rewrite it again.

Of course, the producer was right but I wasn't sure I had another rewrite in me or if I could face the material again.  And I knew that even with this rewrite, they might still turn me down.  On the other hand, if I quit at this point, they would definitely reject the story.  I grabbed the tissues and sat down for one more try.

All of this is to tell you what I've learned and add a small announcement.  First off, when it comes to revision, nothing is more important than improving what's already there. Not an overly sensitive ego, or the previous work, or the angst that went into each sentence. Revision gives stories necessary structure and if that means rebuilding the whole thing from scratch, then that's what you do.  My finished story is a lot better than the first draft I sent.  And on Friday, you can judge for yourself.

Unless something unforeseen and terrible happens this is where I'll be on Friday evening, probably overwhelmed by stage-fright.  If you're interested but you can't be there, they issue podcasts of their broadcasts.  (So if I'm really bad, you can hear me mess up over and over and over!) No matter what happens, I'll always be grateful for what I've already learned from those wonderful people at Arc Stories.  They've taught me something of what it takes to improve a story.