Where I spray-paint my thoughts…

Where Does a Story Live?


Silly question, you might think. A story lives between the covers of a book. Or does it live in the head of the reader? Or in the head of the writer? Does it live on in memory after you close the covers, and is that memory what drives some of us to re-read favourite books over and over, hoping to recapture that living moment when the story was as real as our own real lives (if not more real)?

Lately I’ve been reading a lot and writing a lot, which leads to me thinking a lot about stories and how they work. On No Rules, Just Write, inspirational romance writer Brenda Coulter blogged awhile ago about writing for the sake of creating stories you love — whether or not publishers, readers and reviewers praise them. She talked about the pleasure of sitting down to reread one of her own published books, laughing at the funny scenes and crying at the sad parts.

I totally agree with Brenda that writing has to be its own reward, because if you’re doing it for the external validation, you’ll shrivel up and die within six months. But there’s a teensy problem: for me, sitting down to reread one of my own published books is about as appetizing as sitting down for breakfast to a plate of last night’s cold spaghetti. If I’m really feeling self-critical, that would be last night’s cold, tinned spaghetti.

When I reread something I’ve written after it’s appeared in print, all I can see are the mistakes — both the hideous typos that creep in despite the best editing, and the flat, uninspired, awkward writing that my best efforts have somehow turned into. For me, writing for my own reading pleasure is a bit like collecting butterflies. You see this vivid, living creature whose colours are so amazing — and then you kill it and pin it to a board. It looks the same, but everything that gave it life is gone. That’s how I feel about reading my own books once they’re published. When I open someone else’s book, the story draws me in, the characters come to life and inhabit my head and haunt me after the book is closed. But when I open my own book, it’s like staring at a display board of dead butterflies. I can see how it might once have had the potential for beauty, but nothing is alive there anymore.

Yet I do write for my own pleasure. I write the stories I want to read. Which brings me back to the question: when is my own story alive for me? It’s an old saying that many writers don’t like to write; they like having written. But it’s writing I like, and even better, revising. Not the actual hard-work aspect of it — I’m as distractible as anyone when it comes to focusing on what needs to be done to make the story better. But I like the stage I’m in now with What You Want, where I have a first draft down and I’m playing around with it, adding bits, fine-tuning it to make it better. I like it because this is when the story is really alive for me.

It’s no longer a bunch of vague ideas floating around in my head: the ideas have been fleshed out with words; the characters are people with faces and clothes and habits and musical tastes. The plot is there, a story unfolding towards its destination. But the butterflies are still fluttering by. They haven’t yet been pinned down, immobilized by the finality of publication.

Right now I am loving every minute I spend with this book. We are in the honeymoon phase of our relationship, the book and I, and I hate to see it end. Not only because then there’ll be the much less enjoyable job of trying to get it published, but because this is the best time for me as a writer — the time when the characters are alive and the story is moving, and I can get in there and experience it along with them. And no matter what happens, even if the book becomes a massive bestseller and Oprah picks it for her book club and they make a hit movie out of it … for me, it will never be this good again.


3 thoughts on “Where Does a Story Live?

  1. It is my belief that all stories live, at least originally, somewhere in central Conneticut.

  2. To Jamie,
    I’m close enough that if you can give me directions, I could visit and take pictures for you.
    I think that is is okay that your published stories live “better” in your readers’ minds than yours. Like children, they must go away and have exciting lives that you can only hear about and questions.
    This is one reason that so many people were upset when Rawlings said that Dumbledore was gay. She has finished the story so it belongs to the readers now, not her.

  3. It’s interesting that you mention J.K. Rowling because to me she’s a great example of someone who is so open and generous about allowing her readers to take ownershp of the story — witness her attitude towards fanfic, and how she loved to play along with and discuss fans’ speculations and predications about the books. However, the “Dumbledore is gay” controversy also spotlighted the fact that she knew a lot about her characters that she never included in the books. I think it was legit of her to say that after the fact if she wanted, but also legit of readers to say “That doesn’t fit MY picture of Dumbledore!”

    I remember one of the publicity interviews around the release of Deathly Hallows was about JKR saying how she’d cried while writing one of the last chapters of the book. I don’t know if it’s the same one I cried while reading, but what interests me (in the context of this blog post) is: would she still cry if she re-read it now? Or is it “dead” for her now the way my writing is for me once it’s published?

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