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.