Show of hands: who has been in this position? You’ve finished a story. You’re proud of it. You KNOW there is something living and breathing and wonderful in this story. You know there is something about this story that needs help and/ or is obscuring some of the story’s brilliance. And you’re terrified to show it to someone because…
What if they don’t like it? What if they don’t think it’s good? What if they reject me as a writer? What if this is the only story i will ever write?
I promise to talk about pizza in this space. I will also talk about how to begin to revise a story, and how to help other writers
revise, and how to approach a kind of critique that is not only helpful to the writer, but helpful to the reader too. No, really, its
magic. And it involves pizza.
But before all that, I will share some of the most terrifying words in the writer’s vocabulary.
Maybe you don’t feel this, but I do. I feel like this every time I share a story for critique and sometimes when a writer sends me a story to read and every time I have to revise, I get terrified. And no wonder! A friend of mine, a writer with several hefty story publications, a writer who gets flown around the country and paid to speak, recently shared a story of hers for another writer (also a writer with experience and publications) for help and feedback. Colleague to colleague, honor among thieves. She received a response that boiled down to this.
“I don’t like fantasy. And your story was boring.”
The reviewer might as well have said: “I love fantasy. Your story was amazing.” Both of those comments completely unhelpful. One of them might have sent a less confident writer (like me) into a crawlspace. The other “I loved it” might have sent a writer into a tailspin of trying to trigger that elusive thing that the reader loved. Neither serves the story.
But revision is necessary, and like scratching your own back, it’s no fun to do alone.
This is about the point where a lot of writers quit. They have a story. They know it needs a little something. They can’t tell what. The help they get fall somewhere on the spectrum of “it’s good!’ or I didn’t get it!”
There is a way to revise alone. And there is a way to get the kind of feedback that helps your story grow. And I am leading a whole workshop on revision in August for that exact reason, and we’ll have writing time and suggested readings and cookies and coffee and maybe even…
Oh right, pizza. My great teacher Michelle Carter shared a version of analogy with me, and it changed everything about how I revise stories, mine and others.
This is Giovanni’s pineapple and mozzarella pizza.
Giovanni is a metaphor for writers everywhere. Pizza is a metaphor for story. When we share a story with someone, we are Giovanni. We want to be a great pizza chef. We’re terrified because we’re waiting for someone to judge our pizza. If they like it, we’re a Pizza Chef! If not, what are we? Nothing?
The taster is terrified too. He really wants to be a pizza expert. Maybe he wants to be a pizza chef too. He’s worried he might actually be a pizza fraud. Trying to be helpful, a lot of reviewers, not knowing where to start, will begin by ranking the pizza on the spectrum of like/ dislike, and warning off their limitations.
“But I don’t like pizza.”
“I don’t like pineapple on my pizza, but”
“That’s the best pizza I’ve ever had.”
“I LOVE pizza, this pizza is amazing, it tastes great.”
Notice that we have not talked about the pizza, only about the taster’s taste buds.
This is where a lot of tasters, ie readers, quit too. As readers-who-are artists, we want to be helpful to our artist friends. We also want to belong among the people who can tell what a good story is. “I loved your story, you’re so talented” “I love pizza” Especially if we don’t know what else to say. Nobody wants to be a pizza fraud.
What I learned from my great teachers: instead of judging, begin by looking and tasting.
Or, as Nancy Au asks, brilliantly and so simply:
This is scary. It’s also hard. It’s also vulnerable. We want to show our intelligence. We don’t want to be captain obvious. But it can be the most helpful thing to your pizzaiolo. You empower the pizzaiolo to fix his pizza. Even if it’s eye-rollingly basic.
Taster: “This is a round piece of dough. Is it pizza?”
Pizza Maker: “Oops, I meant to make an omelet. Thanks for letting me know, now I know to use more eggs.” (metaphor translation: This paragraph is a short story about a fish. Oops! I wanted to write a poem about flamingoes.. Thank you, now I can think about why the flamingo looks like a fish to you)
The more we do this, see, taste, say, the more we begin to develop the ability to see layers.
This pizza is not round, it’s a little elliptical. It has two kinds of tomatoes, sun dried tomatoes in salt and oil that were added after the cooking, and Roma tomatoes cooked in the oven.
(you can almost hear this pizza taster rushing home to try out sundried tomatoes at home).
If we run out of things to say, we can ask questions. What kind of tomatoes are these? What kind of cheese is this? Why did you choose this kind of cheese? Where did you get tomatoes? Why did you use a ratio of 2/3 tomatoes to cheese?
In a story, this becomes curiosity. Why does the character hate his father. Why did you use the word besmirch? I want to know more about this deer in the last paragraph. What is the main character’s relationship to deer. Did you know that deer carry tics?
These are the kinds of questions that makes Giovanni want to go back into his kitchen and make more pizza, it’s the first step of a kind of critical process that makes all of us better artists, and a particular kind of magic happens when this is done in groups.
Want a place to do this in great company? Come join me and the great group of writers already signed up for Boom! a revision workshop for 8-10 writers with a story ready to revise. We will use stories to talk about story elements, map stories, discuss plot and its alternatives. If you don’t have a story yet, you have weeks to write one. A perfect place to begin might be Stone & Story, happening in Oakland.
As always, we’re here to bring you writing adventures. Let us know how we can help. We can’t wait to write with you.
The Captain Obvious Revision Experiment
This can be done on your own story-in-progress or on someone else’s story. Read the story, write what you see, even if it’s so completely obvious. But try to be specific as possible. Here are some questions to help (Yes! They’re completely obvious. That’s the point). It really helps to do this aloud or on paper.
- What is this? (is this a story?A poem? How long is it?)
- What is there?
- What happens?
- What are some of the sentences like?
- What kind of words are used?
- How many paragraphs are there?
- How many characters are there? Who are they? What are they doing?
- What is the shape of this story?
- What happens at the end?/ Middle/ Beginning?
- Who or what is telling the story?
- Where/ when does the poem/story take place?