Last weekend, my husband and I checked into a Princeton, New Jersey hotel fairly late on Friday night, having each attended separate dinners in the area. Although we were exhausted, we chatted away about our evenings as we dragged our small suitcase behind us and hoisted our briefcase straps over our shoulders. We stepped into the elevator and pushed the button to take us to the fifth floor. When the doors opened, I happened to look up and saw that we were on the sixth floor. We laughed, figuring that we must have pressed the wrong button. My husband firmly selected the correct button, and we waited. We watched as the elevator passed the fifth floor and stopped on the fourth. It was like being in the Twilight Zone, late at night in an elevator that seemed to have its own intentions. Again, we tried for the fifth floor, and the elevator went straight to six. And then to four. Naturally, we then selected the ground floor. Fortunately, there was another elevator in the bank, so we tried that one and ended up on the correct floor on our first try.
I'm still amused by what happened. At first, we thought we had made the mistake. But even after it became clear that the elevator, and not us, was malfunctioning, we continued to try to reach our floor. If we had been in a movie or a television series, the elevator might have jerked, then headed straight into hell, or, at the very least, to the bottom of the shaft where the CSI crew would have analyzed our blood splatter and the remains of our separate meals. But no. We were in an ordinary elevator with an extraordinary problem. I began to think that our situation must be a metaphor for something. Today, exactly one week later, it hit me: my elevator experience could serve as a metaphor for the revision process.
We fiction writers all envision the perfect novel and story; however, the translation between mind and page is always imperfect. The grueling work of being a writer is not in the imagination--not in coming up with a story or its characters--but in its execution, word by word, paragraph by paragraph, scene by scene. We need to test the buttons before handing them over to our readers. As we create that first draft, we aim for the fifth floor but keep arriving at four or six, or sometimes we even stay on the ground floor, with nothing happening but the opening and closing of the door. Our job is to find a way to the fifth floor, even if it means completely scrapping our original plan and starting anew.
Novice writers tend to get off on the sixth floor, their first stop. Some may decide that the sixth floor is as good as the fifth, and they stay there. Others with a little more experience may trudge down the fire stairs to get to where they want to go. But the route is clumsy, indirect, and hardly scenic. When you have readers who crave fiction's lasting illusion, who want to linger over your words, you cannot afford to show them the concrete structure of your building. They must be whisked from scene to scene without effort, even though you, as the writer, have worked long and hard to achieve this effect.
The lesson of the metaphor is this: don't be afraid to restart at the ground level is that's what it takes. Toss aside that awkward scene, and try again. Cut the character who adds nothing to the plot. Set your novel in a location more hospitable to your themes. Otherwise, your writing will be a series a near-misses, never quite as good as it could be, always unsatisfying to your readers. The last thing you want to be is stuck between floors or, even worse, convinced that another floor is good enough.
-- Debbie Lee Wesselmann
Causes Debbie Wesselmann Supports
The Jane Goodall Institute
Save the Chimps