The Guideposts senior editor shares how to make a story stronger.
Sometimes the rewards of my job steal up on me. Today a writer I edit sent me a revised version of a story and—well, I got the shivers. Julie had submitted this story, about her teenage son pulling away from her, awhile back. “It’s not working,” she told me. “I can’t figure out why.”
I looked at the first draft, thought of a few suggestions, and gave her a call. The call ended up lasting quite some time. Turned out there were lots of buried feelings in that story, all the conflicted emotions a parent feels when a child suddenly becomes an adult, or at least starts trying to act like one.
Julie’s first draft had barely touched the surface of those feelings. As we talked, she kept saying things like, “Are you a psychologist?” Like somehow I had some rare insight into her feelings. I didn’t, actually. I was just asking obvious questions. It was Julie doing the psychologizing, figuring out what she wanted to say as we went along.
That was a reward of one kind, helping a writer see what they wanted to say but couldn’t. Then I got the revised draft. One of my worries about the story was that Julie would have trouble making her emotional transformation—accepting her son’s growing up—tangible to a reader. Communicating feelings is hard. They’re so abstract. You need something concrete.
Julie found that something. In the story her son breaks his leg playing football—he’d joined the team against her wishes—and in the doctor’s office she frets about the damage. The doctor chuckles and reassures her the leg will actually end up stronger, like all healed bone. And that’s where Julie found her image. Something in her relationship with her son has broken, she realizes. But it can heal. And it can become stronger. Laying down what you have gets you something better than you could have imagined.
It was then that I got the shivers. Not just from the image, or the lesson, which is a common one in GUIDEPOSTS. I was moved by Julie’s mind, by the mysterious process, a kind of alchemy, by which she'd poked around in the storehouse of her memory and somehow, miraculously, found the perfect words, the perfect idea.
I always say writing can be taught only up to a point. After that it’s alchemy. As an editor I get to watch that alchemy, sometimes help make it happen. Which I really do consider miraculous. Any act of creation is a mystery. But acts of language are the biggest mysteries. Without language we would know nothing, and so when we shape and make language we are shaping and making our world at the same time. It’s an awesome power. Sort of like the healing of bone. Or the breaking and rebuilding of relationships.
Like I said, the rewards steal up. So hats off to you, Julie. You broke your story down and made it that much stronger. Truly, a miracle to celebrate.
Jim Hinch is a senior editor at GUIDEPOSTS. Reach him at [email protected].