Today I share the most important lesson that I learned from writing ‘The Freebird’s Dilemma.’
I wrote “The Freebird’s Dilemma” in 1992 as a submission to Bridges, the Los Medanos College literary publication. That was the year that I first took a lit class. I was also in a supportive writing group that included my lit instructor, Madeline Puccioni. That was the year that I started writing seriously.
I also learned my most astonishing lesson of all from writing “The Freebird’s Dilemma”.
The submission guidelines were simple and direct. Twelve-point Times New Roman font. Double spaced. Ten pages maximum.
I wrote the story making maximum use of my experiences working on trail crews in Yosemite and Kings Canyon National Parks. I also used my experiences of feeling trapped in the town I lived in and really wanting to be back out in the wilderness. And I threw in a romance. I figured that couldn’t hurt, but that part was total fiction. Mostly. Rachel was based upon a single mom that I did know at college, but there was no romance in the real relationship.
I wrote the story. I edited the story. I got it down to twelve pages. And then I didn’t think I could cut out any more. Anything else that I cut would eliminate what I thought was critical information for the reader to have to understand my characters. I thought that it was going to be a twelve-page story, and that was that.
I explained my problem to Madeline.
She grinned and said, “Welcome to the world of writing! Ten pages means ten pages. Those are the submission guidelines, and there are no exceptions. Trim two pages, or it won’t even be read.”
This was the second most important lesson I learned from this piece. Submission guidelines are not suggestions. Not even when your friendly teacher and writing group coach is the one enforcing them.
The day before the submission deadline, I had a long afternoon break on campus. I sat in the cafeteria with a cup of coffee and looked my manuscript over one more time. The story opened with exposition of Joe and Rachel’s background, explaining how they had gotten to the point they were at in their relationship. I realized that the exposition made for a slow start, so I tried to find ways to tuck that information into other places in the story. Shuffling material around didn’t help me trim two pages, though. I could not let go of my need to make sure this background information was in the story.
Somewhere about my third cup of coffee, I asked myself, “Okay. Where does the story actually start in this?” I decided that it was the point where Joe told Pappy that he was leaving. I slashed a line across the page at that point with my pen. I looked at everything that happened before that slash. It was two pages of background.
I found my two pages.
I put those two pages aside, and reread the story…again.
It still made a story. It didn’t tell how Joe came to that town. It didn’t tell how Joe and Rachel met. It said nothing about the relationship between Joe and Jason.
But it did tell a story.
Do you remember the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Richard Dreyfuss’ character was going out of his mind with a vision of a mountain. He tried to build models of it, starting with a pile of mashed potatoes. He wound up building a huge model of a mountain in his living room made from dirt and rocks and plants. The model almost reached the ceiling.
Then he realized that he was acting crazy.
In frustration and embarrassment, he started tearing the model down. He pulled off some plants. He grabbed the top of the mountain and pulls. The top split off and left a flattened top. Exactly like the image of Devil’s Tower in Wyoming that he could see on the TV screen at the same time.
And he realized that this is the image he had been after all along.
When I whacked those first two pages off my story and saw what I had left, I felt like the Richard Dreyfuss character at that moment.
I struggled with the idea of leaving that background information out. I didn’t think readers would fully understand the characters. I thought that made for a weaker story. It couldn’t be helped, though. Ready or not, the submission deadline was the next day, and I had a ten-page story without it.
I fearfully submitted the story.
Not only was ‘The Freebird’s Dilemma’ accepted for Bridges, but it shared a Best Fiction award in that issue by campus faculty and administration.
I could only ask myself, “How?!”
It took a while to get my answer.
Madeline liked my story enough that she asked if she could use it in future lit classes when she taught on the short story form. She said that students like to read fresher pieces by other students as a change of pace to the ‘same ol’ stories’ in those classes.
Of course, I said yes.
Two semesters later, I saw Madeline in passing in a hall and she asked if I had a minute. We took seats at a table in the Language Arts lab, and she told me how “The Freebird’s Dilemma” had been received in her classes. She knew of my concerns about readers not understanding the character backgrounds.
Madeline said, “It turns out not to matter at all. Readers are bringing their own experiences into the story with them and interpreting things in all sorts of ways. We have a lot of great class discussions about those ‘missing pieces’. In fact, there is so much room for readers to bring their own experiences to bear into the story, that many of my students have been saying your story is their favorite one of the semester.”
My lesson from this experience was ‘you never have to include as much background information as you think you do.’ You need to know that information to write the story. But your readers do not need that information to feel the story. When you know that information, you can make your characters act believably. Some people might consider it a waste to spend time writing material that will be cut from the story in the end, but those pages are necessary to write. Your readers will be able to tell enough about your characters from what you include in the story to be able to follow along.
Trust your readers.
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