After the Soufflé Falls

Some thoughts on revision with quotes from Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

by Lucian Childs

Cross-posted from 49 Writers.

“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”

Call me Clarissa. I like to give a good dinner party. I like a smart table full of good food, conversation, and laughs.

What are the elements of a successful dinner party? Setting, a beautifully appointed table. Characters, having the right mix of personalities. Dialog, people skilled at repartee and anecdote. Action over time. Timing when each dish should be served. Sound familiar? These are also the elements of a good story.

Like Virginia Wolf’s Clarissa Dalloway, I plan dinner parties obsessively. My partner and I pour through recipes and audition them in what we jokingly call our “test kitchen.” We make a list of ingredients and, like her, scurry around town acquiring them. This kind of fastidiousness is great for meal planning, but it’s a terrible way to begin a story. In writing, E. L. Doctorow reminds us, “You start from nothing.”

But preparing a meal without knowing what we’re cooking makes us crazy, so we plan our recipes anyway. But what if that recipe isn’t a map, but just one set of possibilities? What if, when we get into the kitchen, we decide to use curry in the dish instead of pesto, as we’d planned, or instead of our protagonist mutely plodding to work, we turn him into a cockroach? We don’t have to throw out our recipes entirely; we’ve worked too hard on them for that. But the way we navigate through them should be governed by serendipity.

“The world wavered and quivered and threatened to burst into flames.”

Know this, all you Clarissas out there. Your soufflé will fall. To pull off a soufflé requires delicacy and skill. Locating the heart of your story requires the same. You will fail at both. Repeatedly.

What do you do when your story deflates into mush in the oven? Go back to your list of ingredients you bought for the meal. The shorter the list, the better. Constraints limit your opportunity to paint yourself into a corner.

Because clearly the soufflé isn’t working for you, ask yourself what elements already present in your story can you use to create an entirely new dish? Here are some suggestions:

·      Fiction is told through action. Our characters have to interact with externals (a thing, a person.) What externals are already present in your story? Can you use them in a different manner to propel the action?

·      Ask yourself again, what does your protagonist really want and why can’t she get it? Go ahead, amp up the obstacles, but let her character reveal itself in a way you didn’t expect.

·      Which story elements in the original are essential and require your sustained commitment? If you’ve added four tablespoons of chili to the sauce back in Chapter One, there’s really no turning back. Everything else you do must support that decision.

“Cleverness was silly. One must say simply what one felt.”

Here’s something Mrs. Dalloway knows: sometimes a basic salad is best. Throw away your trickery. I know you want to write a story with a complex time signature. I know you’ve plotted your characters’ personal histories back six generations. But really, some baby kale, and a little vinegar and oil are all you need.

Don’t pile on the spices either. Experiment with new combinations of ingredients already in your story. What happens if the young protagonist doesn’t reconcile with her father? What happens if a character barely mentioned in an early draft becomes a central flavor?

Simplify the timing of the courses. Information served too heavily or too quickly overwhelms the reader’s ability to directly experience the story, the chief joy of fiction. Look at your rate of reveal. Ask yourself, what does the reader need to know and when does she need to know it?

“Life stands still here.”

So, you’ve got a bunch of people in the other room waiting to be fed. You’ve got these ingredients in your story that aren’t quite congealing. How to move forward without a recipe?

·      Slow down. Let the elements in your story speak to you. Trust your subconscious. Subconscious: what a word! It scrubs the magic out of what happens when we abandon our plans and rely on our intuition.

·      Refine your sentences. Layer them with specificity. Let them drive you into the heart of the matter. As Annie Proulx says, “Carefully constructed sentences cast a tint of indefinable substance over a story.”

·      Reduce the sauce. Let go of your pre-writing and backstory work. Thicken your understanding of your character and her predicament by letting go of what you think you know about her.

“Mrs. Dalloway is always giving parties to cover the silence.”

The end of a dinner party is always tricky. When will that silence come, after which the guests begin to shyly signal their partners it’s time to head home? Finding the end of a story is even trickier. It’s a moment of extreme delicacy that should surprise both you and the reader. I don’t believe you can find it through planning. If you get out of the way, though, you can bring your ingredients to a deep conclusion and, like the first guest who takes his napkin from his lap and pushes his chair from the table, everybody will know it’s time to go.