I’m truly a believer in lifelong learning, that no matter how much you know, or think you know, you’re learning everyday. With my first novel on its way in a couple months, I am well aware that I have a great deal of learning to do when it comes to writing.
That said, as I’ve gone from the story in my mind, to my first draft, through revisions, and finally to that final draft set to print, I’ve had to learn a few lessons and had to make some shifts in my thinking to get me there. Thoughts that might be useful to writers out there now, with their stories in their minds, with first chapters written or even first drafts, who are struggling with where to go next.
One such lesson, or shift in thought that I had to make, was to let go of the notion that the story in my mind will be the story in a reader’s mind when I am done and the book is out. I’ve come to understand that this will not be the case, and in fact could never be the case. Was I to describe every detail of setting, every detail of a character’s appearance, every thought each character has, and all the backstory each character carries, I suspect I wouldn’t live long enough to finish even one story. Thus, we as writers streamline the details to what we feel is most important for our readers to experience, and what best serves our plot. Everything else, everything we omit from the vision in our mind, then becomes open to interpretation by the reader.
The story that reaches the page is only an approximation of the story in an author’s mind, and from those words, a brand new story is created in the mind of each reader. Their story is unique from any other reader’s and twice removed from the original thoughts. Can a story ever truly be told? I would submit that the answer is no. Only an approximation of the story can be told.
Some of this might seem obvious, but acknowledging it becomes particularly important when rewriting and refining your work. After a writer has their first draft, it can seem like cutting a part of yourself, to undergo editing pieces of your story away. But, in almost all cases, it is necessary to do so in order to make your writing the best it can be – in order to create a work that is dense with captivating content, even when that means cutting vivid details, thoughts, emotions and yes even sometime plot.
The story in your mind will always be far greater than the story that fits into your book. You’ll always have plot that leads up to the beginning of your novel, plot that continues after your novel, backstories for characters that don’t effect this specific plot line enough to warrant inclusion, details of settings that were simply too elaborate to include while maintaining the speed of your plot through your book.
What reaches the page will always be merely an approximation of your story. Accepting this allows you to understand that cutting the book doesn’t change your story; it only changes the approximation of your story that the book holds. Thus, rather than aim to tell your story on the page, you must aim to create the best reader experience of your story that you can. Creating a better reader experience only stands to improve your readership and allow you to continue to tell stories.
Besides that, there’s other good news. For if you could get every detail of the story onto the page, you the writer would then be useless to the story. The story would exist, and you would no longer matter. However, as it is, when you hold so much more story in your mind, you always have more to offer to those who care to dig further. When fans seek you out to answer questions they have from your book, you have a great deal of additional information to provide - more details, more experiences, more side stories, more background, and maybe even more novels.
* Note, the examples and descriptions of this essay reflect the creation process for a novel, however many of the same ideas could be applied to a short story, a poem, a song, a painting, or any other narrative from of expression. Speaking to one scenario only serves to keep the thought concise.