I need someone to look at my story. Can you help me?
A little history. I used to be a writer, or at least, I was trying to be one. I’ve been doing other work since then, but a while ago, I pulled out an old story from the drawer. Years ago, other writers in my class had told me this story was good, but I didn’t know what to do with it then. Maybe I wasn’t ready to do anything with it then.
But I looked at it, and I saw that yes, this had something, but how I would write it now is very different. So I started to revise. It grew and evolved and I’ve revised and revised and revised, I’ve put it away and pulled it out and revised again, and it’s not working. I don’t know why it’s not right yet, but it’s just not.
I’ve paid for a manuscript evaluation with a professional writer I trust. I thought they would tell me what to do to fix it, but I’m left with even more questions about this story.
Maybe this isn’t meant to be? Is this story even worthy of being written? Can you take a look at my story and tell me?
Tell Me What To Write
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Dear Tell Me What To Write,
There’s two ways I can handle this. I can do what you are asking for, bill you for a manuscript evaluation, read your story, tell you its strengths and weaknesses, what I think you need to examine next, take your money and send you on your way. I did see a really cosy pair of overpriced organic cotton sweatpants that I could use, so I have to admit, this is a tempting way to go.
I suspect, however, I’m not going to tell you anything that you weren’t already told in the evaluation you’ve paid for, which means you will only end up in the same place as you are now, except with twice as many questions. And so I must regretfully say no, cosy organic sweatpants, mama cannot take you home from the store today.
So let me look at the other way I can handle this, which is to explain why you don’t need what you think you need, and what you really need instead.
I haven’t read your work, but I can tell you that you’re probably a good writer. You wrote a story that was good enough that even years later, you could still see something worthwhile in it. That’s pretty amazing in and of itself.
And clearly, you know some stuff about craft. I mean sure, there might be more craft stuff you need to figure out, but who doesn’t have craft stuff to figure out? But you’ve had some writing education, and you can look at your own work and see, yes, this still isn’t quite there yet.
And whatever is in this story, it means enough to you that you’re willing to see it through draft after draft to get it where it needs to be.
So you are not lacking in the basics of writing. It’s not like someone is going to look at your work and say, “This waterfall description is nice, but next time you might want to consider actually having a plot? And maybe some characters? Just a thought.”
And so now, the issue for you is figuring out your own intentions for this story, and how that interacts with what the story really wants to be. Revision is all about managing this relationship. We started the story with some ideas or at least, the sparks of some ideas, and the story has some ideas of its own of what it wants to be, and somewhere in the midst of this joint exploration, you’ll find something that makes the both of you happy.
I think the writer who gave you the manuscript evaluation did right by you and the story by leaving you with questions rather than a specific direction. You and the story are still exploring, and so the manuscript evaluation is playing a less annoying version of Microsoft Clippy (“It looks like you’re writing a letter”) by telling you about where it looks like you are going, and asking you if that’s where you want to go.
But all that said, I think you probably know where this wants to go, but for some reason, you are afraid to go there. You’ve revised and revised and revised, you’ve sought help, you are left with questions. Your story is sitting there, softly singing to itself, “If you don’t know me by now….”
Maybe this story needs to be radically different in some way that you are resisting. Maybe it’s fiction that really wants to be a memoir, but you are afraid of spilling the whole vulnerable truth on the page. Maybe it’s a short story that wants to be a novel, but you are afraid of the work involved. Maybe there’s a scene you need to write, something tricky like a sex scene or a death scene or something way outside of your comfort zone, and you’ve run out of ways to avoid writing it.
The story doesn’t want to stay in your comfort zone. It wants you go somewhere else. You can decorate the house with all the shells and sand you want, but it’s never going to be the beach. You have to leave your house and go to the beach.
But you asked me another question, which I think is the heart of the issue for you: is this worthy of being written?
What does it mean for this to be worthy for you? Do you mean, will this story launch your writing career into fame and fortune? Will this story change your life? Will this story make money, win awards, get published, etc? Will this story convince the world or at least the people around you that it’s okay for you to take space to write? That’s asking a lot out of this one story.
The arbitrarily calculated “worth” of a story doesn’t say anything about whether you should or should not write it.
Do you want to write this story? Clearly you do—why else would you revise and revise and revise? That’s all you need to decide if this is worth doing.
And since it is worth doing, then it’s worth doing with all the bravery and self-honesty and trust in yourself that good writing needs. Do right by this story by not taking half-measures out of fear.
You say you used to be a writer. Let me just say, you are a writer. You have never stopped being a writer. You just stopped believing in yourself. That’s not a question a manuscript evaluation can answer for you.
I believe you know what this story needs. I believe you want to write it the way it wants to be written. I believe you are capable of doing it. Everything you’ve said in this brief letter gives me evidence of this.
But tell you what to write? I could look at your story, take your money, buy my sweatpants, but ultimately, you’re the only one who can answer that question.
Yes to all of this! Beautiful letter. 💛
*BAM* Yes, this spoke to me. In many, many ways...but you knew that already. I am trying to get to the beach, day by day, shell by shell. And some days I'm driving the bus to get there, but more often it seems to the manuscript in the driver's seat. Thank you, as always, for your amazing words of wisdom. I am so happy to leave behind the "I used to be a writer" reference. We ARE writers, and I so appreciate your support in helping me find my worth. Now, how can we get you those sweatpants??