This is such a great series on discovering character. Check out what Mima learned about viewpoint here.
Welcome to part two of my post about the process of writing my YA short story “Waiting for Alice”. ***Spoiler Alert*** Just to tell you, this blog post contains story spoilers. Read the full version of “Waiting for Alice” in the first issue of Sucker Literary Magazine at http://suckerliterarymagazine.wordpress.com/.
Can You Hear Me Now? When Characters Speak Through Revision, Part Two
(In which Mima continues her search for the story’s ending)
...What I did know in this draft was what Mia saw Angie doing at the dance:
Out in the hall, tucked into the dark space between a corner and a bank of lockers, she is wrapped around a junior boy she called “sorta cute” a couple of times. Their faces press together joined with suction cup mouths. Angie’s arms twist high and tight around his neck. But his hands, fingers spread, move freely, writhing and sliding over her boobs, then slip down, down and around to hike up her short skirt…(“Peer Pressure,” 9)
I also knew that Mia’s response (as in the original bit in “Faerie Games”) was to find the Edmo character, and rush into an ill-fated kiss that would make her “run to the bathroom and scrub…[her]…mouth over and over” (“Peer Pressure,” 10). These images were as clear to me as my memory of the actual event. What was not clear was where the progression would lead Mia. Ideas surfaced, but none gelled to an ending.
The unfinished story draft, now titled “The Alice Effect” (Mia’s initiation to high school seeming very like a down-the-rabbit-hole experience) went to my VCFA first semester advisor, Uma Krishnaswami. She suggested I read more stories with a second person viewpoint, advising me to “go a little deeper, think about your reasons for using…[second person]…, justify them and it will deepen the work” (Krishnaswami, Letter, 5/6/08). I followed Uma’s advice, and continued to revise.
The changes I made, however, were all about the first two of Kaplan’s revision definitions: style and structure. What I didn’t change about the story, and I believe it is important to note this here, was my instinctive feel that second person was the right viewpoint. Three other aspects of the story also did not change: Mia still watched Angie’s every move closely; Mia still had the brownie kiss encounter; and finally, Mia’s story still had no ending. What this—both what I changed and what I did not—shows me is that even though revision pushed me to get at the heart of Mia’s self-alienation, and even though her story did not have an ending, there were character and story elements that I didn’t change because deep down they felt right.
The next draft, still unfinished, went to VCFA as my fall, 2008 workshop submission, and I determined not to work on it again until I’d received comments. My writing journal shows, however, that the story was on my mind: “July 10, 2008…It freaked me out to hear…[two of my VCFA workshop-mates, pre-workshop]…talk about my YA short that way. It was like I had to get away from them fast” (Tipper, Journal). During the encounter this entry details, I believe one of my workshop-mates asked me if Mia was gay, or possibly told me she was gay. I remember being dumbstruck—as my journal shows—but later being curious. Here’s the next day’s entry:
July 11, 2008…I thought about “The Alice…” and maybe my character will turn to her journal at the end—take back that I voice in writing that will reclaim her soul. Is she a lesbian? Is she worried about that? Will she gain a sense of humor? Write a rap song? I’m not sure, but she will want to get out of the rabbit hole. …Is she in love with Angie? I don’t think so, but she is curious about her and where her head is. Why it seems so easy for her just to grow and feel and be, where she cannot. Mia stands back and watches. (Tipper, Journal)
The ensuing workshop discussion about the story was vivid, and often heated. People made the more expected comments: about whether the second person voice worked; about the structure; about wanting more of Mia’s feelings as opposed to her observations about Angie, etc. etc. But what really struck me was that many of my colleagues, including the two from that earlier encounter, talked about Mia in a way that was completely not as I’d thought of her. Like a window cracking open, I realized that something was going on with my character; something of which I, her creator, was very possibly not aware.
Back home (and determined to find the story’s end) I turned to my next revision, again focusing on style and structure. I thought about the possibility of Mia’s being gay, but clung in the end to the belief that I would have known that about her at the beginning. This choice comes through clearly in the following passage from a letter Martine asked me to write from my protagonist’s viewpoint about the yearnings of her secret heart. I chose Mia’s letter to be to her best friend, now renamed Stacey:
The thing is I’m stuck in my head. I wish I could stop thinking about how weird everything is, how weird I am, but I can’t do that either. I’m this freaky eyeball who watches everything and everyone around me like I’m outside my body. I don’t want to be like that. I want to be like you and “just be”. You know, experience stuff without getting all twisted up inside. I just don’t know if I can do it. (“Mia’s Letter,” 8/28/08)
Choosing Mia’s letter to be to Stacey told me more about Mia’s fixation on her friend, but I chalked that element up to: first, the story being mostly about the two girls, and second, that it seemed a natural teen choice to confide in a best friend.
With the letter before me, I continued revising, still focusing on style and structure, and now including: the image of a scrutinizing eyeball dogging Mia; lines indicating how her parents’ divorce exacerbated her feelings of depression and isolation; and dialogue and narration to give the whole story a more active tone. I also found the following ending:
Snap—the night and everything that’s come before—tastes, smells, touches, Stacey, Mom, Dad, Alec—crowd in, all alive inside you. Makeup drips into your eyes and you rub at them, at your cheeks, until all that’s left is your face staring into the mirror, pale and shiny and clean.
Three girls you don’t know come into the bathroom. They smile at you like they’ve never seen you before. And, you realize, they haven’t. You smile back, looking beyond them to the door. Snap—Come on Mia!
Out. (“The Alice Effect,” 12)
This ending’s great revelation supported my initial presumption of the story’s meaning: that Mia, as a sexually awkward teen pressured by a newly sexy best friend, chooses in the end to stay on her own awkward path. Here’s part of Martine’s response, particularly to the ending:
I kept thinking that something big would be revealed at the end, something that explained this blue funk, this out-of-body eyeball thing. I really thought she was going to tell us she was gay! Because… because why does she act jealous when the boy shows up with Stacey? And why does she watch Stacey undress and get so affected by it? Why does she stand so long watching Stacey and the boy making out? And then… it ends. Are you sure she’s not gay? When I read the letter from Mia, I thought, maybe I just missed it and she will confess it in her letter… (Leavitt, Letter, 8/28/08)
Martine’s words surprised me. Not the part where she thought Mia was gay—after all, I’d heard that before—but how she focused on Mia’s actions. I’d described Mia’s observations as effectively as I could but hadn’t truly examined how Mia watched Stacey. Was she jealous when she observed Stacey in her new clothes the first day of school? Why was she focusing on Stacey being undressed? Or making out in the hallway? I’d thought Mia was both depressed and fascinated by her friend’s changes; what I wondered now though was, what was the true nature of this depression and fascination?
Next: find out what Mima discovers about Alice in the final installment!
This series ran originally on the Hen & Ink Literary Studio blog last January at http://henandinkblots.wordpress.com/. Also a freshly updated version of my interview with Sucker’s editor-in-chief, Hannah Goodman, is up this week on Through the Tollbooth at http://www.throughthetollbooth.com/ and I’m also guesting on Lindsey Lane’s blog for “Quotable Tuesday” this week at http://www.lindseylane.net/blog/