Twice-told tales

What do you do with a story that keeps revealing itself, even when you think you're done with it?

I understand that stories — not unlike paintings or sculpture or filmmaking or any kind of artistic endeavor — start out with a rough sketch that, with time, smooths into a recognizable structure and ideally, becomes something that not only has form and shape, but meaning.

What I think is interesting is in the writing of a story that doesn't seem to want to be finished, or which constantly shows me new avenues or directions if I just query it in certain ways.

I went back to The Grove comments. (The most positive commenter even took the time to go through the pages and synopsis and make notes on the pages, which is really above and beyond the call, so I'm attending to those as I go through all three evaluations.) And in trying to match up the problems they saw in the story and the story I thought was done, the truth is I don't disagree. Hearing them say, in essence, that there's dust under the rug and you should sweep it up rather than hoping it isn't noticed, is useful. I knew it was there. I thought I could be clever enough to let it pass muster. It doesn't.

And so, things change. Not a lot. I don't have to rearrange the furniture in the room, or tear down the house to make a new place to live. It's not structural. There's just some cleaning up, some dust. And in the dusting this afternoon, something revealed itself: A whole new expansion of the B-story that propels the motivation of one of the lead characters.

So when this shows up, when the story tells me something about it that I had never, ever thought of before — but which I seem to have laid breadcrumbs down for — I end up wondering: Am I overthinking? Am I going a touch-up too far, and after this all the colors blend into a mess? (And can I mix some more metaphors along the way?) I don't know. All I know is that figuring out this addition helps put things into place that felt disjointed before. It will require rethreading through the whole book, a few rewritten scenes, and one additional one. (Which means more cutting elsewhere; this thing is getting ungainly long and that's not good.) I think it will make the story better.

But it makes me wonder — if this is something I hadn't seen before, which makes the story better, how do I know when the book is really done? I thought it was done. Now it seems it isn't. How do you know when the story's really finished?

After this, the synopsis which really does blow. And I've had some help with the query letter (thanks, Mike!) so there's that, too. Maybe all of this means when I next send the package out it'll look snazzy in its new duds. And maybe someone else will just see some more threads dangling.



Meanwhile, in writer-related news, Mark Helprin wrote a column (get it while it's hot, get it while its free) in today's New York Times. (Mark Helprin has written numerous books and short stories, including the excreable "Freddy and Frederika," one of the few books of last year I just couldn't finish due to outright stupidity.) In it, he goes against the grain of many who argue that copyrights — whether for music or books or other kinds of artistic expression — should be fair, but not excessive. The theory that the copyrightists of today have is, among other things, that we all pull our creative impulses from a common stewpot, and that it is the duty of the artist to, within a reasonable period of time after original publication or release, give back to the common good so that others may continue to draw from the same well.

That's actually a position I wholeheartedly support.

Helprin, on the other hand, has a different point of view. The headline (which I'm sure he didn't write, but which sums things up nicely) is, "A great idea lives forever. Shouldn't its copyright?"

Um, no.

WHAT if, after you had paid the taxes on earnings with which you
built a house, sales taxes on the materials, real estate taxes during
your life, and inheritance taxes at your death, the government would
eventually commandeer it entirely? This does not happen in our society
… to houses. Or to businesses. Were you to have ushered through the
many gates of taxation a flour mill, travel agency or newspaper, they
would not suffer total confiscation.

Once the state has dipped
its enormous beak into the stream of your wealth and possessions they
are allowed to flow from one generation to the next. Though they may be
divided and diminished by inflation, imperfect investment, a
proliferation of descendants and the government taking its share, they
are not simply expropriated.

That is, unless you own a copyright.
Were I tomorrow to write the great American novel (again?), 70 years
after my death the rights to it, though taxed at inheritance, would be
stripped from my children and grandchildren. To the claim that this
provision strikes malefactors of great wealth, one might ask, first,
where the heirs of Sylvia Plath berth their 200-foot yachts. And,
second, why, when such a stiff penalty is not applied to the owners of
Rockefeller Center or Wal-Mart, it is brought to bear against legions
of harmless drudges who, other than a handful of literary plutocrats
(manufacturers, really), are destined by the nature of things to be no
more financially secure than a seal in the Central Park Zoo.

Okay, I'm going to pretend I didn't see that incredibly pompous parenthetical in the first line of the second graf where he intimates he already wrote the Great American Novel. (Hopefully he doesn't mean "Freddy.") You know what? I don't have any sympathy for his children and grandchildren. Or Sylvia Plath's. Art is not the same as real estate, is not the same as Wal-Mart (and for all of that we can be thankful). Any descendants I may have did not write whatever I wrote, any more than Helprin's children wrote what he wrote. (They should have bylines if they did.) He is welcome to negotiate whatever he likes in contract form to ensure they get some kind of revenues but you know what? Copyright, set up by the U.S. government, isn't there to protect that right. It shouldn't be. There is a reasonable period of time in which a person can create a work and own all rights to it. Right now, it's something like after the death of the author, plus 50-70 years. (My knowledge is imprecise; I'm venting, not researching.) And that's well long enough. It's probably too long, frankly. Fifty to seventy years after my death I'd be thrilled beyond measure if anyone still knew the title of anything I wrote, much less read it or wanted to use it outside of copyright. And Helprin should be, too.

Spider Robinson puts it quite nicely in his short story, "Melancholy Elephants" (thank you, Boing Boing):

" `Ars longa, vita brevis est,' " she said at last. "There's
been comfort of a kind in that for thousands of years. But art is long,
not infinite. `The Magic goes away.' One day we will use it up—unless
we can learn to recycle it like any other finite resource." Her voice
gained strength. "Senator, that bill has to fail, if I have to take you
on to do it. Perhaps I can't win—but I'm going to fight you! A
copyright must not be allowed to last more than fifty years—after which
it should be flushed from the memory banks of the Copyright Office. We
need selective voluntary amnesia if Discoverers of Art are to continue
to work without psychic damage. Fact should be remembered—but dreams?"
She shivered. ". . . Dreams should be forgotten when we wake. Or one
day we will find ourselves unable to sleep. Given eight billion artists
with effective working lifetimes in excess of a century, we can no
longer allow individuals to own their discoveries in perpetuity. We
must do it the way the human race did it for a million years—by
forgetting, and rediscovering. Because one day the infinite number of
monkeys will have nothing else to write except the complete works of Shakespeare. And they would probably rather not know that when it happens."

Head over here to help craft a response (it's a Wiki!) to Helprin's gibbering. As I say, we all pull from the common creative stew to craft our stories (even the ones that won't stop telling themselves). We have a duty to toss our discoveries back into the pot after a reasonable time. So does Helprin.