Pep & Prompt #5: What’s the point?

Another rejection came rolling into my inbox this morning. <le sigh, meh, arg, etc>

It’s a short story I’ve sent out a lot, and it’s been rejected every single time. It’s a story I’m actually really happy with, but hey – so it goes – no time to mope. Time instead to give it the treatment I give all my stories at this point in the submissions cycle: re-read, re-edit, reconsider, tweak, polish, find a new potential home, and send it out again.

Exceeeept it still wasn’t right.

I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it just _ wasn’t _ right.

And so I sat and I stared at it. And thought about it. And asked myself: What’s the actual point of this story? 

Gif of Carrie Brownstein in Portlandia sitting on a boat saying "what's the point?"

I mean, I knew what happened in the story. I knew who my characters were and what they wanted and how they felt and what they needed to say, but I also knew there was still something missing. Another layer. Some deeper meaning that I hadn’t quite figured out. And no amount of rewrites and pedantic comma-adjustments were gonna fix it.

Because there’s a difference between what a story is about and what it’s really about.

As Grand Duchess of literature Maggie Atwood says:

“There’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told. Then there’s what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too.”

And it hit me like a brick.

I thought my story was about one thing, but it was really about something quite different.

All my ‘successful’ stories seem to innately nail this concept. All my unpublished, perma-rejected stories do not. Some of them I’ve never managed to finish at all. Others have been subbed and rejected over and over; some have even been longlisted or shortlisted or received praiseworthy feedback but they’ve never quite hit the mark, and despite my frustration, somewhere deep down, I knew they weren’t ready. They lacked a POINT.

So I took another look at my back catalogue of imperfect stories. I asked each one: “What’s the point of you?” And I slowly realised that I had three or four half-finished, meandering, unfocused story fragments that were all about the same thing, under the surface. I started connecting the dots and weaving the threads, and I realised that my subconscious mind reeeeally wanted to write about that feeling of invincibility and freedom you have as a child versus the irrational, sometimes dark fears of childhood. Somehow, I’d managed to write a handful of stories that were about entirely different things but all kept coming back to the same point. And – more importantly – I could potentially merge them all together.

Suddenly, all these abandoned, unsatisfactory, kinda blah attempts at storytelling combined to create a cohesive train of thought, all heading towards a tangible and meaningful ending.

I also realised that it was going to take a shit-tonne of work to make this happen. But so it goes. At least I knew what was wrong, how to fix it, and what the freaking point of it all was.

All this to say:

  • Sometimes it can take time (some of those stories have been banging around my hard drive for more than five years)
  • Sometimes you can’t see clearly until you take a step back
  • Sometimes your subconscious mind is much cleverer than you are
  • Sometimes what you think you’re writing about isn’t actually what you’re writing about
  • And no writing is wasted

Ready to write? Here’s your exercise for today:

Take a piece of writing – a short story, a scene or chapter from your novel, or script, or whatever – and ask yourself these questions three:

  1. What’s the story about? (i.e. what physically happens in your story?)
  2. Yes, but what’s the story REALLY about? (i.e. what’s the deeper, more metaphorical point?)
  3. And how can you connect the two? (i.e. how do 1 & 2 reflect and reinforce and contrast with one another?)

Once you’ve discovered the point of your story, it should help you see what’s wrong, and how to fix it. Whether it’s a structural issue that needs bolstering with a subplot thread, or a character who needs a little development using your story’s newly discovered inner meaning, or the perfect ending to tie everything together.

And whenever you feel like something’s not-quite-right-but-you’re-not-sure-why, ask: What’s the point? 

Have a think, do some scribbling, and make a brand new plan of action for a neglected, long-buried, unfinished, or half-baked story. Because once you have a point, great things will happen…

Gif of Paul Rudd in Anchorman pointing and gesturing broadly.
Jo Gatford

Jo Gatford

Jo is a writer who procrastinates about writing by writing about writing. She looks exactly like her avatar.
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