Guest Blogger Lucian Childs | After the Soufflé Falls

Some thoughts on revision 
with quotes from
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”
Call me Clarissa. I like to give a good dinner party. I like a smart
table full of good food, conversation, and laughs.
What are the elements of a successful dinner party? Setting, a
beautifully appointed table. Characters, having the right mix of personalities.
Dialog, people skilled at repartee and anecdote. Action over time. Timing when
each dish should be served. Sound familiar? These are also the elements of a
good story.
Like Virginia Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway, I plan dinner parties
obsessively. My partner and I pour through recipes and audition them in what we
jokingly call our “test kitchen.” We make a list of ingredients and, like her, scurry
around town acquiring them. This kind of fastidiousness is great for meal
planning, but it’s a terrible way to begin a story. In writing, E. L. Doctorow reminds
us, “You start from nothing.”
But preparing a meal without knowing what we’re cooking makes us crazy,
so we plan our recipes anyway. But what if that recipe isn’t a map, but just
one set of possibilities? What if, when we get into the kitchen, we decide to use
curry in the dish instead of pesto, as we’d planned, or instead of our
protagonist mutely plodding to work, we turn him into a cockroach? We don’t
have to throw out our recipes entirely; we’ve worked too hard on them for that.
But the way we navigate through them should be governed by serendipity.
world wavered and quivered 
and threatened to burst into flames.”
Know this, all you Clarissas out there. Your soufflé will fall. To pull
off a soufflé requires delicacy and skill. Locating the heart of your story
requires the same. You will fail at both. Repeatedly.
What do you do when your story deflates into mush in the oven? Go back
to your list of ingredients you bought for the meal. The shorter the list, the
better. Constraints limit your opportunity to paint yourself into a corner.
Because clearly the soufflé isn’t working for you, ask yourself what
elements already
present in your story can you use to create an entirely new dish? Here
are some suggestions:
Fiction is told through action. Our characters
have to interact with externals (a thing, a person.) What externals are already
present in your story? Can you use them in a different manner to propel the
Ask yourself again, what does your protagonist
really want and why can’t she get it? Go ahead, amp up the obstacles, but let
her character reveal itself in a way you didn’t expect.
Which story elements in the original are
essential and require your sustained commitment? If you’ve added four
tablespoons of chili to the sauce back in Chapter One, there’s really no
turning back. Everything else you do must support that decision.
was silly. One must say simply what one felt.”
Here’s something Mrs. Dalloway knows: sometimes a basic salad is best.
Throw away your trickery. I know you want to write a story with a complex time
signature. I know you’ve plotted your characters’ personal histories back six
generations. But really, some baby kale, and a little vinegar and oil are all you
Don’t pile on the spices either. Experiment with new combinations of
ingredients already in your story. What happens if the young protagonist
doesn’t reconcile with her father? What happens if a character barely mentioned
in an early draft becomes a central flavor?
Simplify the timing of the courses. Information served too heavily or
too quickly overwhelms the reader’s ability to directly experience the story,
the chief joy of fiction. Look at your rate of reveal. Ask yourself, what does
the reader need to know and when does she need to know it?
stands still here.”
So, you’ve got a bunch of
people in the other room waiting to be fed. You’ve got these ingredients in your
story that aren’t quite congealing. How to move forward without a recipe?
·       Slow down. Let the elements in your story
speak to you. Trust your subconscious. Subconscious: what a word! It scrubs the
magic out of what happens when we abandon our plans and rely on our intuition.
·       Refine your sentences. Layer them with
specificity. Let them drive you into the heart of the matter. As Annie Proulx
says, “Carefully constructed sentences cast a tint of indefinable substance
over a story.”
Reduce the sauce. Let go of your pre-writing and
backstory work. Thicken your understanding of your character and her
predicament by letting go of what you think you know about her.
Dalloway is always giving parties to cover the silence.”
The end of a dinner party is always tricky. When
will that silence come, after which the guests begin to shyly signal their
partners it’s time to head home? Finding the end of a story is even trickier.
It’s a moment of extreme delicacy that should surprise both you and the reader.
I don’t believe you can find it through planning. If you get out of the way, though,
you can bring your ingredients to a deep conclusion and, like the first guest who
takes his napkin from his lap and pushes his chair from the table, everybody
will know it’s time to go.
Childs divides his time between Anchorage, Alaska and Toronto, Ontario, where
he lives with his husband. In 2013, he received a Rasmuson Foundation
Individual Artist Project Grant as well as the Prism Review Short Story Prize.
He has been awarded residencies at Brydcliffe Art Colony and at Artscape
Gibraltar Point and was a Peter Taylor Fellow at the 2015 Kenyon Review Writers
Workshop. His short fiction has appeared in
Grain, Sanskrit, The Puritan, Jelly Bucket, Quiddity, and Cirque, among others.

5 thoughts on “Guest Blogger Lucian Childs | After the Soufflé Falls”

  1. Love this! Makes me want to re-read Mrs. Dalloway. And land an invite to one of your dinner parties. 🙂

  2. Deb, glad you enjoyed this. This post came out of the thinking I've done around the rewrite of the piece you are helping me with. Especially, that bullet point about pacing and rate of reveal. Thanks!!! I should have it back to you next week. Hopefully. There are still a lot of dinner parties to attend!!! 🙂

  3. nice blog thank you for sharing this My opinion is just one set of possibilities? What if, while we get into the kitchen, we determine to use curry inside the dish rather than pesto, as we’d deliberate,I'm working at Out of Home advertising in Kochi or in place of our protagonist mutely plodding to paintings, we turn him into a cockroach? We don’t ought to throw out our recipes totally; we’ve labored too difficult on them for that. but the way we navigate via them must be ruled by serendipity.

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