The Lives Our Stories Lead

I’ve been following a fascinating discussion of my story “Night Bird Soaring” over at the Escape Pod forums, which has gotten me thinking a lot about some of the editorial choices I made with this story and about how stories take on a life of their own after publication.

The ending is a point of argument among the commenters who think it brings the story around into the realm of fantasy, and early in this discussion, I was really kind of kicking myself for a decision I made during the final edit with my editor at GUD; it had been suggested that I cut two lines at the end because she thought what I meant was clear enough without it (I’m not going to say what these two lines were, for reasons I’ll go into a little later.). I hedged on it a bit before finally deciding “Well, if she thinks it’s clear, then it must be,” and so chopped the lines and didn’t think about it anymore.

Until Rich Horton’s review came out in Locus a couple months later, and I realized he’d read the ending in a way I completely didn’t intend it to read. I was kind of grinding my teeth about it, but not many others mentioned the same issue with the ending, and then the award nominations/recommendations started rolling in. Obviously the ending as it was reading wasn’t killing the story, so why worry?

Fast forward to earlier this week and immediately commenters started expressing dissatisfaction with the “fantasy-feel” of the ending. Not at all surprising to me when I saw it, but still I was a bit angry at myself for that editorial decision I made 4 years ago. I had considered reinserting the original cut lines when I submitted to Escape Pod, so the ending would read the way I’d intended, but I couldn’t get past the whole idea that I would be altering it significantly. I’ve never been fond of alternate endings on movies or reissues of books with all the material that was cut in the original edition put back in. It’s kind of like insisting on determining your kid’s life path after they’ve reached adulthood. I thought about posting to the thread to tell everyone “well, this is what I’d originally intended, but such and such got cut, blah, blah.”

But then the conversation started getting really interesting as folks started picking apart what the whole fantasy angle at the end might mean in the largest context of the story’s universe, and I suddenly realized: Who gives a shit what I’d intended? I was told long ago when I first started writing that no one cares what I intended, only what the story tells them, and I’m not going to be there to hold the reader’s hand while they read and explain everything to them. This was in context to clear writing and plotline, but I think it applies in a broader sense too. Once you publish a story, it aught to stand on its own, and whatever you intended doesn’t matter anymore; all that matters is the story as the reader will understand it. It’s no longer your baby to mold and direct and it now has it’s own life and will make its own way.

And quite honestly, I don’t feel so angry at myself anymore about that choice I made 4 years ago (and yes, it was my choice to cut the lines. There was no pressure from my editor). My story is living a fascinating life thanks to that choice, undoubtedly more fascinating than the one I’d intended for it, and I think it’s rather cool. Whatever I’d intended, it just doesn’t matter anymore.