“Trees Go to Heaven” got a revise-and-resubmit request from the very first journal I sent it to. The editors suggested two things: tighten up the dialogue, and expand on the relationship between the brothers, Marty and Vayne. Both suggestions made sense to me, but the latter seemed particularly astute. When I had first started jotting down notes for the story, there was no Vayne, just the narrator (Saul) and Marty. It was only later, as the full story began to take shape, that I realized a character like Vayne was necessary to make it work.
And so I tightened up the dialogue and expanded on the Marty-Vayne relationship, mostly in the first section, and sent it back in. The story was rejected again. When I looked back at it a few months later, I realized that the Marty-Vayne additions had actually cluttered the action. It wasn’t a bad exercise to have gone through; among other things, fleshing out the brothers’ relationship led to some important tweaks later in the story. But I deleted probably 75% of the new material before sending the story out again. (That said, some of my favorite lines are in the bits I kept!)
I think this experience raises some interesting questions. First and foremost: Whose story is it? I think what I decided—what the experience of revising and partly un-revising sedimented for me—was that it’s Saul’s story. The brothers are important, of course; Marty’s gesture at the climax is the reason I wanted to write the story in the first place. In this sense, I may “want” it to be Marty’s story; Marty may be the character I feel closest to. But Saul’s response—his hesitation, his leaving the scene, his conflicted feelings and anger afterward—these are really the key to the story.
The above also raises broader questions about first-person observer (or observer-participant, or whatever) narration. Is it as much an oxymoron as “limited omniscient”? Why would an author choose to tell a story through a character’s eyes if not to reveal something about them as much as about the ostensible protagonist? And if the lens, and the reader’s attention, are turned back onto the narrator… well, whose story is it?
Is observer-participant narration a sort of double-bind, with the focus helpless but to oscillate across the hyphen? Can a story have its cake and eat it, too? (If not in fiction, then where?)
CRAIG BERNARDINI’s fiction has appeared most recently in Conjunctions, Juked, and Puerto del Sol. He teaches English at Hostos Community College, a City University of New York school in the Bronx, and occasionally blogs about music at Helldriver’s Pit Stop, on the CUNY Academic Commons. He lives in the hills of Dutchess County, New York with his partner, dogs, cats, and chickens.