Sunday, July 01, 2007

The Flow of Water

A few weeks ago, as I finished a morning of revisions, I realized that something was different in the way that I felt about the most recent draft of a work-in-progress.

I had reached a new stage in the process.

Often, as I set off on drafts--first drafts, especially--I rarely have any idea where I'm going. I step into the water and let the current take me and pray that I'll find my way to the end of the story.

It takes many revisions before I have a clear idea of where the story is flowing, and even then it's rare that I can find my way further downstream without worrying about the ending.

But this time, with the ending firmly in sight, I found that I could pay attention to the details of scenes close at hand: a bend in the river, an unexpected pool, a steep decline toward a smooth stretch of river, a few hundred yards of rapids.

When I don't yet know the ending, the writing feels like a mad rush to get words on paper before the story dissolves in a crash of waves or disappears beneath the surface.

But once the first draft is done, or, rather, once the ending appears, I can use that draft as a helpful outline of sorts to work my way into the next draft... and the next... so that each draft helps deepen my understanding of the story.

At a certain stage in the process, instead of rushing past scenes to discover what happens next, I find myself spending more time with the characters--learning who they are, what they might do, where they might go.

The time that I spend slowing down and feeling my way into the skins of each character helps me better understand what happens next in a story. Plus, slowing down gives me a chance to focus on details to flesh out a character, as well as on how scenes can be connected and how the pieces of a plot can help build suspense.

When you slow down like this, you can submerge yourself in a scene, swim from moment to moment, and emerge at the end of the scene ... and continue downstream... without fearing that you'll lose the thread of the story.

Here's what Bernard Malamud once said about his revision process:
“I would write a book, or a short story, at least three times--once to understand it, the second time to improve the prose, and a third to compel it to say what it still must say. Somewhere I put it this way: first drafts are for learning what one's fiction wants him to say. Revision works with that knowledge to enlarge and enhance an idea, to re-form it. Revision is one of the exquisite pleasures of writing.”
Lately, the more time that I spend on revisions, the more I'm beginning to understand Malamud's approach toward revision as "one of the exquisite pleasures of writing."

If you're wrestling with a story, not quite sure about the "exquisite pleasure" of revision, perhaps it might help to think of first drafts as access-roads into the mystery, a way to carve a path into unknown territory that's never been mapped before.

Once you've finished your first draft, you've got a map, a way of understanding where your story's going. And that knowledge can help you deepen the story as you accumulate more and more insights into why certain characters act the way they do.

As you learn more about your story and your characters in each draft, you may find that you can begin taking greater risks without fear of losing the story.

With a first draft in your drawer, you can swim forward knowing how the story unfolds and spend more time exploring the thread that links one scene to the next and how the character's main struggle drives the narrative forward like a current pulsing under the surface of the water.

You no longer have to worry about where the current will lead you. Instead, you can fill in empty spaces, answer questions, deepen characters, and fine-tune the plot.

Each draft is a different stage in the flow of your story, the process of your story becoming... a story.

If you're interested in more information about the revision process, you might visit:

And for an interview with Bernard Malamud in The Paris Review, take a look at:


Jack said...

The metaphor of shooting a series of rapids in a rush downstream is an apt description for a first draft. Like you, perhaps, I've been using those quiet pools in between the rapids as opportunities to get to know the character a little better, and give the reader a few clues about who he is.

Glad to have the links to info on the revision process.

Barbara W. Klaser said...

You've captured a point in the process that I recognize. I like that point at which I can lose myself in a scene and not worry anymore about where the story is headed.