Monday, April 30, 2018

Looking Between The Lines

I started a new project in February, and I found myself surprised -- the way I'm always surprised when an idea pops into my head -- that suddenly I was writing with eagerness every morning to see where this new idea might lead, curious to discover the story that might be hidden somewhere inside it.

Since then I've written many pages, and I've forced myself to go back to the beginning again and again, and to revise the manuscript's pages with an eye toward discovering what might be missing and what might be added to get the full story on the page.

Each time I begin revising again, it's like starting anew, like climbing up a ladder again, except there are words on the page, unlike when I started out in February and the pages were all blank. This evidence of having written provides some comfort and reassurance, even if the words aren't quite right.

There's still so much that's not yet on the page--even after three months of work--and which needs to be brought into the light.

Much of the revision process, I've learned over time, is trying to figure out what's not on the page but needs to be there. That's often the most frustrating part of the process, too, because although I may know that something feels like it's missing, I don't always know what might be missing or how to find what's missing (except to keep writing).

So, I've learned to work slowly, to go back to the beginning after finishing each draft, to return to the first page and try to see between the lines, to find in that empty space not only words but images and scenes and dialogue.

I try to understand the characters who are making their appearance (often shyly) on the page and who seem reluctant to let themselves be seen, as if they're worried (in the same way that I might worry) about what might happen to them if they reveal themselves fully. On some days I'll find myself with a flood of pages, while on other days, only silence.

Here's something that I don't admit to many people: I worry about making a mistake in the way I am approaching the project. I'm afraid it'll all come crumbling down or the words will turn into a mush of spaghetti before I can finish the story. I worry about not making enough mistakes. And I worry about making too many mistakes and that I'll need to ditch the entire project months from now, a total failure. Sometimes, on days when words won't come, I think revision is just another word for worry.

It helps, I've found, to sit down at the same time every day to start work, whether I have any ideas about where the day's work may take me or not. Just sitting down, opening my laptop, and beginning to type somehow loosens the words and frees my imagination so that I can re-enter the world that I've discovered on the page.

After years of working on different projects, I've learned not to be fooled into thinking that I've finished the revisions just because I happened to finish another draft. Just because words are on the page, just because I've created something that feels finished, doesn't mean it's finished.

I've had to learn how to be patient and to take a long-range view. Not weeks or months but sometimes years. And I've come to enjoy the process of beginning again... and again, even though it isn't easy on some days to be patient and enjoy the process.

What I've found, though, is that patience is often rewarded with new discoveries and new ways of understanding the story, and with these discoveries comes a greater depth and greater clarity to the story.

Layers appear as if by magic, and with each pass another layer appears that I might not have discovered if I hadn't kept working on the manuscript.

Each revision brings a new way of understanding the story, of seeing the story.

Revisions are an integral part of the writing process, a kind of miracle that lets a story unfold in unexpected ways, but only if the writer is patient and willing to return--sometimes against all odds--to begin again, and yet again, to see where the words might lead.


Graham Salisbury (Sandy) said...

That last paragraph says it all, Bruce. Revision is a miraculous, and ever so rewarding part of the process. As Dr. Seuss says, oh the places you will go! And GO you will ... Mahalo for the post.

Bruce Black said...

Thanks, Sandy, for stopping by and sharing your thoughts, which are, as always, such a treat. Hope all's well.