27 June 2012

How I got unstuck

Last week I blogged about how I felt stuck on the revision of my novella. I am happy to say that I got unstuck and finished the second draft over the weekend. (Woot!) The way that I got from stuck to unstuck was unexpected.

I wrote a creative non-fiction piece last week called "Shiva the Destroyer," which was a meditation of sorts on life changes. In it, I wrote:

[S]ometimes we form our identities around the pieces of ourselves that have gone missing, are buried and forgotten. As much as our identities are the parts we acknowledge, so they are the places in ourselves that are hidden, cannot be touched. Voices that are never heard, even by ourselves. And in order to find those missing pieces we must be willing to blow ourselves apart again, to give up the certainty of being and move once again into the uncertainty of becoming.
Because I was kind of in love with this piece, I shared it with several people. And maybe the second or third time I read it aloud, I realized that this passage was really about revision. It's about revising ourselves as human beings, but it could also be applied to revising writing.

That's when I knew that, in order to find out what was missing in the novella, I had to be willing to "blow up" the first third of it. I needed to let go of the idea that the beginning of the book was in the state of being and see it instead as becoming.

I returned to the manuscript with this in mind and I realized that my friend Chuck was right: there was too much exposition and not enough action in the first part. And then I realized that "blowing up" the beginning might actually just mean expanding in this case. In the first draft, I'd hinted at several scenes that I hadn't actually written, instead opting to gloss over the action in favor of getting down to what I considered to be the meat: the main character's history and thought process. Unfortunately it wasn't working in my favor. It was a bit of a slog, actually.

But by writing the missing scenes (three and a half of them in the first part of the book; one and a third in the second part) there were opportunities to break up the big chunks of exposition and work the information back in within the context of scenes throughout the whole book. Some of it got worked in as small chunks of exposition when a new character was introduced; some came back as dialog in the new scenes. Some of the details, I decided, didn't need to be there at all.

Something else I hadn't expected came out of writing those missing scenes: some of the other issues I'd identified but didn't know if I had time to address resolved themselves. The protagonist became more interesting, more three-dimensional and more sympathetic. The emotional and psychological changes she undergoes in the book became clearer and (I think) more believable. And since quite a bit of the detail about her history ended up much later in the book, it has the effect of keeping readers engaged with that plot line for a longer period of time: I haven't handed them all the answers on a platter early on; they have to keep reading to find out what really happened. Score!

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