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  • jrblackburnsmith

Trapped by my Writing

Writing is re-writing, like it or not. More often, for me, writing is re-writing and re-writing and re-writing and.... You get the idea. My most recent novel, Love, went through 14 revisions over four years (not including the two years it took to finish the first draft) before an agent agreed to represent it. Sucks, doesn't it? (Not the novel, but the process.)

For me, the problem with revising my work is all about my emotional relationship to the words I'm putting down on the page. I either hate them, love them, or am indifferent. Believe it or not, the more indifferent I am, the better everything will be. In my writing process, the first draft is a process of discovery. I need to discover my characters, learn who they are and how they will act (their Truths, as it were) and also find the arc of the story. Is there really a story in this idea, or does it just slowly wither away and end? I have plenty of beginnings, some of them tens of thousands of word long, that disappeared on me along the way. I go back to them, from time to time, to see if I can find what I lost, but mostly, once a story is dead, it stays dead. Indifferent words let me get to that place of finding the story. I rarely start at the beginning, but it will be in there somewhere. I'm much better at stopping at the end, but that doesn't mean it doesn't need work. Once I have that first draft, though, I can begin to build the full narrative and start the storytelling.

The first trap to this arduous process is realizing I hate what I'm writing. Not the concept, but the actual words. They don't feel correct, they don't capture something important. I'd be embarrassed to have someone read them. The quickest way for me to lose a story thread and kill a book is to start editing and revising before I've finished finding the story. That was a lesson it took me decades to learn. Imagine losing a novel because you get stuck on a chapter, or even a paragraph, and you can't move on. All you know is it's wrong, but it can't be fixed. As a writer, I needed to learn to ignore that feeling (even though it is probably correct) and get on with writing. There is a time to write and a time to revise. Frequently, when I hate my words I'm actually suffering a break in my creative consciousness. I can't move on because I don't know where I am going. I had to learn to push through.

The opposite trap to this is when I fall in love with my words. When I know I've done the best writing (or some of the best) of my entire life. How do you, as a writer, edit and revise something that is damn near perfect? And again, that thought may be true. This chapter may be a perfect chapter, but if it's getting in the way of the book, it may have to go. For me, much of editing and revising is cutting. The last three drafts of Love were about reducing the manuscript from 160,000 words to 90,000. You don't only lose words you hate or are indifferent to when you are doing that much cutting. You have to release lots of words you love and reimagine a way to impact your reader the way those words would have impacted your reader.

Like I said, it sucks. In that way, writing is like any other job - some parts will inspire and some will suck. And yet -- there is nothing I'd rather be doing.

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