Restarting the Engine

One of the most difficult tasks for a writer is starting a revised draft. While staring at a blank page can be overwhelming, the prospect of diving back into what you thought was a completed book can provoke plenty of doubts as well. What are the best ways to recapture that spirit you had the first time around?

The first is not to jump to conclusions. Let’s assume to start that you are reacting to comments made on the manuscript. A friend or writing group buddy or literary agent or editor gives you a critique of whatever length. The shorter the length of the comment, the more you should restrain your imagination to fill in the blanks. What in fact was the comment, and what was your reply? Don’t create a mountain out of a molehill.

The second is: don’t be linear. It is likely that you spent a good deal of time on your last pass making sure the story follows a logical thread from beginning to end. Now you have throw that process aside. Linear is always a late stage of editing a draft—and you’re just starting a new one, remember? What you need to do is write out the scenes that directly address the comments the critic made. Say, the critic pointed out that the father, who turns out to be crucial in the climax, appears in very few scenes. While you were talking to the critic, several terrific ideas for new scenes with dead old dad may have popped into your head. Start the revision by writing only those scenes, in isolation. 

For the time being, forget about the book you’ve already written. Don’t worry about Dad’s first scene, or any scene before the new one you’re writing. Don’t worry about how the new scene fits with his background work. Get the scene out of your head and down on paper, all on its lonesome. After all, how long will it take, really, to change some “fact” in a new scene that doesn’t align with the old material? Fifteen minutes? A half hour? Far more important is feeling that rush of new, great ideas.

Writing scenes in isolation has a related benefit. Once you have gotten your feet wet, wading further into the draft becomes easier. Your confidence grows as you write. All the loose threads and snippets bothering you will keep flapping in your subconscious until the time comes that you set them in order. By that point you will know much more about what the new draft looks like, because you’ve added all this new material—and you will make stronger decisions about the story as a whole.

Exercise: Start with the scene that speaks most to you emotionally. If you had a flash of a perfect scene with Dad, because you remember one with your own father so well, write that down. Don’t worry about the order of new Dad scenes. Just write down the stuff in the order of what burns most brightly in your mind.

“Revision is one of the exquisite pleasures of writing.”  —Bernard Malamud

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.