Carol Bly wrote that the essential question we must ask during what she calls “the long middle stage” of writing is, “What more do I have to say about this topic?” Certainly this is a good question to ask early on, when we’ve completed a draft and are unsure where to go next. Usually we’re inclined to begin tweaking the words on the page as we head into revision, but I’d like to suggest instead that the first stages of revision more often than not involve generation.
First, it’s good to generate journal entries.
- Why am I writing this? What’s in it (in the writing process and in the subject matter, NOT in the outcome) for me?
- How do I feel about my draft? What are my places of discomfort? What am I attached to and why?
- What might this draft be asking of me? What might it want to become?
Second, it’s very likely that we need to generate more material. Here are some common places where material is missing:
- Have I written a scene that helps my reader understand what’s at stake for me as the narrator or for my main character?
- Have I written a scene that illustrates the expectations and/or desires of the narrator or main character at the beginning?
- Have I written a scene that illustrates the consequences of the story on the narrator or main character?
- Identify places in your prose where you tell rather than show. Are there details or scenes that might do this work more effectively for the reader?
- Identify turning points in your story. Have you done these moments justice by developing these scenes fully?
- What moments are the emotional roots of your story? Have you given the reader the history necessary to make sense of the characters?
- What scenes are you perhaps avoiding because they demand difficult emotional work?
Even writers whose first drafts are thicker than phonebooks can benefit from this second-stage generating. Notice how these questions focus on filling in gaps and identifying what’s most at stake—tasks that are difficult in a first draft. Many writers get nervous about the scattered nature of this kind of generating. New scenes don’t fit within the sequential, connected first draft; they upset the applecart. But this is exactly what we’re after in revision. We want to drive wedges of fresh insight into the old prose to break it up, forcing us to see it anew.
Philip Lopate describes the personal essayist as attempting “to surround a something—a subject, a mood, a problematic irritation—by coming at it from all angles, wheeling and diving like a hawk, each seemingly digressive spiral actually taking us closer to the heart of the matter.” This is also a good description of the revision process. Coming at our story from only one angle makes for a one-dimensional story. But if we come at it again and again, fleshing out memories, complicating characters, questioning motives, and layering awareness upon fresh awareness, our story grows multifaceted and gripping. The time for trimming can always wait.
Essentially, generating in response to a first draft is an act of listening. We’re listening to what thus far is unsaid, pulling the “unspoken” out into the realm of the “spoken” so we can work with it and craft it. This listening is deeper and wider than first-draft listening. We’re listening in the cracks; we’re listening underneath the printed page. This is both a skill and an ongoing practice, with consequences, I would argue, in other arenas of our life. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew