Tuesday, February 14, 2012

7 What Isn't On the Page: The Writer's Guide to Growing

We can know all the rules. We can study how to develop concept, setting, character, plot, emotion.... We can revise until we know the story by heart and write the heart right out of the story. But if we don't recognize what isn't on the page, we may never progress to the next level of storytelling.

And there are levels. So maybe, just maybe, we need to give ourselves a break now and then and understand that this writing gig? It's freaking. hard. If we start thinking about all the different choices we make just on any given page of a manuscript, it's easy to see why we lose confidence and stare at the blank computer screen sometimes.

Writing is pure pleasure when it is unconscious, when the words spill with cutting precision from our fingers and illuminate truth. The more we have written, the more we have edited our own work and the work of other writers, the more we have read the work of writers much more proficient than we are, the more we absorb and internalize, and the more we know what to put on the page, and when to put it there.

I wonder if that's the difference between rewriting that first manuscript twenty times and writing ten new manuscripts? We can stare at the page and edit it until every word is different, but that doesn't necessarily show us what we're missing. I'm not sure that ultimately it helps us develop an ear for the choices that define how and when we reveal character, setting, and story.

What's not on the page, as well as what is on the page, is part--I think--of authorial voice. Not the character's voice; that's different. The way we choose to tell a story, the characters we like to write about, the type of lessons they learn, how much detail we include about character, location, action... all that defines our personal style. That comes from trial and error, doesn't it? It comes from the chance to experiment.

The other week, I wrote about using writing exercises to discover more about a current manuscript. I think that's incredibly valuable. But there's also a lot of value in writing different stories, different genres, different characters. Exploring different ways to tell the same story--and making that story one that doesn't carry a hefty emotional baggage with it.

We put so much pressure on ourselves as writers. We can't help comparing ourselves to others and coming up short. What we fail to consider though is that every story is different. Some are inherently more complex. Some have wider appeal. Some are more timely.

If we're hitting a wall with a particular story, it may not be because of what's on the page. It may be what isn't there. We may not be able to see that without a long cooling off period. Our critique partners may be too close to see it if they have read the story many times. Depending on where they are in their writing careers, they may not be able to see it even if they have never read the story before. Beyond a certain point, grammar and syntax, even voice, can all be right, and the story may still not be what we hoped.

Sometimes, it's time to move on, to let ourselves discover a new world populated with compelling characters and untapped possibilities. Maybe we need to consider that a gift we can give ourselves--the gift of moving forward. But before we give up, we owe it to ourselves to sit back, look at the page, and consider what isn't there.

We can always move on. We can always come back to a story if it still pulls us and wants to wrap itself around our hearts. Nothing we do is permanent.

That's the greatest thing about writing. We are in control. We create worlds, and we destroy them. We are gods. We teach lessons to our characters and our readers. And in the process, we are constantly learning ourselves. Maybe the most valuable lesson of all is that we will never stop learning. We will always keep getting better, as long as we don't give up.

So Happy Valentine's Day! Give yourself the gift of loving where you are in the writing process. Own it. Stand up and call yourself a writer. Say it out loud. I hope you'll your reason for writing in the comments. What makes you love this crazy job?

I'd love to hear from you!



  1. That's what I keep saying to myself, I'm stuck at the moment - saying 'what happens next?' to myself and I'm writing the thing! :0)

  2. Thank you, Martina. I needed this today.

    WHY do I write? I think it is because I have so many imaginary friends who keep insisting I share their stories with others. Yet, when I write the story, there is always someone else telling me I didn't get it quite right. So I go back to my imaginary friends and say, "Hey, tell me that story again, 'cause I didn't get it right the first time." Then I try again, listening more closely with each round. Hopefully, I will one day convince someone that I have gotten my friends' stories right.

  3. This writing thing is an interesting journey. No two writer's treks are exactly the same.

    Why I write boils down to one basic truth: Writing is a part of me. It's a part of what makes me, well, me. Whether I end up agented and published, going indie or not getting published, I love to write.

  4. Wow, Martina. Such an insightful, sincere post. And so true. You hit hard in so many places with what it means to progress as a writer, but I especially loved the idea of stepping back and considering what we haven't put on the page, expanding our imaginations even more. And knowing that we can always revisit and revise, even as we move on to newer experiences.

  5. This is great advice. While I never completely wrote my manuscript, the long periods between revisions helped me see what I needed to change and how I've grown as a writer (at least I hope so).

  6. Great post! I'm currently in mourning over a short story I recently decide to trunk. So hard to let go, but I know each story I've written since has been stronger, even if I can't always put it into words.

  7. It's so easy to compare your self to other writers. Too bad the pharmaceutical industry hasn't invented a cure for that. :D


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