The Agony of Ether to Substance: Bringing Your Story to the Page

In this post, I’ll explore the process of writing the first draft of a novel, with particular attention paid to that awkward period between “Nothing on the Page” and “Done”. (Yes, the part where the writer is writing.)

Because every writer and the creative patterns they follow are different, it may be helpful to share how I go about the process of creating a story. In a previous post, Before Page One, I detailed the process of how I plan for writing a novel. In a nutshell, I follow this pattern:

  • Explore a landscape (where the story happens)
  • Consider the possible implications of that landscape on the story
  • Populate the landscape (create characters)
  • Develop an intimate understanding of those characters
  • Establish point-of-view
  • Build a plot around the actions of the characters on the landscape
  • Outline the story (to whatever level of detail makes sense)

I have never had a problem coming up with story ideas. Like a rabbit, I am an endless source of gestating stories, each one waiting to spill onto the page.  And when they do, the first 5000 words or so come easily. Blind and wriggling and pink, they are born almost of their own volition.

But then, gradually, a few chapters in, the flow begins to taper. I look back at the notes I crafted around the story for inspiration, but what I see haunts me. The landscape, the characters, the plot, the details, they all seem less real than they did before something was put down on the paper.

I’ve asked myself, Why is this? What is it about the physical act of plucking ideas from the ether and making substance of them so agonizing? And why do the ideas seem inherently more diminished or even hollow when they’ve been transformed into words?

I’m not alone in wondering this. Fellow blogger, Anastasiabetts, recently wrote in A Room of My Own:

I think I just need to keep writing until I have a breakthrough. Someone […] said, “First drafts are an act of discovery,” and boy are they! I never really realized this before — just how much I thought I knew before writing, completely goes out the window while writing. I feel like the story I knew so well, for years even, doesn’t even exist — and suddenly this new imposter story has shown up in its place. (11.9.2014)

I suspect that there are two reasons for this agony: (1) it takes time to write well; (2) there is an implicit trade-off associated with writing about what we’ve imagined. I’ll explain.

Time

As for the first point, the relationship between writing and time has been on my mind of late. I am currently participating in NaNoWriMo, an annual writing event that challenges the individual to write 1667 words per day for 30 days. That’s 50,000 words total. It’s a major achievement reaching the end, because at that pace, many people (myself included, in 2012) burn out before the halfway mark. There are folks out there who top 100,000 words by December, which leaves me speechless. That’s in excess of 3333 words every day — the sparks must be just flying off the keyboard at that speed.

Of course, word counts mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. Ultimately, writing is a product, and like any product, it is judged according to the consumer’s tastes. (Sure, we may wish to use more favourable comparisons — works of art to be experienced, perhaps — but a quick scan of the Amazon website or the shelves at Barnes and Noble, or worse, the endless parade of form rejections from agents and publishers, makes that desire feel a little idealistic.) If writing is wine to be sipped or swilled, then some people are after Pinot Noir, and some evidently want Boone’s Farm.

If we assume that the 3333+ words-per-day writers are the statistical outliers (a safe assumption, I think), then for most of us, writing takes a long time. Not necessarily the 17 years it took James Joyce took to write Finnegans Wake (that’s probably at the extreme opposite end of the bell curve, statistically speaking), but somewhere in between.

What I’ve found is that enough time passes during the writing process to allow the writer to lose vision. In the beginning, the panorama of a story idea spreads in all directions. Then, as the writer begins to select words that represent the idea and places them on the page, frustration and doubt begin to creep in. These come long before the rewards of seeing something tangible and exhilarating, which only come after a long and sometimes awkward process of pushing through the discomfort.

In this sense, writing differs from painting, in which the artist can see the entire product-to-date, even if that product is incomplete. It is more like sculpting from stone, an act of discovery.  And that brings me to my second point.

The Trade-off

A sculptor begins with a block of stone, three dimensions of infinite possibility. I imagine the terror of that first swing of the mallet, the moment that the chisel reduces, however infinitesimally, the sculptors’ possibilities. The very act of realizing her vision reduces her options. She can’t reattach the crumbs of marble to the block.

The very first line of a book is a door closed. There can only be a line after it, another step away from the infinitely elastic concept, something that was felt more than it was seen. The writer begins to feel constrained and frustrated as the feeling that was so initially strong is not realized. Thankfully, backspace is just a pinky’s stretch away, and words can be undone. But something about giving birth, only to commit infanticide moments later, is demoralizing, and seems to leave its ghostly mark on a canvas that was once white.

Only time and dogged determination can rescue the writer, looping us back into my first point, time. In the long-run, perseverance and even the willingness to surrender the panoramic perspective that was had in the beginning, will pay off. Pushing through discomfort allows new excitement to build, as something tangible and concrete takes shape. The words become something greater than the sum of their parts, and a story emerges.

As Anastasiabetts says, first drafts are an act of discovery, and boy are they!

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About jackfrey
Jack Frey lives somewhere in Northeast Asia with his wife and two young boys. He finds the letter K to be the most aesthetically pleasing of all the consonants, in both its upper and lowercase forms. Like many of us, he is currently seeking publication of his first novel.

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