The Fear and Freedom of Facing the Blank Page

Whenever the topic of rewriting comes up, it seems to always be met with a communal groan and mumblings of, “Oh, god.” You know the feeling I’m talking about. You just finished a draft of your novel. You’ve spent months or years working to put your ideas to paper, and no matter the actual calendar time it has taken, it has been a long, arduous struggle. Some days were so difficult, so creatively drained, that you could only manage a sentence or two. And now it’s over, you’re so relieved! Except it isn’t. You know it isn’t. Now isn’t the time to stop, it’s time for the next step: starting all over again.

Usually, people don’t mean this literally. Rewriting tends to be a half-and-half mix of editing and rewriting, taking a previously existing foundation and tweaking and trimming, abandoning pieces that no longer fit into the larger picture. Those pieces are usually what people are willing to give up, drag into their trash bin and abandon. They usually don’t abandon the entire base altogether.

But that’s exactly how I rewrite – literally and without remorse – from the blank page.

Before you panic, let me provide some context. I had only been working on my novel for a year or two before entering the Novel Incubator (and thus the major editing phase of my life), so it was a huge mess from the start. It was long and rambling, it had almost no plot, and its three sections were so uneven it was comical. My novel did not have a good base to work with, which made it much easier to abandon. But even if that hadn’t been the case, even if I had a stronger base (like I do now, six months later), I would still advocate for starting from a blank page, or giving it a shot at least once. Taking the route of the phoenix, leaving behind only a pile of ashes to be swept away.

There is a lot of fear in facing the blank page. Without a prior draft to rely on, you have to start all over again. Where do you even start? Suddenly, without the foundation of your prior ideas, you have to go back and consider all of those basic elements you took for granted for years, possibly since you first sat and decided to write this book. The basic questions are facing you again: what am I trying to say, what is essential, what really matters, where is this going? There is no map anymore. You don’t have your own footsteps to follow, just a blank open road. Maybe no road at all!

And that, my friends, is the beauty and reward of this risk. There is no map. You could go absolutely anywhere. Is it hard? Yes. Exhausting? Yes. Worth it? Absolutely.

The first time I heard about completely rewriting from scratch was in an interview with Anthony Marra, author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. His take on this was literally rewriting, as in starting by copying the original manuscript. In that interview with Read It Forward, regarding Constellation, he stated  “I ended up writing four first-to-last-word drafts. Each time I finished a new draft, I’d print it out, set it in front of my keyboard, and retype the entire novel. Because retyping mimics the original act of creation, it taps into whatever creative well the sentences first rose from. The novel changed from draft to draft, then, from within, organically, rather than from changes that were superimposed on it.” This quote completely changed my view of how the rewriting process could work. How completely terrifying to start all over from the beginning, but what Marra said stuck with me. In past attempts to edit my book, edits were done at a paragraph level, changes here and there that felt and read cut-and-pasted, inserted from a more skilled writer than the one who had completed the first draft. And every change lead to backpedaling somewhere else, trying to rein in loose strings or weave in others, only the entire book was so frayed it soon was obvious it was hopeless.

One of the major things I struggled with in my novel was killing off a character timely. Her death should occur soon enough in the novel that it serves as (almost) backstory for the rest of the book, but in my original draft, it took 170 pages to get there. The normal rules of rewriting would have me outlining, cutting, and fixing these 170 pages, parsing them down to a more palatable length. But where can you cut one hundred pages from? That is when I decided to take the plunge, to set aside my draft, open a new project in Scrivener, and face it. The blank page. The open field with no map. Five months later I submitted a finished draft of 71,000 completely new words, not a single one cut and pasted from my prior drafts. It is sparse and it is still a mess, but there is so much there that wasn’t before. Going with my original draft as a continued foundation would have built me a very small house to live in, but crawling out of that opened up an entire world of characters and plot and possibility that I would have otherwise never seen or taken the risk discovering. It was truly an exhaustive half of a year, but it was also an amazing one.

So I say, take the risk. The blank page is not an enemy if you don’t make it one. Greet it like an old friend – or better yet, a new one.

 

 

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