Here we are, about three weeks before Christmas, and then, at least for us here in central Ohio, the turn into the gray days of January and February. It’s always been a time when I’ve been inclined to hibernate, and even more so these days of the pandemic. I’m trying my best to embrace the hunkering down, the burrowing in, the necessary rest where I remind myself to just breathe. Complicating that acceptance is, of course, all that I miss from the days before COVID-19: the dinners with neighbors at our favorite local restaurants, the in-person writing workshops and the spontaneous interactions and energies inhibited by meeting now via Zoom, the intimate gatherings with friends in one another’s homes, the travel.

Life is about to slow down in a big way, and I’m looking for the positives in that fact, chief among them the invitation to take note of the small graces that bless us each day—blessings I may have taken for granted in the rush of what used to pass as normal: the purr of my cat Stella when she flops down beside me and wants her belly rubbed; the beauty of my wife Cathy in nearly everything she does, in the meals she prepares, in the way she wraps a package, in the way she calls me, “Baby”; the way sunlight slants across our family room floor late in the afternoon; the call of geese as they fly over at dusk. All these small things grown large in the threat COVID poses. The possibility of never experiencing them again draws me up short while at the same time inviting me to really look and feel each moment that brings me pleasure.

This close examination of what blesses me—and by extension all that threatens those blessings—has become necessary to my living and has reminded me of the necessity of such to my writing. This past semester, I asked my graduate students to write one piece, rather than the customary two, and then to take that piece through two revisions. I’ve been reading their “final” versions, and I’ve been amazed by how each piece has deepened. By asking these writers to look more closely at elements of the piece that were absent or barely developed in the first drafts, I’ve invited them to burrow down, to do a deep dive of sorts, to open up the little moments that may have gotten short shrift early on, and to live with their pieces longer than they may have if they’d been moving on to write a second piece. In short, I asked these writers to hibernate with their pieces for a while in hopes that they would see aspects that were there just waiting to be realized. The results have been amazing.

So I guess I’m asking all of us to do that deep dive into the material, to not be impatient with the work we’ve put on the page, to live with it long enough to know it fully, to let it have its full range of expression.

Here, then, are five places to look in a first draft, places where the piece wants to say more than it is:

 

  1. The back story. Any narrative contains one—the lives our characters have lived before the action begins. What’s happened before those characters step onto the page that resonates when placed in the dramatic present?

 

  1. The small details: Pay attention to the things your characters pay attention to. They’re things, yes, but they’re also containers for the characters’ desires and fears. Use the props you give your character in the action of the narrative. Ask yourself why these objects are important to the characters. Perhaps one of those objects will even turn into a metaphor that will help the narrative better express itself.

 

  1. The setting: The landscape can also be expressive. Don’t ignore it. Often we sketch in a setting in a first draft without understanding how it helps move a narrative along. Our next drafts can expand that setting. They can evoke more details and then make them more, well, evocative. Do the setting in detail and it can show you the story.

 

  1. The structure: Ask yourself what scenes you’ve omitted in the first draft. You should be particularly alert to what I’ll call the obligatory scenes, the ones the narrative is obliged to include based upon what gets set in motion in the opening. Make sure you write those scenes. These days, I often observe first drafts that avoid scenes of conflict. Write those scenes. See what they open up.

 

  1. The opposites: Our narratives resonate and become memorable when something contradictory rises at the end, something present from the beginning but submerged, something that requires the pressures of the narrative in order to rise. Our characters and their situations are comprised of opposites. Challenge yourself to identify the thing we’d least expect in any given character and situation and then see if you can construct a narrative that will allow that opposite thing to rise in a surprising and yet convincing way.

 

When we take the time to do a deep dive into our pieces, we allow them to show us more of what they want to be. In the winter days ahead, I hope you’ll all find the blessings of patience, endurance, admiration, inspection. I hope you’ll all take time to appreciate the nuances of all that life gives us, not only in our personal lives, but in the lives we put on the page as well.

 

18 Comments

  1. Roberta W. Coffey on December 7, 2020 at 8:58 am

    Thank you, Lee. Wonderful advice, as always!
    To you and Cathy: Have a merry Christmas!

    Roberta

    • Lee Martin on December 8, 2020 at 8:05 am

      Thanks, Roberta. Cathy and I send you season’s greetings and all good wishes.

  2. Kathleen Cadmus on December 7, 2020 at 9:16 am

    Thanks, Lee, for this wisdom and guide. I enjoy the process of revision, although it can be difficult and often emotionally painful. But it’s often when I figure out what it is that I’m trying to say. I’ll be referring to this blog frequently during those “gray days” of our Ohio January and February. May you and Cathy … and all of us … experience more blessings as we hibernate into 2021.
    Kathy Cadmus

    • Lee Martin on December 8, 2020 at 8:05 am

      Thank you, Kathy. With me, sometimes in the discovery process of writing that first draft I learn what I’ve come to the page to say, but at other times it takes more than one draft for that to happen. Yes, sometimes revision is uncomfortable because usually we’re touching on those sore spots and going deeper into what confounds, saddens, or shames us, but the payoff is usually worth the discomfort. Cathy and I send you and yours all good wishes.

  3. Lorraine Comanor on December 7, 2020 at 9:54 am

    Thanks. I need to spend more time with those opposites.

    • Lee Martin on December 8, 2020 at 8:03 am

      Lorraine, those tricky opposites often come about via close observation of the smallest details. I remember watching the way my mother’s fingers kept moving on the arm of her chair toward the end of her independent living as if she were practicing piano scales. That detail from a typically serene woman told me how much was churning inside her and how aware she was of what she was about to give up. That detail preceded an out-of-character show of temper, which of course wasn’t out-of-character at all. It was merely submerged. It was the opposite of what I usually saw from her, but it was there all along just waiting for the pressure of events and people to bring it to the surface.

  4. Kate Isaacs on December 7, 2020 at 11:19 am

    This was good timing for a piece I want to revise. I often feel happy with the opening and ending but struggle with the middle. Helpful thanks!

    • Lee Martin on December 8, 2020 at 7:59 am

      Thanks for the comment, Kate. Often, if you know the beginning and the end, you can ask yourself what you need to develop to make the piece move from the former to the latter. Paying attention to the five things I mention should help in that regard. Cheers!

  5. Buddy Harris on December 8, 2020 at 9:56 am

    Thanks for the timely post, Lee. Having lost my full time job back at the end of May due to covid, I found a huge silver lining in being given the time to write again. I’m close to a full draft of another novel but have come to the realization that it’s time to stop writing for a while – at least sentence-to-sentence – and take a deep dive on all of these things you’ve mentioned. Your list is going to be a great help as I structure my unstructured time with the book. I would add one thing to this list – and that’s deep reading of other work. For me, it’s been going back to reconnect with a stack of documentary photography books, essays, and poetry that reference similar spaces and people I’m trying to capture. I’ve kind of been amazed by how a word in a different context can illicit an insight about a character. Thanks again! Happy Holidays! Buddy

    • Lee Martin on December 9, 2020 at 12:22 pm

      Hey, Buddy. That’s a great addition to my list. A deeper dive into works that may be contributing to the writing. Yes! I’m sorry to hear about the job loss, but as you say, it’s brought you back to the writing. I hope it all goes well. Happy Holidays to you, too!

  6. Kate Cone on December 10, 2020 at 7:37 pm

    Thank you, Lee!

    I am a serial non-finisher, but with this advice I can go back and look and add to and maybe take away from the works in progress. I feel as if I could have written the piece you just did, about winter descending, so thanks for doing my work for me! I’m getting ready for winter #2 without my husband, with Covid and with all those aforementioned WIP’s. The characters are getting a bit demanding. Merry Christmas to you and Cathy! Kate Cone

    • Lee Martin on December 11, 2020 at 12:00 pm

      Cathy and I send you all good wishes for the holidays, Kate. I hope those demanding characters keep you good company this winter. Warm regards–Lee

  7. Beverly Zeimer on December 11, 2020 at 6:29 am

    Thank you for this. I’ll be reading it over more than once this winter. Happy Holidays to you and Cathy.

    • Lee Martin on December 11, 2020 at 11:58 am

      Cathy and I wish you a very happy holiday season.

  8. Beverly Zeimer on December 11, 2020 at 6:34 am

    Thank you for this. I will be reading it over more than once.

    • Lee Martin on December 11, 2020 at 11:58 am

      All the best to you, Beverly!

  9. Jody Rich on December 11, 2020 at 2:50 pm

    Hello Lee, I just hit the PRINT button so I have this list at my elbow as I finish my first cozy to my satisfaction. I appreciate the opposites in a character. The small details make it delicious, don’t they? Thanks for the reminder. And the scenery….I like your word, evocative. It’s spot on. Thanks for making the time to share your wisdom and encouragement with us. The hibernators in Maine!

    • Lee Martin on December 12, 2020 at 2:26 pm

      Hi, Jody. I hope my post proves to be useful to you. Yes, I love paying attention to the small details, the more specific the better. They end up saying so much about our characters and their situations.Keep doing the good work during the hibernation in Maine. Take care!

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