I have recently begun to revise a novel-in-progress that had been on hold for a while. I put this manuscript down in late December, and I began transcribing another manuscript, a much older, handwritten one. I was “done” for the time being, having gone through a couple of run-throughs, and I figured that transcribing the older novel was a good way to clear my head and give the newer novel a chance to chill out. It worked. I finished transcribing (thank God; have you ever tried transcribing Seanskrit on a moving subway train? I have. Don’t do it.) and got back excellent feedback on the newer novel.
Over the past three commuting days I’ve gotten lucky (not like that, you perv). I have gotten a seat on the train each day, and then the trains ran into massive delays. Yes, I have been late to work, but I have also gotten hours of work done. The best part was discovering the gifts I had left myself.
Gifts to yourself are where you can re-awaken the love for an old manuscript. I’ve read this book a dozen times over, I know what’s coming, and I no longer know what works and what doesn’t. It’s that moment that it is time to look for the gifts I left myself: moments where an object or action that seemed isolated or out of the norm can become something more in the story; something that can be pulled throughout the story in such a way that it becomes a thread that stands out instead of just a snagged flaw that distracts the eye.
For this manuscript I looked for the gifts after getting some wonderful feedback from a beta reader, George. George questioned a number of elements in the story. One was a tattoo worn by a character that is never explained or referred to again. Another was questioning if there might be more sense of the main character dwelling on the events of the first act during a lull in the second act. There was also a question about mistaken identity, and how the main character might recognize someone without there having to be a horribly explicit and clunky author-pointing-things-out-for-the-reader-moment. Anyone who has read my earlier post about my writing process knows that I don’t plan, plot or outline. I follow the story as it emerges, and this means lots of loose threads and sometimes dead-ends.
As I thought about the tattoo, an element that popped out during my early writing and didn’t really factor into the story at the end, despite an off-handed reference that the tattoo would be understood later on, I recognized that it was an opportunity for something more important than just a detail. This is what I love about not outlining, about writing from moment to moment and not worrying about sticking to “a plan.” A plan wouldn’t have allowed for the tattoo. A plan would have said, “This doesn’t fit, cut it.” But, there it was. It was a small, loose thread, but it really wasn’t. Because that tattoo, changed from a word to an image, a bird, became something else: it became the means of recognizing someone’s identity. It also became something that the main character would see being applied in the second act, and it’s application would cause him to reflect on the first act. Suddenly the lull of the second act was disrupted by the tragedy of the first, tension was re-established. Now the little-tattoo-that-never-should-have-been was a key clue for the main character recognizing what was unraveling around him. And best of all, the tattoo, changed into a bird, picked up on an image that runs through the novel; the tattoo is no longer extraneous, it is emblematic.
Look for the gifts you’ve left yourself in your writing. Don’t ignore the voice that whispers unwanted secrets in your ear as you paint your character into a corner. That secret is their escape out a window or a forgotten door. Take a look at that manuscript that isn’t working and see if you haven’t left yourself something that might not just be padding, that might in fact be the whole point. Better yet, go back to an earlier version, and look at the stuff you cut, look at the stuff that “didn’t belong.” Maybe it did.