The fifth stage of the writing process (deepening/amplification) requires the ability to read between the lines and expand on meaning, metaphor and form. It is characterised by deep care and attention to one’s own words, both what has and has not been said.
This is generally a most satisfying stage in the creative process, so long as sufficient time is set aside for it. Unfortunately, it is also the phase that beginner writers are most likely to skip or hurry. Wanting it to be over, to get on to editing and to the holy grail of publication, can shortchange the process — and the book.
Iris Murdoch once said, “Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea”. It’s natural that, as you work through your first draft, you’re becoming sensitive to the many ways in which your creation falls short of your vision. You’ll have ideas about how to rectify at least some of what you see as flawed and be itching to edit, change and improve what’s there.
All this is good. Editing is what separates professional writers from amateurs, hacks from artists. But so is deepening. Before you start on cutting and curing (phase six activities), you first need to amplify what the draft is saying.
Writing the first draft has been an excavational activity. Much of the time you’ve been finding out what you think and what you’re writing about. In the deepening draft, you think about how you can enlarge upon, elaborate, add to, supplement, develop, flesh out and add detail in ways that will make your work higher, deeper, larger and more expressive of you.
This getting closer and closer to exactly what you want to say also sharpens your sense of how it is perceived by a reader. For the first time you are consciously bringing the reader into the process, trying to help them to see better what’s at stake in this book.
In completing a first draft you have separated yourself from hundreds of thousands of others who set out to write a book and failed to complete. Research shows that 90% of those who complete a reasonable first draft go on to finish.
In the deepening phase, you build skills and honing techniques that stand you in good stead when it comes to drafting your next book. “Never again will you be satisfied with characters who have only one dimension,” says Donald Maas, literary agent and author of Writing the Breakout Novel. “A single-layer plot will feel to you lightweight. You will put words together in future with a more demanding eye, pay attention to the effect of a setting on your characters’ moods, think about how time has changed your characters’ views of others and themselves — and more.”
So give yourself the time and space you need to achieve mastery.
STAGE 5: AMPLIFICATION. THE CHALLENGE
To raise and address expansive questions about the first draft, questions that allow the fullest and deepest creative expression of the work.
Once you’ve completed a first draft to your satisfaction, you need to get away from it. You need some distance. And not just a holiday, though that’s a good idea. You’ve done an immense amount of work, you’re tired and emotional, whether you know it or not. The longer you can stay away from the first draft, the better.
“When you finish your novel… put it in a drawer,” she says Zadie Smith. “A year or more is ideal but even three months will do. Step away from the vehicle…”
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat backstage with a line of novelists at some festival, all of us with red pens in hand, frantically editing our published novels into fit form so that we might go onstage and read from them. It’s an unfortunate thing, but it turns out that the perfect state of mind to edit your own novel is two years after it’s published, ten minutes before you go onstage at a literary festival. At that moment, every redundant phrase, each show off, pointless metaphor, all the pieces of deadwood, stupidity, vanity and tedium are distressingly obvious. Two years earlier, when the proofs came, you looked at the same page and couldn’t see a comma out of place.
“[This] is the only absolutely twenty-four-carat-gold-plated piece of advice I have to give you. I’ve never taken it myself, though one day I hope to.”
TRY THIS: The Anti-Edit
Once you’ve allowed sufficient time to elapse, get three highlighter pens in your favorite colors (except red, because that’s associated with teacher’s corrections and this activity is the opposite of that). Take out your draft and get ready to read it through from start to finish, in what I call an Anti-Edit frame of mind.
Read it, lightly and lovingly, like a very indulgent Mom reading her child’s first writing efforts: looking for what’s good.
When you find something you like – a chapter, a passage, a page, a paragraph, a phrase, a sentence, a word, even: highlight it in color one.
When you find something you really like, that is perfect, highlight it in color two.
When you find something that clearly needs more work, highlight it in color three.
And as you do these highlights make notes (see below). What it is that you like, what makes it so perfect, what work needs to be done.
Color two becomes your touchstone. this is the model that you want all of the work to rise to.
Enjoy this act of identifying what works, what is most reflective of you. As well as improving this manuscript, you’re learning much that will be taken into the next.
Notes To Self
As you read, make lots and lots of notes about the experience. Anything that jumps to mind, about the book, about the process of writing it, about your feelings as you read it through. F-R-E-E-write these notes to yourself, working lightly and quickly, not thinking too much. The aim is to write fast enough to get beyond our censoring, conscious minds to access subconscious levels.
Here we begin the work that will continue in the editing stage, of making each paragraph, each sentence, each word matter, but here it’s about ensuring we have everything in the draft that is needed and that we have the pace and balance right.
As you go through this process, be particularly aware of your judging editing mind — you will be in need of his skills shortly. But politely ask him to wait his turn. Judging closes down, what we’re looking for here is the opposite.
When you see something in your ms. that you don’t like – and you will, you will – ignore it for now. Make a note of what you’d like to do about it and carry on looking for the good. When you hear yourself judging what’s there – and you will -have your Stage Five self say firmly: ‘That’s Stage Six work, I’ll come back to that’, and move on. Keep moving to the end.
Open Question Time
Essentially, deepening is an act of creative listening to yourself. Listening to what has quite been said, pulling the “unspoken” out into the realm of the “spoken”. Creative listening means listening in the cracks, in the spaces between the words.
Questions are our way into this.
Once you’ve completed your notes, carry on deepening the draft by asking open questions, and opening to the answers. Approach the subject matter from a variety of angles: fleshing out memories, complicating characters, questioning motives, and layering awareness upon fresh awareness. Wheel around the material like a hawk, each seemingly digressive spiral actually taking you closer to the heart of the matter until you are confident enough about what is being said to swoop and dive right in.
Don’t be nervous if this task is generating new material that doesn’t fit or seem to fit. This is good; it means you are listening with more than your surface mind. The aim of this phase is to drive wedges of fresh insight into the old prose – to break it up, in Ezra Pound’s words, to ‘make it new’.
Try This: Follow the Emotion
As you read and search for the good, be alert to the emotions you are feeling. Name them in your notes. What is it about this book that puts your heart on the line? How would go further into that feeling? What depends on this story’s unfolding? Grant yourself permission to slowly, carefully exploring the links between your subject matter and your engagement in the process, the links between what you write and why you write.
Every book is primarily an act of self-discovery and it is in this phase that we are most fully present and aware of this. It is during this stage that we often learn what our project is actually about.
- Why am I writing this? What’s in it (in the writing process and in the subject matter) for me?
- How do I feel about my draft? Where are my places of discomfort? Why?
- What am I attached to and why?
- What might this draft be asking of me?
- What might this draft want to become?
TRY THIS: Write by hand
Try doing most of this work by hand. That’s how we learned to write as a child and it generally takes us deeper than pounding the keyboard. It also slows the pace and this seems particularly suited to the deepening (and indeed incubation) stage. Writer and inspired writing teaching, Louise de Salvo, says: ‘I once talked to a famous editor who told me that she can always tell when a book has been written on a computer. ”There’s always too much of it there, and the prose is flabby. Writers get intoxicated with their language and they go on and on and on. And… they try to revise on the screen, which is impossible to do, so their writing isn’t writing, it’s typing.” Will I continue to compose on a computer? I’ve made the decision that for my next book, I won’t.’
Try This: Mind The Gaps
Here are some common questions that generate good material. They are in no particular order, just take one that seems promising and run with it.
- Have I fully developed the turning points?
- Have I given the reader the history necessary to make sense of the characters and action?
- Am I avoiding anything because it demands difficult emotional work?
- Where I’m telling, should I show? Vice versa?
- What works?
- What doesn’t?
- What else could I do here?
- If I do that, how would it affect what’s going on over there?
- Why does the character do this? Is this the best option for him/her her?
- Is anything missing?
- Does this section 1) help my reader understand what’s at stake for the narrator or main character? How? 2) illustrate the expectations and/or desires of the narrator or main character? How? Or 3) illustrate the consequences of the story on the narrator or main character? How? If it’s not doing any of that, what is it doing?
- What is this book about?
- Does this fit into my original intention?
- What has changed since I started?
- What would be perfect here, now?
- Does this do what I want it to do?
The best question, the one that encompasses them all, is: How do I help the reader to see more clearly?
Once you’ve finished the Anti-Edit, you’ll know what parts of the draft you are almost certainly keeping (‘almost’ because nothing about the creative process is certain until it’s over). Everything you’ve highlighted in color two now becomes the standard by which the in-between bits will be evaluated.
Some of these in-between bits will be discarded completely, others will be altered, others shifted about. You’re moving now towards being ready, finally, for the editing process. Just before that starts, give yourself a final bucket of time to ask more questions and mull the answers. Keep looking for the reasons behind your stated reason for writing.
What’s the emerging inner story?