Sparked by Words

Stepping Off the Boat

How do you determine what to withhold in your writing? When you have something to say it may be difficult to exercise restraint, though things unsaid can have as much value as what you choose to expose. How does your work change in revision? Do you find yourself adding more or do you approach your manuscript with a scythe?

It’s said that Torah, the Five Books of Moses, was written in black fire on white fire. The Hebrew words and the spaces that surround them were written (some believe implied) by God. It’s up to the reader to study the black words and white spaces in order to determine what God expects of His children on Earth. Rabbis, scholars, and laymen have pored over those scrolls for thousands of years, arguing interpretation and intent, spirituality and action. Passages are firmly explained, refuted by the next generation, discussed once again. Conclusions are never forgone.

The Bible is written with enormous gaps. We must imagine some passages and conversations because they aren’t in there. When God told Noah to build an ark and collect animals from all over the world, we have no idea what Noah said or thought. That part isn’t in the book, and it’s left to readers to visualize. Did he argue he was too old to build a boat, or try to beg off because of a fear of lions?

Centuries of commentary have drawn many conclusions but each new reader must determine for himself what happened within those empty spaces. Reading Torah promotes a healthy discourse about the gaps between the words. An engaged reader fills in the intentional blanks to glean details, purpose, value, and direction. The Torah reader fully immerses herself, gradually extrapolating meaning and context to apply to one’s own life. As God expects.

Kind of hard to best the Master.

When I completed my first novel, The Inlaid Table, it came in about 180,000 words. That was after culling lengthy descriptive (read boring) passages, entire chapters, and all the meaningless words (very, thing, some, nice, that, really – clutter without clarity.) I slashed the two chapters about the table’s secret journey to America during the Cold War, another about the main character’s vacillation over the trip to Poland, and the five chapters from the lost doll’s point of view. They’d all been reviewed and revised many times, and contained evocative descriptions and suspense. A few early readers loved them, but their contributions to the story were negligible. They added word count and some clever insights but not critical narrative. I cut down the book to 140,000 words by removing redundancies of all ilk (words, action, dialogue, characters) and anything that caused my attention to wane. If it didn’t tantalize the writer, what was it going to do to my poor reader? When it came down to so what, who cares? that’s when I knew I had to cut.

I also cut sections where I feel the reader can fill in with information sufficient to let the story move forward. Even if the reader fills with a scene that isn’t exactly what I envisioned, I’ll remove a section that feels like filler, or that drags the action into a dark closet.

Come read my books with an active mind. I’ll write but you must contribute as well – there are blanks. You have faith in me to craft a compelling story and I trust you to bring your intelligence to the pages. Like a puzzle with missing pieces, you’ll have to fill in the gaps. I’ll take the biggest risk by jumping into space by writing. You’ll connect by stepping off the boat as you read, paddling to stay afloat. Because I can’t do it all.

It’s the wonder of story that a writer’s solitary endeavor gets completed in the public forum. The act of writing is lonely work. I sit with pen and pad of paper or a computer on my lap and I write. Scratch scratch, tap tap.  If God can leave spaces in the labyrinth of Torah through which I must wander to determine meaning, I trust you to do the same with my meager offering.

I write The End, and hope I’ve described enough to compel you to get to those final two words. I hope to soon launch my books into the public forum. It’s noisy out there, lots of people reading and posting reviews, chatting in book clubs, and sharing opinions. Come read with me. Come write with me.

 

Painting of Noah’s Ark, 11th century, artist unknown, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

Comments on: "Stepping Off the Boat" (28)

  1. I’d love to know what Noah said! 🙂

    I commend you for getting rid of the excess in your novel.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I used to teach Sunday school to sixth graders and our curriculum was Genesis. One of the favorite units was about Noah. The kids had to retell the story in Noah’s voice, in any style they liked – skit, short story, poem, rap song, diary, newspaper article. One student made a crossword puzzle with clues and answers. They had to imagine how Noah would have felt and what he would have said to God. Their projects were wonderful and spanned the spectrum of how he might have reacted to such a charge.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. It’s a humbling experience to edit something we’ve written ourselves. The dance of this is good, but not this. Light of day theory. Or something like that. Genesis offers us a lot of time to wonder. Love that.
    Thank you, Shari

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve seen that deep dive done well. Michener comes to mind as does Daniel Silva and Dan Brown. Me, I failed at that–as you know. I couldn’t make the fullness–read that true history–of Lucy’s story appealing enough. I knew I was failing because every early reader had the same sort of comments (remember my footnotes? Gone). Still, I know it can be done well and when that happens, it’s exactly what I want to read.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I admit I don’t miss the footnotes but only because I found them intrusive, but the rest of your story I loved from first reading. You know that. Pulling out the bits of flotsam is what writers do before they publish. That’s not failing – it’s saving ink. I don’t doubt that Shakespeare removed all allusions to Juliet’s rum soaked breakfast donuts before the play was cast.

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  4. Love this post. I believe a writer can leave a little to the imagination and allow the reader’s life experience fill in the gaps. It should help to challenge the reader and make the story flow a little faster. Then again, what do I know.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Jenna Barwin said:

    Sharon, you nailed it!

    A writing instructor read a passage to his class about a person arriving at a restaurant to meeting someone for dinner. After reading it, he asked specific questions like, what color hair did the hostess have? How many forks were on the table? What kind of flowers? What color were the napkins?

    Everyone had different answers – because none of those were mentioned in the passage. We readers fill in a lot of visual detail ourselves. I often think good writing is like impressionist art. Everyone will see something different in the details, but we all agree we’re looking at the inside of a restaurant.

    The important thing for the author to do is give those details that tell us something more about the characters, that are crucial to the scene, that drive the action forward. Sometimes, it’s hard to pick and choose.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jenna, what an interesting assignment – like quizzing witnesses to an accident and getting the unreliable answers we know witnesses provide.

      I agree with the premise of your last paragraph. I try to make sure that quirky habits and identifiable traits define something substantial about a character that will eventually play out in the story, rather than throwing in red herring distractions about them.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I dunno — only that the more I write, the more I learn to trust that I know…

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  7. Reading about how you cut your novel, taking whole chapters out, I began to think about what I should be doing with my 2nd draft. I believe I’ll be filling in instead of taking out.

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  8. Interesting, as always, post Shari.
    I wonder if books that grab our imagination, those with the white space to project our own lives, desires and fears, are those which stand the test of time – the stories that spell everything out are flash-in-the-pans?

    (Life itself is a huge white space – I’ve progressively interpreted and reinterpreted my own life much like the Torah . . . and as you said: “[my] Conclusions are never forgone”.)

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    • Judy, I think you’re right about stories that we read generation after generation – they pique our imagination and our intelligence and require our attention. They can be read again and again because we always find something new to mull over.

      As for that big white space in life – I think that’s what we’re supposed to fill in, but only some of us do it with any serious focus on answering the questions why and how. Others struggle too hard just to put food in their babies’ mouths and find a safe place to sleep at night. But that’s a whole other conundrum.

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  9. I love the idea that one has to study the white empty spaces in between the words in order to get to the true meaning. It’s the same with paintings, don’t you think? The ones that leave some of the story up to the spectator’s mind are always the best in my view. The involvement of another mind is what makes them so unique and beautiful.

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    • I really love talking with you, Sarah – you have the same artist’s mind I have. When I taught art, it was one of the concepts I started introducing even to my youngest students – the tug between negative and positive spaces, when to decide an artwork is complete, why the addition of something here requires something there to be added, and the contrasting effect of colors, patterns, shadows. Eventually after teaching kids for many years, they began to understand that art is dynamic. Same is true of course of all good writing, and most definitely of Torah and all holy books. The involvement of minds, as you say, and with holy books, the human struggle with the sacred, not just to read, but to understand. It’s how we immerse ourselves in meaning. You just enlightened my day, especially given the particular situation I’ve been struggling with – thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That must have been quite difficult to teach the children the importance of not overdoing it in a painting or any other artform for that matter. I know this only too well from my pottery classes. But when they do understand it finally one feels it was worth all the struggle, right? 😉
        So glad my comment enlightend your day – you know that yours always do the same to me, don´t you? Have a beautiful weekend, dear Shari! ❤

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      • A little girl, maybe 10 or 11, painted a lovely picture and then kept painting over it. I commented many times how creative – expressive – everything the painting was, encouraging her to consider it complete. She continued to add and cover earlier iterations until the entire paper was a purple-blue mash, everything that had earlier been so gorgeous painted over. Then she smiled and told me she’d learned a lot by changing her art. She’d learned what ultimately is the most wonderful thing about creating – the experience of the journey.

        Hope you had a wonderful weekend, Sarah.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That’s so beautiful, Shari, thank you for sharing this story with me. That little girl grasped the true nature of creativity at such a young age and I’m so glad she wasn’t disheartened at overworking her painting but rather seeing beyond all that. Wish I could have seen that smile, I bet it made your heart sing.😊

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      • She made me realize I had more to learn about being a teacher. I wish I could meet her now – she’d long be an adult. I hope she continued to pursue her ambitions with such clear sighted resolve.

        Liked by 1 person

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