Facing the blank page – Jennifer Kitses

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By Jennifer Kitses

Last year, as I waited for the edits of my first novel, I confronted what I’d managed to avoid for a long time: the blank page.♥

The idea of starting something new was exciting, but also daunting. I had a story in mind, and had reached the point where the characters and structure were clicking into place. But it’s one thing to decide to start working on a novel, and another to take the story that’s in your head and try to get it — somehow — on the page. That transition isn’t easy.

My guess is this is true whether you’re working on your second or tenth novel, and whether these novels have been published or not. But starting a new novel felt so much harder this time around. That was when I realized how much time had passed since I’d faced a blank page, or the reality of my early drafts.

I’d spent three years writing multiple versions of Untitled Novel #1, which would become Small Hours. When I found an agent, she gave the novel its first professional edit, and after she sold it to a publisher, it went through several major editing rounds, followed by plenty of fine-tuning. For years, I had looked only at text that had been rigorously revised, corrected, and smoothed.

During that time, I’d forgotten just how terrible a first draft can be. To remind myself, I dug out my notebooks and looked at my earliest attempts at characters and scenes. It was reassuring, and also funny, to remember that in the very first draft, a Texan — rendered with a not completely convincing accent — played a significant role. So did a suspiciously wise man living off the grid in my imaginary town. (I’m embarrassed to recall this character, even now.)

Also, it wasn’t until the third draft that I developed what is now a critical plot point: an ultimatum that forces one of the main characters to make a decision he’s dreaded for years. It’s the heart of the finished book, the unsolvable situation that creates the tension and sets much of the action in motion. But the first time I wrote that scene, I didn’t realize how important it was.

This makes me feel a lot better as I struggle with a messy second draft of Untitled Novel #2, and also start a first draft of a different story. Both, at this point, are completely unreadable. But I try not to let that bother me; I’ve learned that there’s no way to rush things, or to avoid mistakes along the way. And when I need to remind myself, I go back to my earliest drafts of Small Hours, and see the notes I made for myself years ago. Like: This chapter is a just a placeholder! And: You’ll have to fix ALL of this later.

Jennifer Kitses has worked as a reporter for Bloomberg News and currently writes and edits for several universities in New York, where she lives with her family. She received an MLitt in creative writing from the University of St. Andrews. Small Hours, her first novel, from Grand Central Publishing, is available now.


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