Painting has a concept called “open time” where the open time of a paint is the time between when you apply the paint to a surface and when the paint dries. During the open time, you can make changes to the brush stroke without applying more paint or scratching off what’s already there. Once the open time ends and the paint dries, that’s it. That brush stroke is set.
Depending on the type of paint, open time ranges from almost instantaneous to very long. Watercolors and acrylics dry quickly so their open time is from seconds to minutes, while oil paints dry so slowly that their open time can be from hours to even days. Making changes toward the end of the open time can be difficult since moving partially dry paint might lead to brush strokes that don’t blend well with the rest of the piece.
Writing also has its own concept of open time. During a rough draft, everything is open while the writer churns ideas and prose together until something gets thrown on the page. But writing is rewriting. During every subsequent draft, the writer refines the ideas and prose until the main concepts shine through until finally the writer declares this piece finished and moves on to the next.
In my experience, the longer the revision process takes, the harder it is to make necessary changes, especially with longer pieces such as novel-length manuscripts. Every time I reread a scene, it’s almost as if I’m using up the scene’s open time. That particular sequence of words and ideas builds a path in my mind like a river deepening its channel until I have difficulty imagining the scene in any other form. That can be bad, especially if the scene does not fit with the rest of the work and must be radically changed.
So how to preserve the open time of a piece of writing?
For early works in progress, I try to limit the number of times I reread what I’ve already written. During the initial draft, I’ll look back to reorient myself, but I focus on moving forward and reaching an ending. I try not to worry too much about continuity at this point since I know I’ll catch errors in the revision. Anything I notice while writing, I mark down as notes and move on. The goal is to get to the ending, any ending, so I can see the work as a whole.
For later drafts that seem set in stone, it’s time for the jackhammer. Figure out a different angle and rewrite. Perhaps change the point of view character and rewrite the scene. One way or another, I retype the scene. I’ll automatically make changes if the words are too tedious to type in again. This is the time for exploration. New angles leads to a reset of the scene’s open time.
And sometimes, for really old writing, the writing is old enough that I no longer have any emotional investment in the words. My loyalty is to the ideas hidden beneath the clunky words, not the words themselves, so the open time is both reset and focused. I know what I want to say, so now it’s a matter of figuring out how to say it most effectively.
This blog post is a prime example of the various types of open time. When I came up with the initial idea a while back, I threw words at the page to capture my thoughts, but couldn’t come up with a satisfactory conclusion. A lot of times, my initial draft is simply me wandering about on the page trying to figure out what I want to say. So I let the draft rest while I worked on other things. Now that I’ve returned, I’ve been able to carve away the half-formed thoughts and awkward wording to reveal a message worth saying.
Open time translates to enthusiasm. Even if the enthusiasm fades, the work-in-progress is still there waiting for attention. WIPs are patient. They’ll wait until you’re ready to return and pick up your tools again.