What do you avoid doing when you write a novel?
—Ann Hobbie, St. Paul, Minnesota
This is a pretty intriguing question, Ann. It first made me think of various superstitions and mantras from childhood: Don’t walk under a ladder. Step on a crack and break your mother’s back. Break a mirror and you’ll have seven years of bad luck. I’m not sure there’s anything analogous for a novel writer such as maybe not writing between two and three a.m. or not writing on an empty stomach or on a bottle of gin. Writing, good and indifferent, occurs under just about any kind of circumstances.
But in terms of some general dictums I think I’ve honored in my writing life without being particularly aware of them, I have three: don’t be thorough, don’t panic, and don’t guard your ideas too closely. They apply to all fiction writing, not just writing a novel, though a novel is unique in that you start with a bigger blank page, which can be both comforting and more intimidating. Basically, I would say the dictums, if that’s what they are, simply get pumped up with longer work. I’ll take a look at each one.
The point about thoroughness is something I’ve occasionally told writing classes. It’s a variation on the well-known idea that nothing should be included in writing fiction that doesn’t directly serve the story. Writers are often told not to fall too in love with their most skilled sentences or wonderful observations, that a story has to keep integrating various elements rather than showcasing something that’s good in itself but pushes the reader off the story’s track. Sometimes writers who are feeling their way into a story—even floundering in to it—will follow every tangent, every thought that comes into their heads, partly to make sure they’re actually getting something onto the page and building up the word count or paper heft. I know I was guilty of that when I was first attempting to write novels. That’s actually fine, but it means there’s going to be a lot of work for the writing scalpel, and some of it painful.
But I want to go a little beyond the idea of just having everything fit well into the story. One of the main things a writer has to do is to decide how much weight to give to different story ingredients. Not everything should be rendered as scene—even some important events. Not every conversation should be given as direct dialogue. Not every step in a process needs to be spelled out. A lot of writing is summarizing deftly and deciding what things should be emphasized, what things alluded to, what things excluded so that the work develops a natural ebb and flow and peak without everything being presented on the same flat plane. This is particularly true when it comes to exposition, which can become dull and talky pretty easily. It’s actually a very good idea for novelists to pay attention to the way playwrights and screenwriters work to condense information so that dialogue—which is all they have to work with except for a few stage directions—stays alive and doesn’t feel like deadening explanation. If there’s a rule here, it’s this: know as much as you can about your subject, but only give the reader what’s truly germane to the reading experience.
My favorite writing prohibition—don’t panic—is one I became aware of pretty late in the game, really when I was working on Time Stamp. Over my writing life, I’ve had the experience most writers have of occasionally just hitting a wall. I’ve actually sat at my desk feeling miserable for a couple of days before having a brilliant inspiration: the word I was waiting for is and! Once the right word arrives or the scrap of an idea that it links to, the log jam clears and I’ve made the transition that opens the door to the next scene. But that two days of misery is real and it’s the time when writers can despair that they’re actually going to be able to create this thing they want to create. Writing, at that point, feels like an impossible and painful struggle.
What I finally realized in writing Time Stamp is that it’s counter-productive to keep staring at an empty page or a blank computer screen with a fear that nothing is going to show up that belongs on it. A writer needs to have a little trust, to believe that physically walking away from the work doesn’t mean that a part of the mind isn’t still whirling around the dilemma. My sister-in-law, who’s a nurse, gave me an analogy that works really quite well here: “The brain is like a computer and when you let it rest (or turn it off) it starts searching the rest of your brain—the way a computer would do a hunt—and brings the answer up out of your subconscious. That is why when we can’t remember something we say, ‘It’ll come back to me in a minute or in the middle of the night.’ When you stop thinking about that specific thing it frees part of your brain to start the search. That is the way it always worked for me in the hospital. I would notice something odd or different that I couldn’t put my finger on and when I walked away and started doing something else, the answer would just pop up in my mind.”
As a writer friend put it, with writing there’s rarely a direct path in. I was absolutely aware of that in writing Time Stamp. Basically, I had my whole mind set on receive. It was a period when I was dealing with insomnia because of a medical situation, and I simply let that work for me. Wherever I wandered in my house during the night, I made sure I had a grocery-list pad or a notebook or something handy to write on and as my mind raced over all sorts of things, I kept finding new ideas that belonged in the story. It meant that when I went back to my desk, I always knew where I was going. I didn’t enjoy the insomnia, but the surfacing-ideas part of it was great. It was actually one of my headier experiences as a writer, and it gave me a particular confidence in writing the book. I had the sense that I wasn’t tapping into a source that might run dry but one that seemed to have an almost infinite wellspring. So here it is again: don’t panic. Let your mind have the space to give you the ideas you need.
The last point is a smaller one but still useful. Writers can sometimes feel as if they have to protect any ideas they have for fear that someone else is going to steal their original inspiration. I doubt this is something to really worry about. To me, it’s like the shopping center theory that Joan Didion has written about it. The center works better if there are sets of stores with a similar purpose since shoppers know they’ll have more chances to find what they want with a density of choices. If you have a good idea that appeals to people, a similar idea out there is more apt to increase interest in the general area than to knock yours out of the arena. And, in any case, everyone executes ideas in different ways. Even identical twins become quite distinct people. More than that, your original ideas need to be fleshed out. Bouncing them off other people may well stimulate that process or give you leads. This is not to say that you don’t need a certain zone of privacy for work. If nothing else, it’s needed to avoid distraction or the addition of voices that can cause a writer to lose the direction of the inspiriting idea.
Now that I’ve said what not to do, I want to back away from it a little. In general, I think there are too many rules floating around out there for writers in terms of how to write and how to present their work. At times, they can be very inhibiting and even destructive to good writing. So if these three attempts at dictum-making don’t fit a given writer, that writer should simply ignore them. Rules of what to do or not to do don’t make writers. Time, discipline, and an open mind do.