Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The essential writing break

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Sometimes the best thing a writer can do is not write at all. When you’re working on a novel, especially in the latter stages, it threatens to take over your entire brain, often in very literal ways: there always comes a point in the process, usually after the third or fourth rewrite, when I’m convinced I could reconstruct the entire thing from memory. Fortunately, I’ve never had to try, but the fact that I could do it gets at an important point that every writer needs to remember. The relationship you have with your novel, at least at the moment, will be more intimate than any you’ll ever have with the greatest work of fiction written by someone else. You’ll find yourself thinking about its structure while shaving, and drifting off in the middle of a conversation, as my wife knows, to puzzle out a rough spot on page 73. In the end, you’ll see its shape more perfectly than anyone else ever will, which will allow you to make the deep structural changes necessary to make it work for a reader who is only aware of the story unfolding page by page.

Yet this can also be dangerous. When the novel sits in your head “with all the palpability of a huge elm lying uprooted in your backyard”—as Norman Mailer once said of Henry Miller’s fiction—it can be hard to see it through the eyes of a conventional reader. Most fiction, as I think Joan Didion says, is judged on the level of the paragraph. This is as true for literary fiction as for its commercial counterparts. And it means that the mindset of a novelist who knows every line forward and backward is fundamentally different from that of a reader encountering a story for the first time. It means, ultimately, that you need to read your novel on two levels at once: as the author, godlike, with perfect knowledge of what comes next and how it relates to the page before you, and as the reader, in search of a story, who only has access to the information in the pages in his or her left hand.

Getting into that headspace, without any preconceived notions about the novel’s shape, can be a tricky business. The best way is to take an extended break. Some novelists, like Dean Koontz, have argued against such breaks, saying that it’s only an excuse for a writer to begin to doubt the quality of the work, which is certainly true in some cases. Still, more writers tend to agree with Stephen King, who advises us to take some time off between drafts to regain the necessary level of detachment. King recommends six weeks, but for some of us, that isn’t possible—given my own writing schedule, I can’t justify taking off more than two weeks or so before diving back into Eternal Empire. The best solution, in that case, is to spend your break writing something else, which I intend to do now. A couple of weeks spent writing a short story does wonders when it comes to coming back to a longer project with fresh eyes.

My own plan, in this case, involves an extra level of rereading: after my two weeks are up, I’m going to sit down and read The Icon Thief and City of Exiles from cover to cover, hopefully in as close to a single sitting as possible, followed by the current draft of Eternal Empire, which is designed to conclude the story begun in the first two books. Ideally, I’ll be able to see details and moments of resonance that deserve to be fully developed in the final novel, and affinities between the books that I couldn’t have seen before, when I was knee-deep in the process of writing them in the first place. It may take years, but there always comes a moment when a novel you’ve written turns into an object with which you feel only incidentally connected, which is what The Icon Thief has finally become to me. (I certainly couldn’t reconstruct it from memory anymore.) And that’s the ultimate break, in the sense of severing or rupture: the point at which your novel, at long last, becomes just another book.

Written by nevalalee

September 10, 2012 at 9:44 am

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