Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The art of postponement

with 2 comments

Napoleon Dictating to his Secretaries

When Napoleon Bonaparte was Emperor of France, he developed a useful strategy for dealing with the massive amount of correspondence he received: he would wait a week before opening any new letters, and by the time he got around to looking at a particular problem or request, he would usually find that it had been resolved in the meantime. At first glance, a writer might not seem to have a lot in common with Napoleon—although he did write fiction as a young man—and the process of writing a novel, while daunting, is slightly less difficult than administering an empire. But there’s a lot of wisdom in this approach. When you’re a writer, you can feel overwhelmed by the amount of material and detail required by even the simplest story. How does Trevor dispose of the gun? What kind of outfit would Barbara wear to the restaurant? How can Amanda get out of the upstairs bedroom before Don gets home? Sometimes a solution will present itself at once; occasionally you’ll rack your brains for hours without coming up with anything good. But I’ve found that when you don’t know the answer, you’re often better off just postponing it for later.

Which isn’t to say that a writer should plunge blindly into a story without any sense of the destination, or that I don’t prefer to plan as much as possible in advance: I’ve spoken at length about my love of outlining, and I like to have at least the overall shape of a story sketched out before I start work on the first page. As I’ve grown more experienced as a writer, though, I’ve learned that it’s better to work around—or just omit—a tricky section rather than let it sap the momentum you’ve built up so far. You may not be happy with the page as it stands, but if you insert a placeholder and move on, when you go back to revisit it, you’ll often find, like Napoleon, that the problem has taken care of itself. Either the troublesome section ends up being condensed or cut entirely in the rewrite; or something good will occur to you eighty pages later; or you’ll find that the makeshift solution you cobbled together works just fine, at least within the role it needs to play in the larger story. It’s impossible to know really matters until the entire rough draft is done, and it’s far more dangerous to get hung up on trifles while putting the entire project at risk.

Walter Mosley

Other writers have offered similar advice. In his book This Year You Write Your Novel, Walter Mosley observes:

There will be moments when you will want to dally over details. Do Georgia geese fly south in April or June? Is it physically possible for Bob Millar to hear the cult leader yelling from a mile away—even in a desert? Would the police arrest Trip if the women were allowed into the bar and were served by the owner?

All of these questions are valid. Before the book gets into print, you should have the answers. But many writers allow questions like these to help them procrastinate. They tell themselves that they can’t go on until these questions are answered.

Nonsense. Put a red question mark next to the place where you have questions and get back to it later.

And I’ve found that this red question mark is useful for far more than just research issues. The great film editor Walter Murch talks about leaving “a residue of unresolved problems for the next stage” of any creative project, both because it keeps the process interesting and because the version of yourself who confronts the problem will be better equipped to deal with it. Writing a novel is essentially an extended collaboration between your past, present, and future selves, with the process stretching across many months or years. It’s unreasonable to expect that your present self will have all the answers, and in fact, your future self will probably know more than you do now, once you’ve invested more time into the project. (That’s why I always advise writers to finish a complete first draft before going back to revise: an issue that seems insurmountable in Chapter 1 may have an obvious solution in Chapter 20, but only if you’ve written the intervening eighteen chapters first.) All that matters is that you get something down, even if you suspect that you’ll need to change it later. It can’t be postponed forever, of course. But it often helps to postpone it for just long enough.

Written by nevalalee

February 4, 2014 at 9:50 am

2 Responses

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  1. I have been thinking of a similar strategy of late. Thanks for the beacon.


    February 4, 2014 at 11:16 am

  2. Very nice—glad you found it useful!


    February 4, 2014 at 12:01 pm

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