Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

In the cards

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Vladimir Nabokov

It’s been said that all of the personal financial advice that most people need to know can fit on a single index card. In fact, that’s pretty much true—which didn’t stop the man who popularized the idea from writing a whole book about it. But the underlying principle is sound enough. When you’re dealing with a topic like your own finances, instead of trying to master a large body of complicated material, you’re better off focusing on a few simple, reliable rules until you aren’t likely to break them by mistake. Once you’ve internalized the basics, you can move on. The tricky part is identifying the rules that will get you the furthest per unit of effort. In practice, no matter what we’re doing, nearly all of us operate under only a handful of conscious principles at any given moment. We just can’t keep more than that in our heads at any one time. (Unconscious principles are another matter, and you could say that intuition is another word for all the rules that we’ve absorbed to the point where we don’t need to think about them explicitly.) If the three or four rules that you’ve chosen to follow are good ones, it puts you at an advantage over a rival who is working with an inferior set. And while this isn’t enough to overcome the impact of external factors, or dumb luck, it makes sense to maximize the usefulness of the few aspects that you can control. This implies, in turn, that you should think very carefully about a handful of big rules, and let experience and intuition take care of the rest.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about what I’d include on a similar index card for a writer. In my own writing life, a handful of principles have far outweighed the others. I’ve spent countless hours discussing the subject on this blog, but you could throw away almost all of it: a single index card’s worth of advice would have gotten me ninety percent of the way to where I am now. For instance, there’s the simple rule that you should never go back to read what you’ve written until you’ve finished a complete rough draft, whether it’s a short story, an essay, or a novel—which is more responsible than any other precept for the fact that I’m still writing at all. The principle that you should cut at least ten percent from a first draft, in turn, is what helped me sell my first stories, and in my experience, it’s more like twenty percent. Finally, there’s the idea that you should structure your plot as a series of objectives, and that you should probably make some kind of outline to organize your thoughts before you begin. This is arguably more controversial than the other two, and outlines aren’t for everybody. But they’ve allowed me to write more intricate and ambitious stories than I could have managed otherwise, and they make it a lot easier to finish what I’ve started. (The advice to write an outline is a little like the fifth postulate of Euclid: it’s uglier than the others, and you get interesting results when you get rid of it, but most of us are afraid to drop it completely.)

David Mamet

Then we get to words of wisdom that aren’t as familiar, but which I think every writer should keep in mind. If I had to pick one piece of advice to send back in time to my younger self, along with the above, it’s what David Mamet says in Some Freaks:

As a writer, I’ve tried to train myself to go one achievable step at a time: to say, for example, “Today I don’t have to be particularly inventive, all I have to be is careful, and make up an outline of the actual physical things the character does in Act One.” And then, the following day to say, “Today I don’t have to be careful. I already have this careful, literal outline, and I all have to do is be a little bit inventive,” et cetera, et cetera.

It isn’t as elegantly phased as I might like, but it gets at something so important about the writing process that I’ve all but memorized it. A real writer has to be good at everything, and it’s unclear why we should expect all those skills to manifest themselves in a single person. As I once wrote about Proust: “It seems a little unfair that our greatest writer on the subject of sexual jealousy and obsession should also be a genius at describing, say, a seascape.” How can we reasonably expect our writers to create suspense, tell stories about believable characters, advance complicated ideas, and describe the bedroom curtains?

The answer—and while it’s obvious, it didn’t occur to me for years—is that the writer doesn’t need to do all of this at once. A work of art is experienced in a comparative rush, but it doesn’t need to be written that way. (As Homer Simpson was once told: “Very few cartoons are broadcast live. It’s a terrible strain on the animators’ wrists.”) You do one thing at a time, as Mamet says, and divide up your writing schedule so that you don’t need to be clever and careful at the same time. This applies to nonfiction as well. When you think about the work that goes into writing, say, a biography, it can seem absurd that we expect a writer to be the drudge who tracks down the primary sources, the psychologist who interprets the evidence, and the stylist who writes it up in good prose. But these are all roles that a writer plays at different points, and it’s a mistake to conflate them, even as each phase informs all the rest. Once you’ve become a decent stylist and passable psychologist, you’re also a more efficient drudge, since you’re better at figuring out what is and isn’t useful. Which implies that a writer isn’t dealing with just one index card of rules, but with several, and you pick and choose between them based on where you are in the process. Mamet’s point, I think, is that this kind of switching is central to getting things done. You don’t try to do everything simultaneously, and you don’t overthink whatever you’re doing at the moment. As Mamet puts it elsewhere: “Keep it simple, stupid, and don’t violate the rules that you do know. If you don’t know which rule applies, just don’t muck up the more general rules.”

Written by nevalalee

October 21, 2016 at 8:21 am

2 Responses

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  1. This is probably the most useful post on writing that I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a lot. I’m thinking I might actually make an index card and write those basics down.
    Having said that I’m not sure my index card would be identical to yours. To reference another of your posts, I’m more of a gardener than an architect so the outlining and structuring is a slightly different process.


    October 22, 2016 at 2:19 am

  2. @Martin: Wow—thank you! I think every writer ends up with a different index card, which is where we get individual differences of style. But I have a hunch that most professional writers have at least a few of these things in common.


    October 23, 2016 at 9:46 pm

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