Category Archives: * Art and Craft of Authorship

Procrastinating — or Percolating?

Go defrost your fridge!

The story goes that a reporter once asked Ernest Hemingway what he did when he was starting a new book. To which Hemingway supposedly replied, “Defrost the refrigerator.”

What on earth does that have to do with anything? How can one start writing a novel by procrastinating and not starting to write? Was Hemingway just trying to discourage budding novel-writers? Or was that really how he got his novels started–by delaying putting down that first word?

What Hemingway was advising might not have been “procrastinating” at all. What he may have been promoting was what I’ve always called “percolating.” That’s when the ideas are floating around in your head, but they haven’t taken a coherent form yet. So you pause and leave them alone and let them percolate in your subconscious for a while longer.

When you’re defrosting your fridge–or taking the leaves–or washing the car, or even staring into space–you are letting go of your iron control and focus. If you do things right, the most your conscious mind has to do is think, “Is this cottage cheese past the expiry date?” or “Oh look, there’s a lone sailboat out on the lake.” That means that your subsonscious is free to do its thing. Which, in the case of your writing, often involves solving thorny plot p0roblems, generating new ideas, or even creating a new character to spring on you when you least expect it.

The subconscious is very creative. That’s where your dreams come from, after all. So if you’ve fed it some ideas and a few plot points, once you go off and do something else, it will really go to town on them. You, with your rational, conscious brain, may have worked unsuccessfully for hours or even days, trying to resolve a plot problem. But turn your back for just a while, and your rule-free subconscious goes, “Hey, let’s put this upside down, paint it green, and look at it backwards in a mirror. And add a snippet of music. And a shoe. Now look at it–how cool is that?” And later, you bring your conscious attention back to the problem to find it beautifully and creatively solved!

Busily rewriting your chapter

Sometimes this process is called “sleeping on it.” You leave a difficult problem you’ve been wrestling with and go to bed. And in the morning, you realize that you’ve figured out how to solve the problem–while you slept. You might do something similar during the day, just by taking a walk through a nearby park to “get your mind off things.” Except it’s just a different part of your mind that’s on the job.

So Hemingway was right. Sometimes when you’re in the middle of a really thorny problem, that’s the one time you should not try consciously to work it out. And sometimes, the moment when you want to start your novel is the one moment you should not start it. Go do something kind of “mindless,” sendyour ideas deeper in, to the subconscious, and let them percolate till they’re ready.


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Filed under * Art and Craft of Authorship, * Writing tips

Authors Keep Your Distance: You and Your Narrator Are Different People

Geneva - United Nations logo

In "Helix" -- this is bad. To me personally -- it's good. There is a difference. Photo courtesy Flickr user Harshil.Shah

I recently put a novel up on the Smashwords publishing site, and it occurred to me this morning that there may be some confusion for the readers between me and what I write. There’s something that new and aspiring authors don’t always realize, and even some established authors might forget sometimes. That is that you, as an author, do not always hold the opinions that your narrator does.

Let me explain. In Helix, my novel, the whole world is governed by a United Nations government. And this government does some rather nasty things along the way, even though perhaps its original intentions were good. If a reader were to think that everything in that book reflects my own opinions, they’d think I really disapprove of the U.N., and believe the organization is bad.

In fact, the exact opposite is true. Even though some of the themes that run through the novel are things I worry about, the U.N. isn’t actually one of them. The only reason it’s the big bad guy in the story is that I needed an organization that was worldwide and had the infrastructure to take over quickly and coordinate things when most other governing systems in the world had collapsed. It just had the qualities I needed, to use it as a tool in the story.

Because that’s the whole point! This is what distinguishes a good writer from someone who just wants to recite their own beliefs at people, or reproduce themselves over and over. As an author, you take and use whatever tools you need to craft the work. Because it’s the story that’s important — not you.

Your writing should rarely revolve around ideas like, “I like this character too much to kill him off,” or “I’m going to write a sequel because I like these characters so much.” If killing off that character is important to pushing your plot forward — you kill him off. If the theme you wanted to express or the idea you wanted to explore is completed at the end of this novel — you don’t write a sequel and nullify your work.

The author is crafting a work of art with meaning to it, and always needs to remember that the work of art is paramount. We are not creating that work merely as a navel-gazing exercise. We sculpt and craft and smooth and shape, using every tool necessary to do so. And if we are really good authors — we ourselves do not get in our own way. We maintain a separate existence from our Narrator.


Filed under * Art and Craft of Authorship