One of the most valuable tools in writing a fine novel is the ability to wait. If you cannot envision the details of the scene you wish to do…if the exchange of dialogue that you have in mind is struck dumb…if the sensuality you’re wishing for in the description of the lovers’ underwear flying through the bedroom….if the words just won’t come, you should not try to force them onto the page. To attempt to do so (as I often did in my earliest work) makes the result clunky and unworkable…the essence of amateur hour.
So now…I wait.
Waiting does require patience and a signal kind of bravery. Novelists are intense people, and they want words to appear. See Hemingway’s famous requirement of 500 words a day. Jack London’s equally famous 1,000 words a day. The irony is that most people who wish to write a novel set out on an endeavor for which there may not be a viable end. Indeed, most don’t get there. But these writers are not to be blamed for that. The emotional and intellectual involvement required to successfully complete a novel well, can drain the writer of every soulful impulse. The words don’t work. The story falters. This or that character makes no sense. Everyone who attempts a novel has encountered such profound difficulties.
When it happens to me, I find that doing nothing is the best thing to do. Forcing the words worsens them. But it takes real fearlessness to do nothing in these cases, because you worry that nothing will result in nothing. You have to keep writing, you tell yourself. You have to proceed. You’ve got to get it out.
But doing nothing in those moments usually results in a better novel.
I learned about this when I was writing a novel titled My Father In The Night, which tells of an elderly Irishman, MJ Pearse, who in the 1950s is living in San Francisco. During the Irish civil war against the British after World War I, he was directly involved in the murder of an Irish policeman, and has continued his life in the United States terrified by the memory of what he did, and telling no one about it. His son Joe, born in the U.S., is an immigration lawyer who is involved in raising money in support of the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland. The two men argue with each other about I.R.A. politics, to such a degree that Joe’s son Pearse, just twelve tears old, attempts to intervene in the discussion, to bring the two men into some kind of acquiescent agreement with each other.
When I finished the manuscript, my publisher Alev Lytle Croutier, herself a superb writer, accepted it tentatively, and hired editor Alan Rinzler to help me shape it into true publishable form. The manuscript contained about 450 pages. A few weeks after he had received the manuscript, Alan sent me a very long letter, single-spaced, in which he had several dozen suggestions for changing things throughout the novel. All these suggestions dealt with individual words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs.
It was an exhaustive edit, and completely expert.
But there was one suggestion that was simply–literally–breathtaking to me, and it came at the very end of Alan’s letter. He suggested that I excise in its entirety a section in the middle of the manuscript that was 142 pages long. It took the novel off on a vector that did not jibe with everything else, he said. It interrupted the natural flow of the conflict between these three characters, and kept the reader from arriving at the emotional satisfaction of having that conflict resolved. Alan was insistent. This passage was extraneous, served little purpose for the novel as a whole, and resulted in an interruption that only took the novel off course.
I sat at my desk reading this paragraph, and rage enveloped me. I tossed the letter aside. I considered calling Alan and loudly berating him. Who was he to tell me what to do…so apocalyptically?
After a few palliative glasses of wine, I went to bed, still fuming. I lay awake most of the night, composing my rebuttal. When I awoke, however, I got the manuscript up on the computer screen and read the offending 142 pages. To my amazement, I discovered that Alan was right and, in a gesture that took me but a single moment, I did indeed excise those 142 pages. They had taken me nine months to write, and the novel was much better for my having gotten rid of them.
I knew why. I had struggled with that entire passage, which was indeed extraneous and off the path. But I had insisted that I get out my 500 words a day, and that had become more important to me than telling the story well. An arbitrary number in my head took over from any sense of graceful story telling, soulful language and truth telling. The plot of that section didn’t work. The language was second-rate. It simply did not read well.
I now realize that I should have done nothing. I should have waited for the story…the real story…to come to me. That practice has served me very well ever since.
The ultimate wait comes when you sense that you have written all you can write. French poet Paul Valery famously wrote, “Poems are not finished, only abandoned.” This is even more the case with novels, since they are usually so much longer than poems. An author’s “abandonment” of his or her novel, if the novel is any good, is like abandoning a planet. You have to be brave to do it.
This piece appeared originally in Huffington Post.