The First Rule of Novel-Writing is Don’t Write a Novel
Elizabeth Percer: Nine Non-Rules for Writing
If you’d asked me 15 years ago how I saw my future, I would tell you about all the hard work I’d put into earning my doctorate, about the post doc that promised me a way into a fantastic research opportunity; about the tenure track position I hoped to secure one day. I would tell you all this with a clenched jaw, a fierce smile, and a knot in my belly. Because although I’d spent most of my young life envisioning academic achievement as the pinnacle of success and fulfillment, these goals were forged from a lifetime of trying to measure up. I’d shoved my quirky, not particularly scientific self into a mold that suited my family of physicists, mathematicians, and software designers. But somehow along the way, in measuring myself against those I loved and admired, I forgot to check in to see if there was a form within me that was more essential and less shapely, to see if I had measures of my own to follow.
It wouldn’t be until after several life-altering events—most notably, the birth of my three children in somewhat rapid succession—that I would slowly relinquish my grasp on borrowed titles. Once liberated, however, I found myself in the distinctly uncomfortable position of realizing that original compositions are so much harder to develop than derivative ones, not least because they don’t have the same examples to follow.
Still, like any good academic, I tried for years to work at my writing the same way I’d worked at anything. I pushed myself. I was stern with myself. I created strict rules to follow and chastised myself when I didn’t follow them. When that didn’t work, I looked to experts, who told me that I needed to write for about the same time every day in the same place, or that I should seriously consider getting an MFA, or that I should seriously consider not getting an MFA, or who told me that only the most talented writers could succeed, or that true creative talent would never realize any kind of commercial success, or who told me I was too young, or too old. It’s no wonder that in looking for others to tell me how I needed to be, I got into the habit of showing up to my writing at the same time in the same place and freeze.
But after many years of banging my literal and metaphoric head against the wall, I realized that the more and more frustrated I became, the more and more I tried anew to tackle my writing, the less it gave me. And an amazing truth began to bubble to the surface. It was this: the harder I worked at my writing instead of with it, the more it would back away from me. Creative writing doesn’t want to be worked at, just as cakes don’t want you opening the oven door on them all the time, or animals don’t want you harassing them into submission, or children don’t want you to force feed them the rules for growth. You can bake a cake or tame an animal or raise a child under these circumstances, but it will emerge tragically deflated, a poor approximation of what it might have been.
So here are my non-rules for writing, arrived at after trying every other rule under the sun and realizing that, at the end of the day, your writing process must be as free and thoughtful as you wish your writing products to be. And although putting this into practice is almost as counter-culture as declaring you want to be an artist in America is in the first place, its power can be astonishingly liberating.
Don’t write a novel
Every time I sit down to write a novel, I get next to nothing done. Worse—I probably lose some critical ground. If you try to control the outcome of your work too rigidly, it will become brittle and fall to pieces in your hands. This is really, really hard to accept, but if you can approach each day’s work with the simple goal in mind of growing your work—and by work, I don’t mean product, I mean practice—you will get further than you ever imagined. You may write 79,000 words and realize in the last 1,000 that the novel is not what you want to put out there, but those 80,000 words will inform your next work immeasurably.
Keep your publishing dreams in check
Validation is junk food. It’s like feeding your self esteem crack cocaine. It feels awesome for a short while, but whoa nelly, the crash that comes after is brutal. This is because in any living system, highs are simply not meant to be sustained, and always looking for them means we will come up empty again and again. Worse, we will miss out on that sweet, profound middle ground in which most of life flourishes. Not giving up when the going is ho-hum and uneventful for days or months or years is one of the sweetest joys alive, not because of the tantalizing reward that waits forever in the distance, but because of the complexity and intimacy that develops when kindness, humor, and good intentions are invested in a craft or purpose or person that constantly requires the best of you.
Writing doesn’t always look like writing
About 80 percent of the writing I do looks nothing like writing. It looks like reading, or daydreaming, or driving, or drawing, or listening to music, or lying on the floor, staring up at the ceiling. When I’m trusting myself and not judging these activities with nasty little tattle-tale voices, I find my patient, daydreaming, curious, wondering selves to be essential and complementary playmates to the one who can sit down at a computer and punch out a couple thousand words.
Books do not respond to timelines, spreadsheets, or graphs
These are useful inventions, and can be quite supportive at time. But they do not run the show. You must remind them that they are Skipper to your story’s Barbie. If they make the story look better or seem more believable or get its author back to writing, then use them. If they’re behaving like a frigid librarian, get rid of them. Or set them aside gently and tell them how worthwhile they are and walk away once they’re tucked nicely into the right corner of your mind. Because the truth is, I think that if someone tried to make a graph of a writer’s work, we might just break the laws of the universe. Because I am now a writer and not a physicist, I can say that I don’t believe writing always follows the laws of space and time. It’s amazing how much writing can get done in short, optimal windows cushioned by patience, thoughtfulness, self-care, and faith, and it’s equally amazing how little writing gets done during months of “free” writing time hemmed in by expectation, disparagement, self-loathing, and a diet of Snickers and Vitamin Water.
Make space for what comes
Let’s play a little game. Imagine you are a wildlife photographer standing alone in a field and you hear hoof beats in the distance. Do you A) wait a few minutes and then put down your camera to call or text everyone you know to tell them you’ve been waiting forever for this animal and why hasn’t it come already, or ask them what kind of animal they think it might be and what animal shots of yours they’ve liked in the past so you can be armed with an idea before you see your subject; B) fixate on finding that one point in the distance where you can be sure the animal will emerge and the lighting will be perfect and your timing will be flawless; or C) settle in to wait until the sun goes down, take some notes on the field around you so that if your quarry never arrives, at least you know how to get comfortable in the field for the next day, and notice as you do that some other, far smaller and stranger creature has come to wait beside you?
Figuring out how to trust yourself might be the most essential skill you can develop. Unfortunately, it’s also something few of us have nearly enough experience with, and just as with any underexplored terrain, setting out to chart it will involve some major trial and error. The key is to know that your intuition and inner compass will lead you toward behaviors that are traditionally shunned among the good little worker bee crowd, the sort of crowd that thrives in office buildings and school rooms and other enclosed spaces that rely primarily on established paradigms. But if you’re going to create, you’re going to find out that the way you work will not look a whole lot like the way your accountant works. Logically, this makes a whole lot of sense. But it can be threatening in practice, because creativity often thrives as a result of the very behaviors that others label as lazy or self-indulgent or some other horrid judgment that might be appropriate were you a cog in a wheel that cannot turn without your constant and unimaginative presence.
Creative work, on the other hand, demands that you stop hovering, allow your fields to go fallow occasionally. It demands that you procrastinate. The key is to learn to know and appreciate both the quality of valuable attention and the quality of valuable inattention. Instead of forcing yourself to write something when you’re avoiding your work like the plague, listen to that small voice that’s getting in the way and figure out whether or not it’s telling you that you’re being too hard on yourself to create, or that next step you were sure you wanted to take in the story just might not work and you need more time to think it through, or that where you want to go may not match up with where you are. And the only way to know this is by allowing for humor and a willingness to fall flat on your face, to forgive yourself when you misstep, to finally step into the stream of your own guidance.
Some days, eight hours of Downton Abbey may be exactly what your writing needs; some days, it’s a sign that you’ve given up on yourself. And you won’t wake up one day and know instinctively which impulses are helpful and which are not, just as you won’t (probably) wake up one day with powers derived from a radioactive spider bite. The best way I know how of learning to trust yourself is to pay attention to the road signs along the way. Are you watching Downton Abbey because your novel might be waiting for you to transition it to the early 20th century in England and a tiny voice inside you is suggesting you might be on your way to schooling Julian Fellowes but it isn’t quite ready yet and wants a little more time to itself? Or are you watching Downton Abbey because no one believes in you, especially not your godforsaken husband who isn’t all that and you deserve better and Matthew just seems to accept Lady Mary for everything she is even though no one else understands her and he’s got such piercing blue eyes?
Get to Know the Demons on Your Block
Every writer’s block is different, though they all have a few things in common. One, their neighborhoods are heavily populated, usually by demons. Two, there is always good amid the riff raff. Oftentimes, we are blocked for good reason. Maybe our standards are too high for our best creative self to want to show up. Maybe we’re taking ourselves and what we can produce too seriously. Sometimes, your block is fighting for you just as much as it is fighting against you.
Go Gentle into that Dark Night
I love Dylan Thomas just as much as the next 21st-century post-feminist novelist, but sometimes I can’t help but want to reach through time and take his hand and stroke his head and tell him to get a good nap in. But Elizabeth, you might be thinking, we would never have had such raw, rich work from him if he’d had a nice mom! I know. But do you know the difference between a broken horse and a gentled one? A broken horse runs fast and hard under a saddle and a rider and a whip, the reins that direct it able to jerk its head back at a moment’s notice. A gentled horse is so in tune and responsive that if a single fly lands on its back, it’ll swat it away with astonishing economy and elegance. It can run just as fast as its saddled cousins (maybe even faster), but it doesn’t hurt so much in the morning.
Don’t Neglect the Rest of You
Move. Love. Eat. Laugh. Rest. These are not things you have to do when you can’t be writing; they’re as essential as the writing itself. At its core, great writing comes from a balls-in approach to the things that make your life worth living, so if you’re neglecting them, guess what? You’ll sit down to write and have nothing to say. Which means you’ll reach for the ice cream and Doritos. And then snap at your loved ones. And then stay up too late watching mentally depleting television shows. And then wake up feeling like the underside of a dog’s tail. I’m sorry—that’s so gross. But some of you haven’t been listening. To me, or yourselves, or any of these other dire signs that you’re working at your writing.