A Novel Approach, pt. 5, (Pushing Back)

(Continued from yesterday.)

One reason I’m suggesting that it might not be a bad idea to allow your projects to overlap is that it goes against some of the “common wisdom” I’ve heard from other writers over the years. Most distinctly, I remember sitting in on a lecture by Jonathan Lethem when he was a visiting writer at Temple University. One of the main points he made was that writers shouldn’t be multitasking; they should focus on one project at a time. His reasoning was that switching gears to work on a different project stifles the writer’s momentum.

I was at the time and continue to be a huge fan of Lethem’s work, so I tried to take that advice to heart. The only problem is that it’s not how I write, and when I took a break from working on one of my novels, I started feeling guilty. “What would Jonathan Lethem say if he knew I just started working on another project?” I’d say to myself with an air of defeat.

(The answer, of course, is something along the lines of, “Who are you?”)

But it took me a while to get to the point where I was comfortable enough with my own writing process that I could see that what works for Jonathan Lethem might not work for me. And I think that’s one of the major conclusions that all writers eventually have to come to. That is, there’s no formula. You have to figure out your own writing process. You have to figure out what works for you.

Along these lines, a big part of keeping writing alive for yourself involves pushing back on some of the “lessons” you may have learned from various sources—courses, workshops, “how-to” books—and to adapt those lessons to suit your own needs and purposes.

Take, for example, the old dictum “show don’t tell.” Well-meaning creative writing teachers have been giving their students this advice for ages. And, generally speaking, it’s good advice. But what about those times when you have to tell? Look at the third sentence of James Joyce’s “Eveline.” It’s not, “She yawned.” It’s not, “She struggled to keep her eyes open.” It’s not, “She felt the arms of Morpheus wrapping languidly around her slouching form.” It’s, “She was tired.”

That’s James Joyce, and that’s telling.

More to the point, what about those times when you first have to tell yourself what you’re trying to convey before you can figure out how to show it? If you have alarm bells going off in your head every time you start to “tell” something, there’s no way you’re ever going to get anything done. So the next time that prissy voice in your head starts whining that you should be showing and not telling, give it a nickel and tell it to go buy some ice cream.

And what about Chekhov’s gun? Pretty much every creative writing book I’ve ever read has mentioned some version of this rule: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” Usually this is interpreted to mean that every detail in a story should serve the plot. While this logic certainly makes sense, the rule tends to be applied a little too simplistically.

First of all, Chekhov is talking about writing for the stage, and props cost money. So a playwright shouldn’t call for anything to be on the stage that isn’t going to be used. By way of contrast, you can put anything you want in a short story or a novel. A jet. A trampoline. A mastodon. A three-quarter scale model of the London sewer system. It’s all free. You don’t have to worry about the expense.

Second, if you followed Checkhov’s law to its ultimate conclusion, then every detail in your story would end up contributing to your plot. The gun would go off. The candles on the table would tip over and set the house on fire. The table itself would buckle under the weight of all the food piled on it and collapse in a heap. The parakeet would escape from its cage and peck everybody’s eyes out. And everybody’s mittens would turn out to be hand-shaped parasites from outer space, hell-bent on sucking the life out of your characters from the fingers on up.

Finally, and more realistically, details can serve purposes other than advancing plot. They can set the tone or create a mood. They can reveal something about your characters. They can be red herrings. Or they can be what filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut called MacGuffins—objects of desire that may or may not have any inherent value or meaning but which the characters in a story want more than anything in life. The briefcase in Pulp Fiction, for example. Or Rosebud in Citizen Kane.

Again, my point here is that you can push back on the rules. Don’t feel like you have to do something or write in a particular way just because someone said that’s the way it’s supposed to be done. It’s your novel. You need to figure out the best way for you to write it.

(Continued tomorrow.)