‘I always have to know my characters in a lot of depth–what clothes they’d choose, what they were like at school, etc . . . And I know what happened before and what will happen after the part of their lives I’m dealing with.’ Alice Munro
Step away from the vehicle – and put your novel in a drawer
This is the final piece of advice I wanted to share with you from Zadie Smith in this series on writing wisdom.
When you finish your novel put it in a drawer for as long as possible. A year or more is ideal, says Smith, but even three months will do. Step away from the vehicle. The secret to editing your work lies in the fact that you must become a reader instead of a writer. Smith says that there have been many times where she has sat backstage with a line of novelists at a literary festival, all with red pens in hand, frantically editing their published novels so that they might go onstage and read from them. Unfortunately the perfect state of mind to edit your own novel is apparently two years after it is published! And ten minutes before you go onstage at a literary festival. At that moment every redundant phrase, each pointless metaphor, all the pieces of deadwood are distressingly obvious to you as a writer.
Several years previously, when the proofs arrived, you looked at the same page and couldn’t see a comma out of place. And by the way, that’s true of the professional editors, too; after they have read a manuscript multiple times, they stop being able to see it. You need a certain head on your shoulders to edit a novel, and it’s not the head of a writer in the thick of it, nor the head of a professional editor who’s read it in 12 different versions. It’s the head of a smart stranger who picks it off a bookshelf and begins to read. You need to get into the head of that smart stranger and forget you ever wrote that book.
Personally, I left my novel for three months and began a Masters in Theology. Needless to say, the theology fell by the wayside once I picked up the book again, cut out a whole family, added two chapters, released it into the hands of my editors and completed the edits once they had finished their job. You don’t need to change course or take up something new, but at least begin some other writing and let it rest.
Here are some of my previous articles which you mind find helpful for editing your work:
Some interesting articles on leaving a gap between finishing your book and editing your work:
http://www.scriptmag.com/features/rewriting-is-writing (this advice is for screenwriting but it applies equally to novels.)
To continue with Zadie Smith’s words on writing, I’d like to look at her breakdown of writers into two categories. They are a little over-simplistic but give a good idea of how differently people plan their writing.
You will recognise a Macro Planner from his Post-its and notebooks. A Macro Planner organises material, forms a plot, and moulds a structure before deciding on a title for their work. This structural security gives him a great deal of freedom of movement. Many Macro Planners, she states, begin writing their novels in the middle. As they progress, forwards or backwards, their difficulties multiply with their choices and they exchange possible endings for one another, take characters out and put them back in, reverse the order of chapters and perform radical surgery on their novels: moving the setting of a book from London to Berlin, for example, or changing the title.
Micro Managers, in great contrast, have no grand plan. Their novels exist in the present moment and are written line by line.
Smith says, ‘When I begin a novel I feel there is nothing of that novel outside of the sentences I am setting down. I have to be very careful: the whole nature of the thing changes by the choice of a few words. This induces a special breed of pathology for which I have another ugly name: OPD or obsessive perspective disorder. It occurs mainly in the first 20 pages. It’s a kind of existential drama, a long answer to the short question What kind of a novel am I writing?’
Opening a variety of novels, you can recognise Micro Managers – there will often be a block of stilted wording which loosens and relaxes after the 20-page mark is passed. Yet while this is happening, somehow the work of the rest of the novel gets done. It is much like winding up a toy car and then letting it go. When you can settle on a tone, the rest of the book will find a groove. Worrying over the first 20 pages is a way of working on the whole novel, a way of finding its structure, its plot, its characters—all of which, for a Micro Manager, she says, are contained in the sensibility of a sentence. Once the tone is there, all else follows. You hear interior decorators say the same about a shade of paint.
This video was filmed at the New York Public Library. Author Zadie Smith begins with this quote:
‘In the middle of a novel, a kind of magical thinking takes over. To clarify, the middle of the novel may not happen in the actual geographical centre of the novel. By middle of the novel I mean whatever page you are on when you stop being part of your household and your family and your partner and children and food shopping and dog feeding and reading the post—I mean when there is nothing in the world except your book, and even as your wife tells you she’s sleeping with your brother her face is a gigantic semi-colon, her arms are parentheses and you are wondering whether rummage is a better verb than rifle. The middle of a novel is a state of mind. Strange things happen in it. Time collapses.’
Here is a summary of the rest of her talk. I found it inspiring and very true:
You need to work hard and make choices that are meaningful.
By the nature of your sentences, you are expressing a belief about the way you see the world.
Your views will change with time.
Delve deep into the consciousness of the characters.
‘Magical thinking makes you crazy and renders everything possible. Incredibly knotty problems with structure now resolve themselves with inspired ease. See that one paragraph? It only needs to be moved and the whole chapter falls into place, but why didn’t you see it before. You randomly pick a poetry book off the shelf and the first line you reads becomes your epigraph. It seems to have been written for no other reason.’
This talk comes from a longer essay written by Zadie Smith. If you enjoyed it, I invite you to come back on Thursday of this week and on Monday week, as I will cover some more of her key points for writing.