The other night my wife and I went out to dinner. After our meal, she announced that she wanted to go the nearby mall for about an hour. No problem for me. Right across the street from the mall is a very delightful Barnes & Noble. An hour in a bookstore is right up there with an hour-long massage. So off we went.
As is my custom, I headed first to the new books, envying the editors of some and thanking God I was not the editor of others. Next came the bargain books (and it was easy to see why some once promising frontlist titles were now “bargains”). Then I checked out the “staff favorites.” As usual, no one working at Barnes & Noble reads the type of books I enjoy (nor do any of them read Christian books, apparently). Then I wandered over to the Christian fiction section and turned all the Harvest House novels face out. I won’t tell you whose books I had to turn spine out in order to accomplish this. Then I took a few minutes to read the first few pages of our next book group selection to see if it’s going to be a good read. (It is). Finally, nearing the end of my hour, I made my way to the magazine racks. Among the writing magazines was the most recent copy of Paris Review. I’ve long admired their book-length collections of interviews with famous authors and skimmed through an interview in this issue with Norman Mailer. Not too far into the interview I had another one of those “aha” moments we writers get when we read something that rings true to our writing experience.
“I usually need a couple of weeks to warm up on a book,” Mailer said. He also said that sometimes he “broods” over his book before and during the writing.
I like that. He “broods.” If I were to name one common problem among much of the fiction I see in my role as an editor, it’s that the author has clearly not brooded long enough over the story either before beginning the book or as it was written.
Brooding, by the way, is not research. I know many novelists put in the necessary research before beginning their book….but I wonder how many put in the necessary brooding time. An unbrooded book is pretty easy to spot. Simply put, it has no life to it. It’s just a story—a lifeless story. Brooding imparts life into a story. Brooding allows an author time to get to know his or her characters. It also allows the writer time to get to know the story not as a set of events unfolding but as fictional history that the author and reader experience as reality.
How does brooding happen? Most authors will say that their books begin with just a single idea. Either a “what if” or a character who appears to them or some other small seed of a story. So the brooding starts when the seed is planted. Brooding continues as the seed idea is watered and given the sunshine of further imaginative thought so that it can grow into full bloom—sometimes (but not always) before the author even types page one.
Some women novelists compare this brooding time to carrying a baby. An expectant mother, no matter how eager, wouldn’t want to deliver her baby after only three, five, or even seven months. No, she wants that baby to wait until full term (even though the final weeks can seem endless), because when the baby is finally delivered, it’s far more likely to be a healthy baby than if delivered prematurely. So too with a book. A successful brooding period results in a healthier book.
What then does an author do while brooding? How does brooding happen? Does an author simply sit on one’s hands or play video games until the brooding process is complete? No, of course not. A good author knows that the time spent brooding brings results during the brooding process, in addition to after its finish.
For that reason, a notebook is indispensable during brooding; because, as an author broods, insight begins to somehow mysteriously happen—and sometimes at the most unexpected times and in the most inconvenient places. For some reason, this insight that comes during brooding will come at no other time in the creative process of writing a novel. Other valuable insights may come then, but not brooding insight. That’s why it’s important to capture this valuable insight while it’s fresh. Write it down the moment it occurs to you.
Brooding over the actual manuscript is encouraged too. Brood over the open document on your computer. Type snippets of dialogue that come to you. Revise scenes. If brooding is going well, your characters will speak to you during this time. Listen to them. They may suggest new motivations for their actions….or, if you’re brooding particularly well, one or more might even rebel against your predictable plot and reveal their true story, much to your surprise.
So don’t think of brooding as a passive time. A good writer’s mind is always active, always considering, always tinkering with the work at hand. Stephen King in On Writing refers to this as the “boys in the basement” doing their work.
One might think that this warm-up or “brooding” time becomes easier as a novelist progresses, but interestingly, Mailer says that these days (he’s in his 80’s and has been writing successfully for more than 50 years) his warm-up time for a new novel can take up to six months. Six months! That’s far longer than when he began writing all those decades ago. And I suspect if we were to ask Mr. Mailer, he would tell us that the brooding process cannot be hurried up….rushed. Just like a pregnancy.
Yes, there are successful writers who can churn out a book (maybe more than one) in less time than Mailer broods over his books, but as I read these novels I often wonder how much better they might have been had they been properly brooded over. And if you’re a beginning novelist, you may already know how hard it is to find a publishing home these days, simply because of the intense competition. If brooding will improve your fiction—and I believe it will—then it will give your novel a distinct advantage over the many unbrooded (and lifeless) novel manuscripts that come across editors’ desks.
As I set Paris Review back on the rack, my wife arrived to pick me up. She had a great time at the mall, she said. But I had a better time. I had been reminded of an important lesson about writing fiction. I also realized why I had failed so miserably two years ago during National Novel Writing Month (http://www.nanowrimo.org/) when aspiring authors are encouraged to “write a novel in thirty days” I need at least that long to brood.
Nick Harrison edits fiction at Harvest House Publishers . . . when he's not brooding.