Thursday, October 04, 2007

NH: Brooding

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 ( when aspiring authors are encouraged to “write a novel in thirty days” I need at least that long to brood.

Don’t you?

Nick Harrison edits fiction at Harvest House Publishers . . . when he's not brooding.


At 6:54 PM, Blogger John Robinson said...

Good stuff as always, Nick. You've given me a lot to brood about! *G*

At 7:00 PM, Blogger Bryan Polivka said...


I don't know about any other authors, but this is an excellent description of my habits... except for the notebook part. Put in this context, I think I would say that part of brooding for me is memorization. Or maybe, to keep with the metaphor, it's imprinting. If it doesn't return to the fore every time I think about it (that scene, that character, that plot line), then it probably isn't worthy of the page.

And I do a lot of brooding about scenes I've already written. There's a moment when it turns the corner, when that last little flair or phrase is added, and I know it's complete. Often that doesn't happen sitting at the laptop.

Drive time, by the way, is excellent brood time for me. I missed a lot of exits writing The Legend of the Firefish, and its companions!

Thanks for putting some clarity and definition around this rather obscure, but critical, component.

--George Bryan Polivka

At 7:21 PM, Blogger Charis Connection said...

What a great post, Nick.

BJ (a brooder ... but then you already knew that ...)

At 10:04 PM, Blogger ~michelle pendergrass said...

I almost didn't read this, I'm glad I did. Not that I needed permission to brood, it seems instinctual. But to make the connection that the brooding might be what makes the story have depth is something I have thought to be true, though never expressed it outside of my wee little brain at night before sleep.

I believe instinct is something that needs to be honed in this writing life.

At 8:15 AM, Blogger Richard L. Mabry, MD said...

Great, insightful, extremely useful post. Thanks.

At 7:10 PM, Blogger Rachelle said...

Nick -- Wow, it's been awhile since I checked in to Charis and boy was I surprised to see you here. What a treat!

And I LOVE this whole idea of brooding. I've actually been chastising myself for all the time I seem to spend "procrastinating" immediately before writing a book. But I have to admit, "brooding" is a more accurate term. It's exactly what I do... and it can take several weeks. I've noticed that the longer I spend brooding, the quicker I'm able to write the book because it just seems to flow. I don't think I could even write a book with the necessary brooding time. Funny, though -- I never seem to put it on the schedule.

This post was a lightbulb moment for me... thanks! How wonderful to realize that maybe I'm not just a lazy procrastinator.

At 9:36 PM, Blogger PatriciaW said...

Thanks for dropping in on we loyal readers from time to time to impart pearls of publishing wisdom.

Lots to thin...make that, brood about.

At 12:05 AM, Blogger Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

Well spoken. I had been chastising myself for thinking so much, equating it to procrastination.

Now I know that brooding is an important part of the process!

At 11:11 PM, Blogger Karen said...

I'm currently "brooding" over a screenplay now. I have a binder and notebook where I put all my ideas, dialogue scenes and whatever inspires me to find out what the core of my story REALLY is.

It's really encouraging to know that I'm not the only one who goes through this stage.

Great post!

At 9:38 AM, Blogger Kristy Dykes said...

Thank you for an insightful post. I love the verb "brood." Reminds me of what God did when He created the earth. The Bible says, "The earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water." Then God said, 'Let there be light!' and there was light" (Genesis 1:2,3).

When we start writing our stories, they are without form and void and dark.

Let there be light! in my stories, oh Lord I pray!

Thanks again.

At 9:38 AM, Blogger C.J. Darlington said...

I totally get this brooding idea. It makes my writing so much stronger. But here's the thing. It kinda scares me, too. Because it makes me wonder if the only books that are going to be any good as I write them are the ones whose ideas have been sitting in my head for a long period of time. Do you find that to be true? Or do you think a powerful book can be written from a flash of an idea as well? Anyone care to comment on that?

At 4:12 PM, Blogger Timothy Fish said...

I like that term brood. I am brooding five novels and a non-fiction book at the moment. That doesn't include the book that I am currently writing. I think the non-fiction book will come next. (Something has to pay the bills.) That means that the last of the novels is sure to have more than a year of brooding time. I don't keep a notebook, instead I keep folder to hold notes that I make. It can hold anything from legal paper to post-it notes to toilet paper tissue. Brooding has an amazing ability to resolve issues with storylines and I will forget some of the better things if I do not write things down.

At 3:16 PM, Blogger Martha W. Rogers said...

I just realized that this is what I do with my manuscripts. When I "brood" over them, I find new characteristics in my characters, characters I didn't know existed until they jumped into my mind and told me so. Walking time in the mornings or riding my bicycle are excellent brooding times for me and the "what if" questions.

Thanks for giving me a name for this habit. From reading other comments, it's great to see that others do it too. I'm afraid I still don't do it enough.


At 8:39 AM, Blogger Lynette Sowell said...

This is something I'm learning to do more and more. I still have an idea that I tried working on in the past, but I think I didn't let it brood enough--had all my research in place, but it didn't resound with much of anyone. LOL. Maybe one day it will, and I think in this case it is directly related to character. Thanks! Someone directed me here--I didn't know Charis Connection was back...

At 1:41 PM, Blogger DW said...

I'll make you a deal, Nick. I won't turn Harvest House titles spine out if you don't turn B&H titles spine out. :)


At 1:32 PM, Blogger Cassandra said...

Iknow what brooding is;after ten years of waiting to start writing until our four sons were big enough.
It has been very encouraging to see myself in the observations of other writers, and lends much excitement to the dicovery that I do have ability, after doubting myself for so long. Thanks, all!


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