How To Close an Open Book
I’m an open book.
Ask the people who know me best, and that’s what they’ll tell you. I’m not secretive. No one has ever described me as “aloof.” I’ve never answered an invitation with the phrase “I have other plans,” because I’m fine just telling you what my other plans are. If you ask me something about my personal life, chances are I’ll give you the answer, even if I don’t know you that well. There is nothing enigmatic about me, and I’ve always been comfortable with that.
Except now that I’m working on my second novel, I wish I knew how to be a little more mysterious. Now, for the first time ever, I’m beginning to realize the importance of keeping my thoughts to myself.
Part of why I’m having such a difficult time keeping silent about my second book is because of the way my first one developed. That story had been in my head for over a decade before I wrote a word, and I lived with the characters for almost as long. They were part of my life, so I spoke about them with my husband and friends. Their saga became part of my conversational repertoire. I never cared about keeping it secret, because I had no expectations. Even when I began to write the words on paper, the idea of publishing a book was just a far-away dream. And after the dream turned into reality – after the book was out in the world – it was even more fun to talk about.
With my next novel, I’m finding that talking isn’t such a good idea.
First of all, I’m not sure what to say. Even general questions like “What are you working on?” have begun to confuse me. When I started writing this second book, I thought I knew my story. I thought I knew my characters. But in the process of researching, another path began to show itself, a path with richer history and more compelling people. My ideas began to shift, my priorities changed, and now, my story is not the same. Answering questions prematurely has made me a little bit of a liar, and there is no guarantee that it won’t happen again. I have learned that ambiguity can be more virtuous than honesty, and a lot less likely to generate regret.
The same is true for sharing excerpts of my unfinished story. I’m not saying I want to lock up my laptop until this novel is finished, but I have begun to understand that sharing incomplete work is a risky endeavor. What if a friend wants me to keep a character I’ve eliminated? What if a necessary plot point is somehow unpopular? Even if I do away with it in the end, the act of writing it might still be necessary in order for another aspect of the story to emerge.
I love my writing group friends and I adore my classmates. But right now, I’m not ready to share too much. Even the thought of it makes me feel vulnerable – like I’m letting go of something that isn’t mine to give away.
Because she is so wise and generous, and because this isn’t her first second novel, my agent instinctively understands my position. Mine was a single book deal, and though the publisher has asked about my next novel, my agent knows me well enough to know that I’m not yet ready to pitch the manuscript. She knows that my story is still developing, and that adding outside voices or deadlines at this point will only muddy my thinking.
Imagine watching someone learn to ride a bike. The rider hits bumps and falls down. The process is messy and it’s easy to criticize technique. There are plenty of moments where you might want to cover your eyes rather than watch the rider swerve around with no apparent control of where she is going.
If I speak too much about my second novel, or if I give too much of it away in advance, it feels like the people listening or reading are watching me learn how to ride a bike. I want them to trust that I am capable enough not to crash, but the fact is, until the words are printed, there are an infinite number of choices and mistakes to be made. I think it’s best if I make those in private.
Happy to provide your weekend inspiration. You’re welcome.
A member of a writers’ group to which I belong woke up one morning with a fully formed story in her head. She had to do a bit of background checking to make sure some elements of the setting were accurate but the basic plot was all there. I’ve never experienced that but I have had dreams that were useful in crafting a narrative.
Dreams, they tell us come from the subconscious. Some suggest they are representative of psychological conflicts working themselves out. Others say they’re just random brain functions sorting informational experiences from the day before. A few believe they are transmissions from the supernatural. I would like to believe the latter because it would be more fun but I have my doubts.
Babies, particularly newborns sleep a lot – some as much as 20 hours per day – some even preferring sleep over food. Do they dream? Probably. Dreams occur during rem sleep. Adults have about 20% rem sleep whereas with babies it’s more like 50%. So if a baby is sleeping 16 – 20 hours a day, that’s a lot of time during which they can dream. Therefore it might be hypothesized that dreams are a means by which the brain sort itself out – establishes neural networks and that sort of thing. Parents report that babies can be pretty active when they sleep. That suggests that while they may not dream quite like adults, their dream life is possibly as real, or more real to them than waking.
Certain psychological practices make use of dreams. In one, the patient selects any character from a dream, imagines the individual sitting across from him and starts a conversation. Then the patient physically moves to the other chair and responds from the dream character’s perspective. The dialog proceeds this way and is supposed to assist in working out underlying mental problems. I don’t know if it does the latter but it’s a pretty good strategy for getting into the head of a new character whether that character originated in a dream or not.
From a writer’s perspective, one of the more useful things about dreams is that they’re unstructured. In a dream, literally anything goes. You can meet and defeat monsters. You can sustain any amount of abuse without feeling any undue pain. You can meet people from your past who have died and you can die yourself without consequences. As a result, dream images can be highly surreal and that is useful for stretching the imagination. Last night for example I met my cousin’s great grandchild. I have no idea whether a great grandchild exists in real life and consider it somewhat unlikely; nevertheless, there she was and her name was Harmony. This is not a name I would normally come up with and I certainly don’t know anyone with such a name but it sounds like one that might fit into a story.