We’ve come to what I think is the most difficult of this series of posts inspired by Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments of Writing. If you haven’t been following along from the beginning, or want another look at the full list of commandments, you can click back to the first post here.
What makes this difficult—for me—is that I have to admit I’m not 100% sure what he’s talking about when he says:
6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
David Caolo, in “Productivity with Henry Miller” thinks, “number six goes back to number one: Don’t start (fertilize) ‘Project B’ until Project A is complete.” But if that’s true, then, so far, four of the first six commandments essentially say the same thing: “Work on one thing at a time until finished,” and the other two tell us to do that happily, whether we want to or not—which is weird when you put it like that.
But that can’t be—there needs to be something new here, something I’m not getting in the distinction between “cement” and “fertilizer.”
“It is better to have a few solid words than the promise of many different ideas that may take shape or not,” Michael Edmondstone added in “Henry Miller’s 11 Commandments for Writing Well.” “Keep your writing focused and stable. Once you have the right foundation, the rest will come.”
I think that gets us closer.
In my mind, the word “cement” means to finish something, to complete it. Then when I hear “add new fertilizers” I think of somehow working to strengthen something you’ve already started. If you’re growing plants, you plant the seed or seedling first then add fertilizer, right? And you keep adding fertilizer as necessary to keep it healthy and growing.
So this is Henry Miller saying: “End up with a little bit of finished text every day instead of adding notes and bits and revisions and edits to existing text.”
This would seem to match up with Heinlein’s third rule: “You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order”—a rule that, at least as interpreted by Dean Wesley Smith, I take some exception with.
But at the same time, I think it is important to avoid a trap that too many of us fall into, which is the myth of perfectionism—the need to revise and revise and revise again and again and again until the act of “working on my novel” replaces the creation of the novel itself—the process becomes a circular end to itself and it’s never done, it’s never read by anyone, including people who might not like it.
Dean Wesley Smith gets into this idea of fear as a motivator to keep revising, and it’s one of the points he and I agree upon.
You do have to, eventually, “cement” the damn thing. You have to send it out to agents or editors or publish it yourself. Writing demands to be read, and readers demand finished writing.
Okay, then, so how do we “cement” (read: finish) a little every day?
Here’s a process that’s worked for me, and I offer it here as a suggestion—it’s at least worth a try.
I tend to think in terms of chapters, but you can break that down into scenes if you like. Go back to the third commandment: “Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.” There we got into the idea of “chunking,” or breaking large tasks into smaller component tasks. Assuming you took that advice, you’re now writing, in ecstasy, some “chunk” of text—a scene, a chapter, however you want to split that up, every day. I often but not always tend to finish a chapter at a time.
So, yesterday you finished a scene, writing in joy and without nervousness and not caring if you spelled everything right or if it’s any good at all, regardless of the mood you might have been in. Today, then, go back over that chunk of text and cement it.
What I do is start a day’s writing by editing yesterday’s writing. This is at the very least a clean-up pass but might be a pretty severe rewrite, based on last night’s sleep. Did some logic gap, some plot point I forgot, or some better idea keep me up? In any case, now I go ahead and cement that, editing with intent. At the end of that short process I now have a rough-done scene (or chapter, etc.) and the story is fresh in my head so I can then move into the next scene and write it in ecstasy.
Eventually, then, revising Chapter 1 then writing Chapter 2 on Monday; revising Chapter 2 then writing Chapter 3 on Tuesday; and so on, I build the book one chapter at a time.
And here’s where—ah . . . it’s as if the clouds have parted even as I type this—Henry Miller and I match up again. I cement that chapter, joyfully write the next, but then add no new fertilizer . . . until the full revision pass.
When I say “full revision pass,” I mean once I’ve gotten to the end of the rough draft and have the (mostly) finished book, from the first chapter to the last. I can then start at the beginning and read it as a whole, revising the beginning in accordance with new ideas and left turns I’ve taken along the way, and revising the ending based on a fresher recollection of the beginning, which I may have written in ecstasy and edited with intent some months ago.
But other than that one pass on each chapter as I go, I don’t add more fertilizer to the previous chapters while I’m still barreling through the rough draft. I make copious notes—reminders to go back and fix this scene, add that character, cut something, and so on—but I don’t actually do any of those revisions until I have the full rough draft done. Then that full revision takes me from rough draft (only I ever see it) to first draft (time for an editor or at least a trusted first reader to start offering good advice).
Okay, how do I rewrite this for my own list of commandments?
6. Clean up yesterday’s writing then write the next section, which you’ll clean up tomorrow before adding tomorrow’s new text. Do no further revision until the rough draft is done.
I bet there’s a leaner way to say that. Something like, “Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.”