Welcome to the penultimate chapter of this rather long series of posts inspired by Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments of Writing. As always, 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.
This week, it feels as though Mr. Miller is repeating himself with:
10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
. . . which certainly feels of a kind with the first two commandments: “Work on one thing at a time until finished,” and “Start no more new books, add no more new material to Black Spring.” But of course I can’t just leave it at that so let’s see if we can dig into this for some separate meaning.
In “Cement Not Fertilizers,” Kat Sommers wrote:
I think my favourite is “Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing”. There’s such a disjunction between the two—what you want to write and what you’re able to write. Sometimes the fear of the latter means you write nothing at all.
We have looked at the idea of fear—being afraid to get started, afraid of committing to one project, and so on, but here I think Miller is going back to that warning against distraction. It could be that what you’re working on now is a fun, commercial, YA fantasy novel. It’s a great idea, you like your characters, and the outline at least feels good—feels like a story.
But it isn’t the Great American Novel.
First of all, who says that a YA fantasy can’t be the Great American Novel? In fact, one of the primary contenders for that crown, To Kill a Mockingbird, is a YA novel, though not fantasy. And how important to the culture, in general, is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland?
Let’s just agree that as an author you have no say whatsoever in your book’s legacy. Classic status isn’t written into the text—it comes later and always from surprising directions.
So then what is that Great American Novel that’s pushing you away from the Work in Progress?
I have this idea that’s been percolating in my head for years now—a historical novel—that I’ve made some stabs at researching, but always end up setting aside for other things. It’s an idea, still, and a notebook full of historical notes and scattered character sketches and plot points, but I haven’t felt as though I’m ready to start writing it because I’m not sure I’ve done enough research—so that idea sits while I wander through other stuff. Even before I saw these commandment’s of Henry Miller’s, I’d set that idea aside—the book I want to write—in favor of the book I am writing.
And here’s the big disconnect . . .
Phil the author is waiting until he’s “ready” to start that historical novel, though in some ways that idea sometimes eclipses my enthusiasm for the work in progress—the book I do feel “ready” for. (And I’ve put “ready” in quotes because I’m not sure I have a clear definition for what that means in this context.) I’m following Henry Miller’s advice.
But as an editor, as a consultant who works with authors sometimes with their whole careers in mind, my advice would actually be—and has actually very recently been—just the opposite.
Write the book you care the most about—the story that speaks to you, that won’t let you sleep at night, that won’t go away.
Even if it is a big, scary historical epic. Even if it doesn’t match up to anything on the current best sellers list (which, by the way, will look completely different by the time you’ve finished writing either the for-profit YA dystopian SF thing or the philosophically rich, borderline preachy historical).
I do, for what it’s worth, agree in spirit that once you’ve committed yourself to a project, you should do your best to see it through. But at the same time I’ve advised, and will continue to advise, that you walk away from a story you find wanting. If you’re just torturing yourself, trying to slog through some failed attempt, at some point the rational thing to do is recognize it as a failed attempt, learn from your mistakes, and be a better writer for the next idea.
For me, the dark fantasy will still come first, then the historical, but I think I need to move that up, research be damned. After all, another piece of advice that I actually gave to an author last week is to just dive in and start writing. The characters and the unfolding story will tell you where the holes in your research are.
I’ll take that advice to heart with my big, scary historical.
At first, I thought that this week I’d break from Henry Miller enough to simply not include this in a reworked version for my own “commandments,” but then reading back I think this bears repeating, and should be in every author’s mind:
10. Write the book you care the most about—the story that speaks to you, that won’t let you sleep at night, that won’t go away.