The Value of Percolation

From Jane Friedman:

I love learning how the brain works during the writing process. I’ve mostly been interested in how to “turn on” the brain’s right, creative hemisphere through exercises like free writing. A book I recently read gave me insight into a different aspect of the writing process: the value of not writing—of setting aside an unfinished draft.

How We Learn by Benedict Carey (Random House, 2014) explains scientific research on how the brain learns. While much of the book concerns rote memorization, I was drawn to chapter 7, which details how the brain approaches long-term projects (such as writing a novel).

Most writers have heard this advice: set aside your draft to revise later. And most of us have experienced new insights when coming back to a manuscript. Why is it helpful to set aside a draft? Why do we sometimes get insights about our writing when we are not working on it? Carey calls this process “percolation.”

The first element of percolation: interruption

When a project is interrupted at an important or difficult moment, that keeps the project at the top of our brain’s to-do list. Most of us have limited time to write, and some of us believe we should not start a story or novel unless we’ll have time to finish. But interruption is actually good for a long project and means that you can start a book whenever you want.

When my children were small, I used to wake up at 5am and spend one hour working on my fiction before I went to work. That’s all the time I had: one hour per day. I had no idea if my writing would come together in anything publishable, but I treasured that quiet hour when no one was demanding my attention, and I could focus on something I craved. Because I interrupted my writing every morning, I was still thinking about it (consciously and I’m sure subconsciously as well) during the day, and when I sat down the next morning, I often had some new ideas. Although it took years, I was able to write my novel And Laughter Fell from the Sky in one hour per day (as well as some occasional longer stretches when my husband would take the kids away for a weekend).

As my children grew older, and once I started working as a teacher, I had longer stretches of time to write during school breaks. When in the midst of a project, I would often lose track of time. I’d work throughout the day, and as much as I enjoyed the process, I wondered: was I really being productive, or was I spinning my wheels re-reading, tinkering, or heading down the wrong path?

A few years ago, I found out about a practice called the “Pomodoro Technique,” which involves setting a timer for 25 minutes and working steadily during that time. Each “pomodoro” session is separated by a short break of up to 5 minutes. I set a timer on my phone and purposely put the phone in a different room, so I am forced to stand up from my computer and walk at least a short distance to turn off the pomodoro. If I’m in the flow of writing, sometimes I head right back to my computer after setting another pomodoro. At other times, I take a few minutes to wash some dishes or fold a few clothes. Even a short interruption can help, due to something Carey refers to as “selective forgetting.” A short break helps us forget about any blind paths or misleading avenues we were heading down. Even a tiny interruption helps my brain re-set. Sometimes, as I’m washing the dishes, I’ll get an idea about a line of dialogue to try, or an insight into a character.

The second element of percolation: the tuned, scavenging mind

When you have a project in mind, you are subconsciously attuned to any clues or information in your environment that might be relevant. “Having a goal foremost in mind…tunes our perceptions to fulfilling it,” says Carey.

It is important, therefore, when setting aside unfinished work, to keep your mind open to solutions. In the past, when I did not have a solution to a problem in my writing, I felt uncomfortable. I would try to argue the problem out of existence, try to convince myself that everything was fine. The problem was still there, though. Inevitably, critiques would point out the flaw I was trying to ignore. But because my mind had been closed—because I had been telling myself there was no problem—I had not come up with any solutions yet. Finally, I realized it was better to accept that nagging, uncomfortable feeling that said “something’s wrong here,” even when I didn’t know how to solve the problem. Being open to solutions often allowed solutions to suggest themselves later on.

Recently, I was pulling together a short story from segments of an unpublished novel that I’d worked on years ago and then abandoned. This short story has three sections, and I didn’t like the way the first section ended. The last line seemed too final for the first section of a story. I had the urge to argue away the problem, but fortunately I allowed myself to feel uncomfortable with having a problem and not knowing how to fix it. Some days later, I hit upon a possible solution: make the last sentence of the section into a line of dialogue, and have the other character react to it. I tried it, and liked the way it worked.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

3 thoughts on “The Value of Percolation”

  1. I have to agree. You have to let something that seems wrong continue to bother you, and trust that a fix will eventually suggest itself. Trying to argue it away is futile — the “wrong” will always nag at you and feel like a flaw.

    One of the hardest parts about starting to write novels (I barely do short forms) in 2013 was, of all the things I didn’t know what to expect, learning to trust that my brain will indeed chew on things until it is satisfied, and I can rely on that to happen, that it’s nothing to panic about.

    Right now I’m writing book 3 of a new (not yet released) long series, but out of the blue a dream suggested the major pivot point for book 5, wholly blank of plot at the time (unlike book 4 where I have a vague idea of what’s coming), and I’ve been chewing on and fleshing out that midpoint of a book in the absence of any of the rest of it. And I’m now experienced enough (10 books written) that I don’t see any issue with letting the pivot for that book spin out in both directions to suggest the bones of both the start and the finish. After all, if it’s striking to me in this obsessive way, it’ll be striking to my readers — I just need to find the rest of the story around it.

    I love having that confidence in the process. It feels like a whole new level in what I’m trying to do. I may never find tons of readers, but I can at least feel pride in my products.

    • Some of the best series are actually a single extended narrative broken into publishable chunks. Knowing what future segments cover allows for proper setup and makes for a more coherent flow. What you are dealing with is a *good* thing.

      And everything I’ve heard makes it clear authors need to trust themselves over everybody else. In tbe end it is your name on the product. It has to reflect you. Accepting comment is fine but in the end your vision must prevail.

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