Writing Is Easy, Except When It Isn’t

Tom Levenson has another excellent piece in his series on the writing of his forthcoming book on Newton, this one on hitting a wall:

The one bit of history specific to the Newton and the Counterfeiter project came when I hit a wall. I had written about a quarter of the manuscript by the autumn of 2006 – I’d even submitted a chunk of it to the departmental committee pondering my tenure case, which is as those of you in the academy will know, something of a fraught moment.

But as I tried to make the turn out of what was in essence back-story, my account of Newton’s life up to the point of his arrival at the Mint and the start of his confrontation with the counterfeiter of my title, William Chaloner, I found that I could not make any progress.

It’s a familiar feeling to anybody who has written much of anything, from papers for college classes to blog posts to a book. The obvious question, though, is how does this happen when you’ve gone through the process of writing a proposal with a detailed outline and everything? Basically, because the map isn’t the territory.

Put this another way: proposals are supposed to be persuasive documents, and all parties to the project know this. But it is important to remember that a few pages of compressed description of the book does not necessarily draw a map that adequately describes the work-as-it-will/must-be. I had followed the outline I had proposed until it didn’t work, and the job I then had to do – and it took me about a month – was to rework what I now knew about my idea into a story that I could tell.

That is, of course, the nub of the writer’s job. Again, just getting material together is easy, relatively speaking. There is a cool stuff out there everywhere, on every topic. The trick is giving your reader a reason to keep reading from one sentence to the next, from paragraph to paragraph; past the chapter break and on to the end. I had found the point at which the necessity of reading further failed, and that meant I had no choice but to cease writing until I had re-ordered my thoughts and whatever I had on paper until that sense of inevitability in the writing returned.

The sort of thing I was doing in the book-in-production (whose page proofs are languishing atop a stereo speaker until this endless annoying term is over) is different than the sort of thing he’s doing in the Newton book, but the experience he describes rings true. I had several different hit-the-wall moments, of a couple of different types.

One type was just content-based. I got hung up for a good while on what became Chapter 4, because I needed to sort out a bunch of things about decoherence for myself before I could explain them to anyone else. I refused to fall back on the cop-out “interactions with the environment are like little measurements that collapse the wavefunction” thing that is the standard refuge of people writing about quantum mechanics. Having taken that stance, though, I needed to find a way to say something about what’s really going on, and that was a miserable process. The physics involved is subtle and complicated, and making it comprehensible was really tough.

The other big crisis was one of structure. I went into the project thinking of it as a fairly straightforward physics book, with dog conversations to open and close each chapter, and just physics explanations in between. I had rejected the idea of doing most of it as Q&A with the dog, because I just don’t think that conceit could be stretched to book length.

The problem was, the physics explanations got awfully thick in places. I tried to lighten it up as much as possible, by having all the examples be dog-related, but it was still a bit of a slog.

Eventually, I went back to the talking-to-the-dog thing, and settled on the idea of the dog reading through the manuscript with me, and breaking in from time to time to request clarification, or just make silly comments when things were getting kind of hairy. This greatly inflated the word count, but turned out to work even better than I had hoped– whenever the explanation hits a subtle point, Emmy can pipe up with the sorts of questions that readers are likely to be asking themselves, and present things in a slightly different way. It also helps to break up sections where a lot of background is involved– she can break in to suggest something silly and improbable, and liven things up enough to (hopefully) keep people reading.

I did try to stick with the original concept in one way, though– I did my best to make the straight physics explanations complete in and of themselves, so that if you took out the dog bits, you would still have a complete description of the physics involved. This was mostly out of sheer stubbornness, but I think I managed– there’s one point in chapter 4 where I present some fairly important information only in a dog interjection, but I couldn’t think of a more graceful way to do it.

All of which is basically a long way of saying “I agree with Tom Levenson.” The problem he describes seems fairly universal– what you think you’re going to do and what eventually turns out to work are two different things.

Which is why writers are such cheerful and well-adjusted people…