Part II. Unknown Unknowns

Image © GS1311

Mock Donald Rumsfeld all you like for his famous “Unknown unknowns” remark about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but he was right: it’s the stuff you don’t know that you don’t know that will sneak up from behind and steal your money and passport while you’re admiring the gargoyles.  He was guilty of nothing more than infelicity (and, perhaps, war crimes).

When I committed to finishing my novel this summer, I thought I knew what the greatest challenges would be: finding time, staying focused, avoiding getting absorbed in minutiae, and making writing my priority.

Worrying about whether I knew enough about novels to proceed, however, never occurred to me.  I thought I knew all about novels. An obsessive reader since age four, an English teacher, a librarian and a one-time doctoral candidate in literature, I never doubted for a moment that I had absorbed from the hundreds, maybe thousands of novels I have read, their logic, their rhythms and deep structures. As a student of literature, I can explain (elegantly!) what a given novelist has done to create ensouled characters, a richly-imagined world, and thematic meaning larger than the story itself, but Unknown Unknown #1 is that analysis does not equal creation.  That was the nastiest Unknown Unknown of all, the one from which most of the other Unknown Unknowns followed, like Pride’s starring role in the Seven Deadly Sins.  Here are a few others:

Unknown Unknown #2: Chapters

What is a chapter?  Do you know?  If you do, please post a comment and tell me, because I have no idea.  Realizing that I didn’t know what constituted the basic unit of a novel, and consequently didn’t know whether or not I was done writing one, was a humbling experience.  Some novelists limit chapters to scenes: once an interaction is over, the chapter ends.  Other novelists create long chapters that consist of several scenes, separated with white space or asterisks.  If you opt for longer chapters (and regular readers of this blog, all four of you, can probably guess which kind I prefer), then how do you know when one is over?  Damned if I know, which is why the drafts of chapters so far range from 615 to 6940 words, and many points between.  Was I absent the day someone went over this?

Unknown Unknown #3: Description

Novelists describe people, places and things so that readers can inhabit the world of the story.  While some novelists paint detailed landscapes and physical character studies for the sheer pleasure of it, depicting every aspect of an environment is impossible, not to mention excruciatingly boring to read. Writers must make constant choices about what to describe and what to omit, and your taste in fiction may hinge largely on how much description you find necessary. Or tolerable. I have never wanted more details about a character’s shoes or about a particular aspen tree than what was provided, though I have often (pace Tolkein and Paolini) desired far less. Writers like Hemingway and Pym, on the other hand, play strip poker with readers, daring to discover how much they can remove while remaining decent.

Since I’m neither a visual person nor a fan of description, my temptation is to write dialogue and the interior life of the characters as if they live in a MOMA exhibit of minimalist furniture. Determined to correct this tendency, I wrote pages and pages describing the house in which my story takes place, only to find, courtesy of my writing group, that I had overcompensated. But what is the “right” amount and kind of description?

If my characters are engaged in an intensely emotional conversation in a cafe, does the reader need to know what they’re drinking? That the boy brushed his hair out of his eyes and that the girl played with the wrapper of her straw? That the despair on the visage of the hipster barista worries the manager?  Some good writers include all of this and more; some good writers leave it all out. Then, there’s me, still wondering, as I balance the laptop precariously on my knees, settling deeper into the cushions of the moss-green loveseat so battered by the depredations of rabbits and children.

Unknown Unknown #4: Technicalities

If two characters are going to kiss, they need to be close and getting closer by the moment. Building their emotional and sexual tension to the point where the kiss is inevitable is fun. Getting their bodies aligned so that a kiss is physically possible is a technical challenge. Characters, furthermore, may not have conversations that it would be impossible for them to have until certain other events have already taken place.  Whatever activities they are engaged in must be feasible in the weather the author has indicated.  Characters who live 200 miles inland probably can’t take a day trip to the ocean, and copper pots that have been hanging in a kitchen untouched for years are very likely not shiny. Common sense, isn’t it?  But I have made absurd errors with every one of these rules and have probably made a hundred more that I just haven’t caught yet.  Logical and technical problems are sneaky.

I persist in writing because I believe I have a story to tell and something worth saying about love and cruelty and survival, but I spend a lot of time figuring out how to get people in and out of chairs without drawing unnecessary attention to the seating arrangements. No reader can pay attention to my Deeper Meaning if two characters who started out sitting eight feet apart in opposite chairs are suddenly perched in the porch swing, close enough to count each other’s freckles, without some intervening matter.

Unknown Unknown #5: Addiction

I didn’t know how addicted I was to social media, and how tempting it is to compose witty 140-character remarks instead of facing the awful truth that I’ve written a whole scene whose logic depends on something happening previously that I forgot to make happen, and that now seems too awkward, or simply impossible, to fit in.   A Chrome plug-in called StayFocusd (whose inventor has a warped sense of humor), helped enormously.  I could shut off Facebook and Twitter, while still keeping my access to Google Image search and other online reference tools that help me work instead of feeding my distraction.

Unknown Unknowns: Yet Unknown

Quite possibly, there are dozens, scores, hundreds of things I don’t know that are sabotaging my best efforts, even now. The trouble is, of course, that I have no way of knowing what they are.

About Julie Goldberg

Julie Goldberg has lived a life entirely too entangled with books. She is a school librarian, former English teacher, compulsive reader, occasional jazz singer and the author of Lily in the Light of Halfmoon. You can email her at and follow her on Twitter @juliegoldberg.
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13 Responses to Part II. Unknown Unknowns

  1. Ceil Kessler says:

    Hmm. I am tempted to post an opinion on a couple of your questions, but first let me check…nope, I’ve never written a novel. I started one the other day, but for reasons of – let’s say health – it was not an auspicious beginning. I like the questions though, I’ll definitely be on the lookout for them as my own work progresses. By the way, Unknown Unknowns are usually my greatest nemesis. Also…How did I miss Part I of this topic. Going back, prob tomorrow. (It’s 2:30am)

  2. I haven’t written a novel, either, so your opinions are as valid as mine. Opine away!

  3. Donna Miele says:

    I know as much as you, but I’d say, if paragraphs are like the waves hitting the beach, chapters are like the tides. In other words, it’s all about achieving the rhythm you want–the pleasing, symmetrical thrum, or the jarring, asynchronous clatter. So as you fill up pages, you’ll decide whether two or three scenes together make up a satisfying dramatic chunk for a chapter, or whether you like the feeling of having them broken into shorter bits. Subjective. On description, so what if you overwrite, you can always go back and take away; the point is to heighten drama, and again, to contribute to the overall rhythm and flow with narrative technique. What you leave in or take out is, again, highly subjective (readers will let you know what works for them or not, but you have to agree). But you know what I want to know? How the heck do you have the patience to make your blog look so nice? I started playing around with WordPress last night and Ken actually paled at some of the language I was hurling at my poor computer (which was doing its best).

  4. That’s a great way to think about chapters. You’ve convinced me. I can move that one into Knowns, I guess. After awhile, I just got a certain feeling of completeness and satisfaction that told me when to stop, but who knows whether one can trust something so wily as a feeling?
    As for the blog, I don’t know what I’m doing. I write in Google Docs, copy and paste into WordPress and fool around a very little bit with the teeny bit of HTML that I have learned. I’m using the free version. I hear that the pay version is infinitely customizable, but I’ve got enough problems.

  5. Matt Snyder says:

    Aren’t most first (or even second and third) novels thrown out by their authors anyway and counted toward the 10,000 hour rule (that in order to get reasonably good at something difficult you need to devote a minimum of 10,000 hours to doing it)?

    Evelyn Waugh was very very very good at ending chapters. The last sentence of every chapter of Brideshead Revisited is somehow devastating, and hard to follow.

    • Some are, but many aren’t. Some very famous novels were their authors’ first books. Here’s a rather impressive list: I do live in fear that sometime when I’m almost done, I’m going to say to myself, “Uh-oh. Just realized that this is utter crap,” and have to throw it on the fire, but I couldn’t get up the energy to write it if I believed that every day.

      • Matt Snyder says:

        If you do end up throwing it out, it doesn’t mean the idea gets thrown out, does it? Couldn’t you re-write the same story, with the advantage of knowing what not to do the second time around? Or is it too depressing or tiring to go through the same long process again for the same story?

      • I don’t know! I hope never to find out. I have heard authors say in interviews that some section or concept from a discarded novel was rolled into their next project. But it’s also true sometimes that after the person’s second or third attempt is published, an agent or published gets curious about what’s been shoved in a drawer, so maybe some of those failures get revived and reworked.

        Once upon a time, in college, I began writing a novel that went about three or four chapters before petering out. I think there are traces of the main character of that failed attempt, as well as some ideas about the relationship between women and their houses, in the mother of the main character of my current effort.

  6. OGRe says:

    Julie, I just love how your post is littered with gems: “analysis does not equal creation” and “Writers like Hemingway and Pym, on the other hand, play strip poker with readers, daring to discover how much they can remove while remaining decent.” I think you’ve grasped the gist of the answer to all but your technical issues. Subjective, yes, according to what you want to convey and to the nature of your desired audience. As a person who either can’t follow detailed descriptions (visual spatial issues, anyone?) or gets distracted by them, I say ‘strip it!’ I was loving the sense of you with your laptop on the moss-green something or other, and then I started picturing rabbits. Is that what you wanted?

  7. Thanks, Elena! No, the loveseat is pretty torn up by our late, lamented bunny rabbit, and what I was trying to do there was to show how difficult it is to decide what kinds of description to include. Does the reader need to know that my loveseat is moss green? That the kids and their pet have done it nearly to death? That my laptop is on my knees? I never know, especially as someone who, like you, is not a fan of description as a reader. If I ever finish my book and find someone who wants to publish it, I hope to find a wise editor who knows.

  8. OGRe says:

    Yes, that’s what I meant to convey. It all depends on where you want the reader’s mind to roam…is the lamented rabbit supporting the main point or a diversion? But of course, you are right. You don’t have to decide everything. That’s what editors and second readers and support groups are for.

  9. Pingback: I Don’t Have Time to Believe in Writer’s Block | Magnificent Nose

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