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.