The other night my wife and I went out to dinner. After our meal, she announced that she wanted to go the nearby mall for about an hour. No problem for me. Right across the street from the mall is a very delightful Barnes & Noble. An hour in a bookstore is right up there with an hour-long massage. So off we went.

As is my custom, my first task was to look over the new books, envying the editors of some of the books and thanking God I was not the editor of others. Next came the bargain books (and it was easy to see why some once promising frontlist titles were now “bargains”.) Then I checked out the “staff favorites.” As usual, no one working at Barnes & Noble reads the type of books I enjoy (nor do any of them read Christian books, apparently). Then I wandered over to the Christian fiction section and turned all the Harvest House novels face out (and yours too, Angie). I won’t tell you whose books I had to turn spine out in order to accomplish this. Then I took a few minutes to read the first few pages of our next book group selection to see if it’s going to be a good read. (It is). Finally, nearing the end of my hour, I made my way to the magazine racks. Among the writing magazines was the most recent copy of Paris Review. I’ve long admired their book-length collections of interviews with famous authors and skimmed through an interview in this issue with Norman Mailer. Not too far into the interview I had another one of those “aha” moments we writers get when we read something that rings true to our writing experience.

“I usually need a couple of weeks to warm up on a book,” Mailer said. He also said that sometimes he “broods” over his book before and during the writing.

I like that. He “broods.” If I were to name one common problem among much of the fiction I see in my role as an editor, it’s that the author has clearly not brooded long enough over the story either before beginning the book or as it was written.

Brooding, by the way, is not research. I know many novelists put in the necessary research before beginning their book….but I wonder how many put in the necessary brooding time. An unbrooded book is pretty easy to spot. Simply put, it has no life to it. It’s just a story—a lifeless story. Brooding imparts life into a story. Brooding allows an author time to get to know his or her characters. It also allows the writer time to get to know the story not as a set of events unfolding but as fictional history that the author and reader experience as reality.

How does brooding happen? Most authors will say that their books begin with just a single idea. Either a “what if” or a character who appears to them or some other small seed of a story. So the brooding starts when the seed is planted. Brooding continues as the seed idea is watered and given the sunshine of further imaginative thought so that it can grow into full bloom—sometimes (but not always) before the author even types page one.

Some women novelists compare this brooding time to carrying a baby. An expectant mother, no matter how eager, wouldn’t want to deliver her baby after only three, five, or even seven months. No, she wants that baby to wait until full term (even though the final weeks can seem endless), because when the baby is finally delivered, it’s far more likely to be a healthy baby than if delivered prematurely. So too with a book. A successful brooding period results in a healthier book.

What then does an author do while brooding? How does brooding happen? Does an author simply sit on one’s hands or play video games until the brooding process is complete? No, of course not. A good author knows that the time spent brooding brings results during the brooding process, in addition to after its finish.

For that reason, a notebook is indispensable during brooding; because, as an author broods, insight begins to somehow mysteriously happen—and sometimes at the most unexpected times and in the most inconvenient places. For some reason, this insight that comes during brooding will come at no other time in the creative process of writing a novel. Other valuable insights may come then, but not brooding insight. That’s why it’s important to capture this valuable insight while it’s fresh. Write it down the moment it occurs to you.

Brooding over the actual manuscript is encouraged too. Brood over the open document on your computer. Type snippets of dialogue that come to you. Revise scenes. If brooding is going well, your characters will speak to you during this time. Listen to them. They may suggest new motivations for their actions….or, if you’re brooding particularly well, one or more might even rebel against your predictable plot and reveal their true story, much to your surprise.

So don’t think of brooding as a passive time. A good writer’s mind is always active, always considering, always tinkering with the work at hand. Stephen King in On Writing refers to this as the “boys in the basement” doing their work.

One might think that this warm-up or “brooding” time becomes easier as a novelist progresses, but interestingly, Mailer says that these days (he’s in his 80’s and has been writing successfully for more than 50 years) his warm-up time for a new novel can take up to six months. Six months! That’s far longer than when he began writing all those decades ago. And I suspect if we were to ask Mr. Mailer, he would tell us that the brooding process cannot be hurried up….rushed. Just like a pregnancy.

Yes, there are successful writers who can churn out a book (maybe more than one) in less time than Mailer broods over his books, but as I read these novels I often wonder how much better they might have been had they been properly brooded over. And if you’re a beginning novelist, you may already know how hard it is to find a publishing home these days, simply because of the intense competition. If brooding will improve your fiction—and I believe it will—then it will give your novel a distinct advantage over the many unbrooded novel manuscripts that come across editors’ desks.

As I set Paris Review back on the rack, my wife arrived to pick me up. She had a great time at the mall, she said. But I had a better time. I had been reminded of an important lesson about writing fiction (I also realized why I had failed so miserably two years ago during National Novel Writing Month (http://www.nanowrimo.org/) when aspiring authors are encouraged to “write a novel in thirty days” I need at least that long to brood).

Don’t you?

13 replies
  1. Carla Stewart
    Carla Stewart says:

    Thanks, Nick, for this thoughtful post. I’m relieved to know that the brooding I do is a good thing. I need to capture more of the “ideas” on paper. Too often I lose the train of thought and what I am sure are ideas of pure genius :-))

    All the best . . .

    Reply
  2. Erin J.
    Erin J. says:

    I’m going to start carrying around a notebook. You’re right…the genesis of an idea often happens at the most inopportune moments.

    My problem is that I have been brooding for several years but not begun writing. Then a movie came out with a very similar plot. Apparently someone else was brooding over the same ideas.

    Reply
  3. Sherri Woodbridge
    Sherri Woodbridge says:

    Nick –
    I loved this post. It was so helpful and insightful on the art of brooding – an activity I’ve been doing but didn’t have the proper name, calling it something like ‘brain dead’ or worse, when my characters or towns seem to grow quiet and even sleep for a while. Then, while ‘brooding’ over them, one of their eyes will pop open and they come alive in such a way as I never expected.

    I have been writing since a child and it is my passion, my therapy, my call I believe. I don’t, however, consider myself accomplished by any stretch of the imagination and am still growing (and forever will) as a writer. There is so much to learn.

    Thank you for your wisdom and grace. You’re an inspiration to read and I, for one, am grateful to have found your blog!

    Press on,
    Sherri Woodbridge

    Reply
  4. Nick
    Nick says:

    Erin, my next post might be on the importance of incrementalism in writing. You don’t have to do it all at once. A little here, a little there and eventually you have a book.

    Carla, me too. I think some of my best ideas are long forgotten, simply because I didn’t write them down.

    Reply
  5. Christina Berry
    Christina Berry says:

    I think I can spot a book that’s been brooded over in the first few pages. For me, it is whether a mood is created or not. Carla’s coming book is fantastic and does this EXTREMELY well. Jennifer Erin Valent and Christa Parrish are two other new authors who set a mood in their first chapter that adds a richness other authors don’t always capture.

    Reply
  6. Richard Mabry
    Richard Mabry says:

    Nick,
    I remain convinced that a novel written in 30 days will have one defining characteristic–it will read like a novel written in 30 days. Unfortunately, there have been times I finished reading a book by a previously-favorite author and thought to myself that they must have been rushing to meet deadline. It’s that easy to recognize.

    Reply
  7. Linore Rose Burkard
    Linore Rose Burkard says:

    Nick,

    Wonderful post. So many of your lines rang true for me, and now I know that if Nick can turn books face out, so can I!

    What I’ll highlight is the carrying around a notebook idea. Every writer knows they should be ready to capture ideas when they come…no matter what time of day or night, or where they happen to be. I’m usually great about jotting enough of my “sudden” inspirations that I can always find and expand on them, later. The other night I was trying to sleep when suddenly the hero of my current book started talking to me, er, the heroine of my book, that is. : ) It was so wonderful I knew I could never forget the conversation. Never until the next morning, anyway. Argh. I should really know better than to do that!

    As for brooding–I’ve heard it called “percolating.” For me, brooding is hard work, because it’s when little secrets of the characters are nagging at the back of my mind, to come forward and be known, and yet, if I try to turn fast and catch one, it slips away. As you said, it takes time and patience to let them bubble to the surface when they will. When they’re ready. Perhaps when the writer is ready, which isn’t the same as when we think we are.

    Reply
  8. Rachel Wilder
    Rachel Wilder says:

    Brooding is something I do over every idea and character. Some things I’ve been brooding about for years. Every time I think I know all there is to know, the brooding brings up some awesome new point that I hadn’t seen before.

    Reply
  9. Roseanna M. White
    Roseanna M. White says:

    As someone who has turned out her quickest book in two months (from the time I wrote Chapter One, anyway) and the longest over six years, I can attest to the power of a good brood. When an idea comes to me, I walk around in a stupor for two or three days as my mind churns and burns. I’ll take notes, I’ll revise the notes, I’ll look up a few facts. My husband just assumes that I don’t hear a word he says (not too far off) and I’ll answer my kids with insightful replies like, “Yeah, sure,” and “Uh huh.” (Scary with a preschooler–hmm, maybe brooding ISN’T always such a good thing!)

    But whether the brooding last days or months (or, in that rare case, years), I treasure it as the best part of the process. It’s definitely when a story blossoms from an idea into something real. Something worth dedicating the writing time to.

    Reply
  10. Golden Keyes Parsons
    Golden Keyes Parsons says:

    I didn’t know all that daydreaming I do about my characters could be classified as a legitimate activity. But as I think about it, I think “brooding” would go to a deeper level than “daydreaming.” I’m thinking “daydreaming” would hit the high spots of the characters and plot, whereas “brooding” would be the mulling over, the seasoning, the fine tuning that paints the pages with rich, vibrant colors.

    When I took painting classes in Taos, NM, one year, I was fascinated how one tiny brush stroke in the right color would make the object being painted pop out on the canvas. I think probaby that’s what brooding does. It gives that extra dimension that makes our characters pop out on the page.

    Thanks for the post!

    Reply
  11. Cindy Thomson
    Cindy Thomson says:

    As I was reading your post, I kept saying, “Yes! That’s exactly right.” Thanks for giving me permission to brood. I recently sat down with a notebook and wrote out some of my thoughts about what my characters are going to be doing in my WIP. I have an outline, but this was a little different. And now I know…I was brooding!

    Reply

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