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Losing Control

One of the first pieces of advice I ever got about novel writing from someone who knew what they were doing was, “You’re going to have to be willing to lose control…”

She gave that advice to our whole novel-writing class, but she repeated it to me in particular several times. As someone who tends toward short stories, and sometimes toward poetry, I want to have control over every. damn. word.

But novels are bigger than that. I end up choking myself off into very nicely written lyrical sections that can’t connect with anything of greater breadth.

I was reminded of this when I picked up an old teacher’s book on playwriting which advised novices not to adhere to rules they’ve built up in their heads about how plays should look. The kind of thing he meant, he continued, was personal rules, things like “each act must contain three scenes” or “no scene can have fewer than four characters in it.”

As I attempt to write in novel length, as I try to give up control, I realize how many of these rules I have. In short stories, they give me some advantage. Writing with a rule like “each section can be no more than 300 words” turns the writing into a kind of game, gives me an experimental form and structure to react to. I enjoy setting rules like that for short stories, and changing them from story to story.

But it’s a different process, this novel thing. Giving up control… I don’t like that. It’s not my native habitat. But I’m going to learn how to do it. I’m going to take control of losing control. Or something like that.

How do you balance control and writing? Do you switch between poetry, short stories, and novels? Do you disagree with the premise that novels require less control than shorter forms?

Is any blog post that ends with asking questions forever going to be too reminiscent of this?

Hi, I'm Rachel! I write science fiction and fantasy short stories. I've won the Nebula Award twice, and been nominated for the Hugo Award, the World Fantasy Award, and some other things.

My seventy or so short stories are available around the internet as well as in print, and many of them are in my latest collection, How the World Became Quiet. I have a masters degree in fiction from the University of Iowa.

I have five cats. I like my cats, but strongly suggest one stops at three. Or two. Excuse me, I have to go take care of cats.

3 thoughts on “Losing Control

  1. This has been true in my experience. When I wrote my first novel, I started off cramped, but after a while I learned to let go, and stop trying to make every sentence perfect right away. I soon learned how much fun it is to sketch out dozens of pages at a time, reveling in the space the form offers. Which made me a much better writer all around.

    Now, I take great delight in how awful my first couple of drafts are. I write deliberately obnoxiously stupid sentences. It’s just a rough draft! There’s plenty of time, I reason, to go back and fix them later. And there is. It’s rather freeing.

  2. David Byrne, while interviewing PJ Harvey on his TV talk show: “It may be that the single most important requirement for an artist at work is that he not know what he’s doing.”

    Words to that effect, anyway. Thanks, Rachel.

  3. I have a different relationship to it that probably comes from my being more at home with novels than anything else: I need all the arbitrary little rules I can come up with, just to help me manage all the material. I impose chapter lengths, patterns of chapter proportion, section lengths, all sorts of stuff. When I’m on my game I end up only consciously controlling the arbitrary rules, giving shape to all the unconscious burblings that are the novel. I get uncommonly polished first drafts this way, though I also tend to have to mess them up considerably in revision, in many ways removing the logic that helped me build them in the first place.

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