Journal

Journal

book inc  –  journal  –  The Balance Between Rigor and Play

The Balance Between Rigor and Play

After gathering insights from other authors, book inc founder J. Greg Phelan realizes he's not the only one who struggles between the joy of perfecting prose and the necessity of structured planning.

By J. Greg Phelan

May 23, 2024

I love drafting and revising sentences, finding the right rhythm and clearest way to express what I’m trying to say. For me, nothing is more satisfying than when a sentence clicks into place.

Problem is that sometimes I tend to spend all my time revising to the detriment of other important work I need to do to complete my novel. For example, lately, I’ve been working on a new opening chapter as a possible alternative to what’s in place now. For weeks, I’ve been obsessing over the new pages, trying to make each sentence perfect. Will the new opening work better? It’s worth a try, or so I keep telling myself.

But after revising the same sentences again and again, I couldn’t help feeling doubts creeping in. I started to wonder whether I was going to even use this new chapter. And how would I even know which opening was better?

That would have been the right time to take a step back and assess the big picture––in particular, return to finishing my outline, to help me determine what I needed to accomplish in the opening with some sense of detachment. But planning, assessing, and analyzing is not nearly as fun as turning over sentences. Whoever gets in a flow outlining? But every morning, when I sat down committed to working on my outline, I found myself once again being drawn back to revising the prose.

Turns out my challenge isn’t unusual. All artists face the same problem, as I learned on a recent podcast of “The Ezra Klein Show,” hearing Adam Moss talk about his new book, The Work of Art.

…the essence of making art is having play and rigor in pretty much equal balance or child and adult in pretty much equal balance. It’s so hard. It’s so hard to get the equilibrium right.

You’re too childish, and you can make a glorious mess, but it has no structure to it. It becomes unintelligible to another human being. Too much adult and the thing has no fire. There’s nothing animating it.

So this crazy middle ground in all of these cases that we’re talking about is somehow where you have to live. And it’s very hard to be there.

Yes, it is hard to be there. To find that balance between playfulness and rigor, between writing and analyzing. I know I constantly struggle to let the adult take over to assess whether my story had a clean throughline, whether the stakes are clear, whether each scene is essential.

But however difficult it is to strike that balance, it’s also critical. I’ve found out the hard way. In the past, I’ve written drafts that are hundreds of thousands of words long only for the novel to eventually collapse under its own weight. Not just for one novel either. It might make you think after having those experiences I wouldn’t need convincing of the importance of planning. Still, I do. 

I found just the convincing I was seeking on another podcast, David Perrell’s “How I Write,” listening to Amor Towles, the brilliant author of one of my favorite novels, A Gentleman in Moscow, talk about his process:

I’m an outliner. I plan, design and outline before I start writing. That can sound very left brain meaning very analytical, very precise, very organized. The reason that I do that, though, is in order to free up the right side of my brain when I’m in the writing process. …  the more I know, the more I can reduce the interaction of the analytical side of my brain and free up the poetic side to take over. And that’s where you start to get the poetic surprises of unanticipated ways of putting something, a somehow more artistically true version of that event.

So there you go, we need to do both, write AND plan, but how? Having a writer’s community has been essential to me to strike the balance between rigor and play. That’s why we created the Book Revision Lab––to provide what we all need for each stage of the revision process, including:

  • Planning – The tools to assess the effectiveness of our drafts and make our revision plan; 
  • Revising – The support and encouragement to execute the plan and revise our manuscripts, and;
  • Feedback – The feedback from fresh readers, to determine how our stories are experienced by others.

A cycle we repeat until we finish our books.

Starting this July in the next Book Revision Lab, we’re upgrading our story analysis module. We’re going to distill our books to short narrative outlines then, with the help of a story coach, evaluate the strength of causal connections to make sure each scene leads to the next. Also, to make clear what the protagonist wants (or thinks she wants) and what’s getting in the way, inside and out.

You know, the big picture. Not easy, but well worth it, as working together to develop rigorous outlines and revision plans will free us up to get back into the prose and the playfulness of writing sentences. 

J. Greg Phelan

J. Greg Phelan has written for The New York Times, America, and other publications. He is the co-founder and board chair of Project Write Now, a nonprofit writing center providing classes and outreach for writers of all ages. In 2020, he launched book inc, a community for memoir and novel writers.

J. Greg Phelan has written for The New York Times, America, and other publications. He is the co-founder and board chair of Project Write Now, a nonprofit writing center providing classes and outreach for writers of all ages. In 2020, he launched book inc, a community for memoir and novel writers.