Read Barbara Kingsolver and you’ll be swept away by the poeticness of her writing. Her writing is so fluid and lyrical that it seems as though she painstakingly chose the placement of each and every word. As an author, one has to wonder how long it takes her to write a manuscript because her writing is just that epic. I once thought that her prose flowed right out of her brain, through her fingers, and onto the paper. Everything was close to perfection on the first shot. However, I could not be any more incorrect.
In this short clip, Barbara Kingsolver discusses her writing process and, shockingly enough, it was not what I expected. Her discussion made me realize that even a New York Times best selling author is going to have terrible first drafts. And that not all of her sentences first appear as gold.
If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing. —Ernest Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon
Ernest Hemingway coined this theory when he determined that by omitting parts of a story, details that the writer and reader both inherently know, the story’s prose will the shortened and strengthened. He believed that writing in this fashion forms a stronger bond with the reader because the author has confidence that the reader is knowledgeable and intuitive enough to pick up on the pieces that were omitted. This led Hemingway to feel that the true meaning of the story should not glisten on the surface, but rather be found inherently embedded within the structure of the story.
The “iceberg theory” describes that only 10-20% of the story is directly revealed through prose. In comparison to an actual iceberg, that is usually the portion of the floating ice mountain that is visible above water. The other 80-90% of the story lies behind the scenes and is integrated in the structure of the story. This is akin to the remainder of the iceberg that is located underwater: the part that is not visible on the surface of the sea.
While this is a brilliant theory, it must be used with caution. As a writer, you must instinctively understand where to draw the line in the story of what your readers inherently know and what does not warrant to be repeated or drafted into detail. A writer cannot cut apart his or her story with a sharp knife, omitting all details. The story will lose its structure, its value, its poetry. A writer needs to balance how much detail to give the reader and how much to withhold, ingraining the omitted details within the story’s structure itself. A bond must be forged with the readers and then, and only then, can the writer determine how much to give to the reader superficially and how much to bury deep within the text.
Hemingway said that only the tip of the iceberg showed in fiction—your reader will see only what is above the water—but the knowledge that you have about your character that never makes it into the story acts as the bulk of the iceberg. And that is what gives your story weight and gravitas. —Jenna Blum in The Author at Work, 2013
In The Art of the Short Story, Hemingway was quoted, “You could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.” In other words, the reader will feel a deeper connection to the story because they had to use their knowledge to understand the items that were omitted. This, in turn, allows the reader to trust the author because the author knows their readers are smart enough to comprehend the work and not have every little concept spelled out in detail.
As an author, play around with your stories and understand the balance to your prose. Too much omission will leave a story weak and difficult to understand or to see the whole picture. Too much detail will bore or irritate the reader. The author must find the balance of the perfect level of omission to keep the “iceberg” from inverting.
What are your thoughts on Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory” of writing?
I once had a habit of eating two bowls of ice cream before bed time. Then I hit 30 and my clothes never forgave me. With each spoonful that I ate, immediate satisfaction came. The stress from the day disappeared. Yet, once the bowl was empty, the “happiness” that I felt while eating the ice cream melted away. A second bowl would ensue with the same outcome.
Bad habits give nothing but instant gratification. Once the experience is over, the rush is gone and we look forward to the next hit. It is a vicious cycle that is hard to break. Bad habits are easier to stay on the wagon with because the satisfaction is instantaneous, while good habits have rocky beginnings and everyone struggles to maintain them. Good habits have delayed gratification as they take hard work and endurance to make it through. However, when the goal from a good habit is reached, the happiness from sustaining through the habit usually lasts a lifetime.
Step 1: Identify good habits
In order to kick your bad habits to the curb and start with new and good ones, you must first identify what you want to cultivate. Here is an example:
- I want to be more productive with my writing
- I want to be more motivated with my writing
- I want to have a set writing schedule
- I want to ignore unimportant distractions that take away from my writing time
To make these habits more impactful on your end goals, start your list with “I want…”. You should aim for a goal of at least 3 good habits that you want to change in your life. If you are first starting out with understanding your habits and defining new ones, it is best to not have more than 5. Having too many habits at one time can make long term goals unclear as there will be too many habits to focus upon. Also, try to start out with habits that have a similar context and reinforce each other. It is easier to establish habits when there is similarities with goals.
Step 2: Know why your previous habits didn’t stick
Everyone has tried to establish good habits at least once in their life. I am sure that almost everyone has failed at one point in making a good habit stick. Reflect upon that habit and understand where the failing point was. Use that failure as a learning example of what to do differently with the new habits.
To understand the failures, ask a lot of leading “why” questions:
Why can’t I focus on writing?
There are too many distractions
Why are there distractions?
Because there is a lot going on in my life now
Why is there a lot going on?
These questions are to build off each other and through this practice, you will come to exactly understand why you were not able to sustain previous good habit.
My failures are due to distractions. I constantly allow personal life issues to come in the way of my writing. Today I am fully aware of this and am trying to figure out how to balance those creeping issues against the time that I need to spend devoted to writing.
Step 3: Understand your place in life
In order to start establishing a good habit, you need to know where your life is at this moment in the context of the habit. How will your life, at this given moment, impact this new habit? What is the expected outcome? How can you change your current situation to make a more positive environment that will enable you to maintain a good habit?
In addition to having a very distracting life at the moment, I am also in the mode of dreaming. The “I wish I was writing this, I wish I was writing that” phase. I constantly envision all the things that I can do, which is
more rewarding easier than physically doing it. You know the old phrase life is so much more interesting in my head. No effort is needed to see myself as a published author. Just close my eyes and *bam* I am #1 on the NY Times Best Seller List. While having an end goal in sight is a must for a writer, a writer is not going to reach that goal through a figment of imagination. Dreams are for dreaming, not doing. I need to change my place in life and shift my focus to a good habit of being more productive rather than dreaming.
Step 4: Plan your habit
Every night, write down a task list of what you need (not: hope to) to accomplish on the following day. When the sun rises, motivate yourself to follow through with those tasks. If you want to be more proactive, plan these tasks out days, weeks, months in advance. Utilize calendars (e.g.; gcal) or free software project management systems (e.g.; Asana) to help track these tasks and goals. Be rigid and stringent with your schedule–and stick to it. Once you fall off track, it is can be hard to get back on. You may very well have to start from the beginning (and no one wants to ever do that).
Step 5: Keep ahead of the game
Do you know what the best feeling in the world is? It’s when you have a plan and you are actually ahead of schedule. In order to stay ahead of schedule, one must be agile with their task boards. Everyday, spend 10 minutes (preferably first thing in the morning) reviewing your daily plan. Look at each task and determine:
- This task can be done today– I can knock it off the list, no problem!
- This task needs to be done today, but is going to take more time than planned– I can swap out other tasks to give this task more attention.
- This task won’t be done today and it isn’t urgent– I can de-prioritize it and do it on another day
A good project manager will review their plans at least once a day and reprioritize tasks based on what can / can’t be done and by importance. A plan that is reviewed everyday will help you stay ahead of schedule.
Step 6: Keep tabs
Watch how your habits grow and evolve. With each passing day, if you stick to your habit plan, you will become closer to your goal. Not only is keeping tabs on your habit good to see your progression, but you will also receive some gratification knowing that you are sticking with your habit.
There are several ways that you can track a habit’s progression. The simplest is by either a spreadsheet or a whiteboard, where you write down the daily tasks that you have completed. There are also several habit tracking apps that you can download. Some examples** are: GoalsOnTrack, LifeTick, Rootein.
If you use a project management tool (like Asana) to track your plan, you can also set up your habit projects to see your progression of completed tasks.
Step 7: Have a buddy
Let’s face it, keeping on track with a habit is hard. Studies have shown that people tend to stick to habits better when they have support from their peers. Forging habits is not supposed to be a lonely road. Ask your friends to make you responsible in sticking to your plan. Allow them to reprimand you when you fall off track. Accept their help when they assist you to get back on the right path.
I could not get back on track with my good writing habits without my writing coach, Robyn LaRue. She definitely keeps on me in line when she starts to see me waiver!
Step 8: Reward yourself
Once you have reached the goal of your habit and you are able to sustain it, give yourself a little reward. Sticking with a good habit is hard work and you have done a great job! Now go out and get yourself something nice!
If you would like to see other ways to help your good writing habits, read Robyn LaRue’s Making Time series and specifically her post Making Time to Write: Forming the Write Habits.
**The Sarcastic Muse does not endorse these apps. These are merely suggestions