November 30, 2010

The Hutch school of writing

In Ira Levin's "Rosemary's Baby," there is a character who taught me something important about writing. Do you remember Rosemary's elderly mentor, Edward "Hutch" Hutchins?

There is a scene where Rosemary visits Hutch at his apartment in Manhattan. For those who haven't read the book (or seen the movie), he is her current landlord as the movie opens. He is a writer of boys' adventure stories, and he invites Rosemary to his apartment to tell her that his research has uncovered some unsavory facts about the Bramford, the grand, old building into which she plans to move with her husband. (For those who read the book, do you remember the Trench sisters who ate children? It was Hutch who told Rosemary about them.) Okay; scene set. Let's jump in.

Rosemary asks Hutch why he has two typewriters on his desk, each loaded with paper. In response, Hutch offers a simple and sensible answer: he writes one book on one typewriter and when he reaches a point in the story where he's uncertain how to proceed, he switches to writing a different book on the other typewriter. The process refreshes him.

I always remembered this bit of advice and as a writer, I found it to be a productive way to do things. I don't own a typewriter but I do have several books in Scrivener and often work on more than one, so it's easy to use the Hutch approach.

Of course, there are times when I'm deeply enmeshed in writing a book and won't pause until it's finished. It seems from the mid-point forward, I tend to work on one book to the exclusion of all others.

But I don't use the Hutch rule only in the narrow sense suggested by the character. I apply the concept widely. For me, switching between any writing-related tasks is helpful. Recently, I wrote here about switching from editing to writing because I felt burnt out. I do this all the time and benefit from the switch itself -- each activity refreshes the other. Moving from task to task seems to sharpen my mind. And it's not just writing and editing I'll switch between. It's editing and thinking, plotting and writing, coming up with new ideas and planning how to publish my books. There are many writing-related tasks, and switching among them seems productive -- at least, it does to me.

Slipping out of one task and into another is like taking a shower after a workout -- it's invigorating. So I am an official member of the Hutch school of writing. It works, and I like stuff that works.

Have you ever gotten a helpful writing tip from a fictional character?

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