Destination unknown: writing without a map

I started writing How I’m Spending My Afterlife in May of 2014, but I’d had the plot and characters in my head for at least seven or eight years before that. Maybe even longer.

There were a few reasons for that long delay in turning the idea into a book (I talk about some of them in my post about being a late bloomer), but one of them was particularly pointless and stupid: I didn’t know in advance how the story was going to end. And because I had never seriously tried to write a novel before and had no idea of what I was getting into, I was terrified of investing years of time and toil into a project I might not be able to finish.

There’s a whole cottage industry of advising neophyte authors on how best to tame the beast that is the writing process, but there’s no consensus on what that best way actually is. (Which makes sense, I guess: if there were a clear path, then there’d be no market or need for all those books and seminars.) Outline or no outline? Should you write character backstory that will never be read by anyone by you, or is that a waste of time? Write each chapter in order, or skip around and fill in the blanks later?

Most of the advice I was reading at the time urged the use of an outline. That made sense to me. Even then I was self-aware enough to understand how my mind works, and how easily I could get distracted and find myself writing down tangents and blind alleys until I’d forgotten the story I was trying to tell.

It also made sense to me to write with a specific destination in mind: in other words, to know the ending I was working to reach, the narrative resolution I was trying to achieve. So I refused to start until I knew where I wanted to end up.

This was a huge mistake that cost me years.

I remember countless phone conversations with my best friend during these years, trying to hash out with him what the end of this story should look like. He tried his best, but ultimately was no help at all because we have different ideas of what a satisfying resolution should look like: he kept suggesting Law & Order-style, ripped-from-the-headlines twist endings, and I kept shooting them down, terribly frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t think of anything better.

It was maddening. I had a solid setup. I had strong characters. I had a story arc. I just didn’t have an ending.

But then I realized that if I had strong characters, I had all I needed right there. Not because having that means you don’t need an ending, but because strong characters would tell me what the ending was. All I had to do was start writing. When the time came to wrap things up, they’d let me know.

And it actually worked. I was two-thirds of the way through the first draft before I figured out how the book would end, how it had to end; after I circulated a draft among some trusted friends of mine, I used their feedback to make the ending better.

I just let the characters live their lives and tell their story. I trusted them and never tried to make them do things they wouldn’t do. That’s all there was to it.

Of course, if you don’t have solid characters with strong personalities and specific desires and goals, this won’t work. The up-front effort goes into building those characters instead of a detailed outline. And let’s be clear, that does take a lot of up-front effort. But strong characters always make for the best fiction anyway, so it’s worth it.

I guess the point of this post is that if you want to write, don’t worry about conforming to someone else’s idea of process. I listened to the wrong people back in the day, and it cost me a metric shit-ton of time. I should have just trusted my instincts more (this is actually the piece of advice I would give to most people, in most contexts). I’d be a lot farther along in my fiction-writing career if I had.

I’m well into a draft for novel number two now, and I’m taking this approach a step further: I do have an ending in mind, but I’m not completely sure how I’m going to get there. The story arc is hazy. Plot points are un-plotted. It’s an even bigger leap of faith this time because I can’t give an elevator pitch about what I’m working on; it’s possible there’s not even a novel in what I’m doing. But I do have strong characters, just like last time, and I am confident they’ll show me the way again. So check back in 2019 to see how it worked out.

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