Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Writing to know the ending

Yesterday, I had one of those experiences that brought home, yet again, the fact that writers go about the work of writing in vastly different ways.

I, for one, use only a gold-nibbed fountain pen, filled with ink made from freshly crushed pomegranates. I set down my lapidary prose during the hours of dawn and dusk, and scribble my immortal thoughts onto parchment scavenged from the scriptoria of monasteries during the Henrician Iconoclasm.

Or something like that.

A friend mentioned an exercise she had done, in order to get a better understanding of plot. This is an impulse that I share: Plot and I have the sort of relationship where, if we discover we are at the same party, one of us makes excuses to the host and scuttles out the side door. But while I understand and share the desire to have a working relationship with plot, it was the method that knocked me backwards in awe. She made an outline of a novel.

I know there are people who do this, who sit down to write, and make outlines. Who know how many scenes they need to get from one place to the next, who have the story arc firmly in their grasp, and who even know the ending when they begin. I am not one of these people.

I have never known the ending of a story when I began - I'm lucky if I know what happens next, much less what happens 30,000 words later. I write because I want to know what happens next, and if I don't keep writing, I never will. I can't know the ending until I know the characters - where they live, how they speak, and most of all, what they want.

Some days, I think it would be nice to see a clear, well-lit path from beginning to end of story. But for now, I light my lantern against the fog, and pick my way through the rocks, hoping not to fall into a pit, and waiting to meet the dragon.


  1. I don't often outline, myself. Except I recently began doing so. I find it incredibly helpful to sit down to work on a scene and have a cryptic "title" to work off. And if whatever I originally thought should go there just doesn't want to happen after all, I can change it! :)

    Oh, and by cryptic title, I mean things like "You don't want to go in there..." I get sarcastic in my scene titles, too, and I don't bother describing them at all; the title is enough to remind me where I am in the story. I started doing it when I was editing a novel I wrote years ago, and it was so much fun I decided to try it out as a way to keep on track in my new work. So far so good.

  2. Hah, I don't actually outline on novels that I PLAN to write. For "real" projects, I only start outlining when I'm actively blocked -- I'm 20k in, and I know what happens at 30k, but I'm not sure how to bridge that 10k gap. In that situation, I'll do outlining similar to Jim Kelly's "ten endings" trick -- I write down as many different ways as I can think of to get from A to B, and then try to figure out which is right.

    What I'm trying to do with the novel outlines is build an intuitive sense of plot. I learned how to do prose by writing vignettes and flash, pieces where there was no room for character development, or world-building, or plot, and everything depended on the word choices I made. These days, those choices are instinctive.

    With outlines, I can't get distracted (or distract my "readers") by pretty prose, or interesting world-building. So my goal's to write a bare-bones outline that's still interesting, compelling and ultimately satisfying. When I can do that, I'll know I can plot.

    And then, hopefully, I'll be able to do it instinctively.

  3. And I see what you are doing, and my reaction is still, "Wow. That's such a great idea." and "That totally wouldn't work for me, the way my process currently is." The fun thing about writing is the infinite variations.

    I do use the "write ten endings" trick myself, when I'm either stuck, or at big pivot points in the story and want to make sure that the direction that I'm going in really is the best one.