On Writing Fiction
I think a lot of people think that fiction writers always know how their stories will end. That they’ve planned it, since endings can seem so natural, so inevitable. There’s nothing natural about it, I think. Stories themselves are natural, but when I start to write one, I’m never sure what will emerge from the back end. And inevitability? I have a lot of unfinished stories.
(EXCEPTION: I think a lot of science fiction writers know their endings. Since they have to attend so carefully to the worldscapes they’ve invented. And I’d lay down money that mystery writers are aware of whodunit far earlier in the process than other fiction writers. But even P.D. James says she just starts with an eerie setting or a character’s problem, not a twisty, complicated plot. That comes later.)
I don’t think you need to know how things are going to end before you sit down to write. A lot of my students are under this impression. I think you start writing in order to get to know the character and then stuff happens and more stuff and more stuff and then you realize, Hey, now I know this person! Awesome! They are complicated and intriguing. Why did I make all that stuff happen to them? The stuff about the car accident in the middle of Christmas Dinner? No, that’s gotta go. And everything about the stupid second cousin. Except for the part about the insane asylum. That can stay.
I am rewriting the back half of the novel I wrote last year. Drastically changing the ending. Went through and chopped out the offending portions preceding this segment that set up for the previous ending, then chopped out the offending ending itself. Then I kind of listed along – dee, dee, dee – not sure where I was going. Wanting desperately to be done with it. Wanting a clear sign, that feeling that you get when plot clicks into place and you can’t believe you haven’t seen it before. Did some character sketches. Did some research. Swam a few laps in the pool of a new setting.
And last night, I figured it out. What should happen. How it should end. Just after I got my daughter to go to sleep for real (Adrian had hit the rack an hour earlier.) It was 11:30. I snuggled with Matilda and Pablo until they both were twitching with new dreams and then went out back to ponder my next move.
I had been writing all day. Monday I wrote. Tuesday I cleaned. Wednesday I wrote again. Almost all day. Neglecting most other household chores, including my run. Ideas kept coming and I couldn’t ignore them.
But now I’ve got it. The new ending. The shape of the main character’s story. How it’s loose and messy. Because life’s loose and messy. Because people don’t become polished in one episode or one book. People have to learn the same lessons over and over and over.
Picture me, years from now, waiting for my family to fall asleep. And then it’ll come to me, a new idea, an ending. If I’m lucky. Over and over and over.