Raymond Carver once wrote that he began a short story knowing nothing more than this line: He was vacuuming the rug when the phone rang. I wish I had the essay at hand, but I don’t and to try to pull up more from it would be foolish for someone with a memory as porous as mine.
Today, I got back to work. (A day late, to be honest. Life got a little complicated yesterday.) I am in the final section of my 16th novel. I have an outline of sorts. I didn’t have an outline for the rest of the book. Perversely, I needed the outline only once I knew, more or less, what had to happen. In the novels I write, secrets start spilling out in the final pages and one must be precise about their order and what’s prompting them to come out. But until I had written 85,000 words, I didn’t really have a plan at all.
I am also preparing for my annual week at Eckerd College’s Writers Conference, aka Writers in Paradise. This year, I’ll be doing manuscript consultations and I’ve been thinking about the general areas in which I can offer help. As working writers know, the same questions came up time and again? Do you outline? Do you work on a computer? Do you know the ending?
These questions, even when asked by experienced writers, are evergreen because we’re all looking for solutions, shortcuts, an easier way to do this. If only there were one right way to write a novel, one could conceivably learn it and master it. But if there’s no single way, then there are multiple ways to get it wrong. And we all do.
Part of the disdain for genre is based on the belief that it’s formulaic. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. It does, however, have to fill certain expectations and that may mean the endings come easier for some writers. But don’t most stories narrow as they establish their worlds, their characters? You may not write “romance” as it’s defined in genre terms, but if you write a love story, you do have to decide if your two main characters are going to check off yes, no or maybe. They’re together, they’re not together, they’re mulling it over with some ambiguity. (I particularly like the character in John Irving’s 158-pound marriage who sets off to woo his estranged wife, saying “If the cuckold has a second wind . . .” But I don’t have a clue as to whether he got her back.) Is there an option I’m missing here? I mean, aside from: And a big bear came out of the woods and ate everyone. Even then, it’s pretty definitive that they’re not together, right? See: Pyramus and Thisbe. Yeah, I know it was a lion.
So, I have an outline. Today’s guidepost told me only that the novel would begin with a character landing at BWI airport on Good Friday and that he would discover his mother has an unexpected visitor. It was a chapter I had no interest in writing — nothing juicy was going to happen, I am not particularly fond of this character — yet it has to exist. Ninety minutes and 1,465 words later, I had told a story I never expected to tell. By early afternoon, I had pushed it up to 1,500-plus words, adding a paragraph that I didn’t want to forget before tomorrow’s writing session.
[I would like to be clear that while I can write very, very quickly, this chapter will be revised at least three or four times before it's ready for my editor's eyes. Writing swiftly has its advantages, but it also has disadvantages. Mainly -- the work tends to suck, at least mine does.]
So do I outline? Yes, no, maybe. And why I am here, talking about this? Because, in the final stages of a book, I develop hypergraphia and it’s hard for me to stop writing.