There are a lot of things that writing is not. It’s not mechanical (or shouldn’t be—knowing the mechanics is just not enough). It’s not often governable because inspiration is not governable. (More on inspiration in a future blog.) It’s not a simple modular process. (Subject + verb + object = quality sentence.) It’s fluid, dynamic, protean, mutable, nebulous, and highly subjective.
I am guessing that some non-writers think it’s a simple process of jotting down all the right words in the right order, checking spelling and – voila! Instant book. Not so. It’s not like there’s an absolute amount of the “right” words, or an absolute “right” order. It’s more like herding cats.
I often equate writing to building a brick wall. I write linearly, from start to finish, and as I’m writing the first few paragraphs, the first few pages, I feel as if I am laying down a foundation for my wall. Each word is a brick, carefully chosen and carefully laid in. If I don’t have the exact brick/word that I want, I stop building the wall. It’s not unheard of for me to stop writing for minutes, hours, days, waiting for the perfect word that I want to manifest in my brain. I know some writers will go ahead and put in a close substitute in order to continue writing, then go back and edit later. I don’t do that. Just imagine building that wall and say I’ve got three or five or ten courses of bricks built up. Then I go back and find there’s a brick on the bottom row that doesn’t fit right or is the wrong color. Pulling that brick out and trying to fit another one in is going to weaken the entire wall. I would much rather build the wall as best as I possibly can from the start, and edit as I go. I hate to rewrite, so I do as little of that as possible.
I remember one time I was working with an editor on a book he was publishing for me and we got into a discussion of this very thing. When I told him how I worked, he said, “My God, I thought that was a myth! I have always heard of writers who work like that, but I didn’t really think they existed!” Yup, they do. At least I do. And it works for me.
So now I’m happily writing away, steering the story where I want it to go and suddenly … what the heck? That fluid dynamism raises its head again and I realize my story has been co-opted. This is often difficult for non-writers to understand, but it’s not uncommon for a story to take on a life of its own and suddenly veer off in a different direction. Going back to our wall, it’s as if I’ve laid one course of bricks just ever so slightly off center from the last course. This new layer is now 1/8” off to one side. Without noticing the difference, I keep building, and before I know it, the whole wall is leaning. When I realize that the wall is not going where I want it to go, I then have to demolish however many layers until I get back down to the solid and straight foundation, then start building again.
But how does that happen? I’ve been asked, “You’re writing the book. How can it go a different way than the way you want it to go?” I honestly don’t know. I just know that it does. Obviously I don’t have the entire book scripted in my head; it does not exist in some fully-formed way. It evolves as I write. New ideas present themselves; new aspects to characters reveal themselves. I’ve got options for new directions, little side trips. And sometimes I’ll pick a direction and it just evolves in a way I hadn’t intended or foreseen. The good news is that this taking on a life of its own is when I know the book is truly alive, that it’s not just me mechanically putting words on a piece of paper. It’s viable, it’s growing; it’s real. The bad news is it can transform into something that I’m not expecting.
I began writing a ghost story about a ghost that came over from England with the London Bridge when it was transported to Lake Havasu, Arizona. When I first conceived of the idea for the story, I had in mind that it would be a comedy, the ghost experiencing a light and fluffy culture shock between 17th century England and modern Arizona. Several chapters in, I realized that not only was it not going to be a comedy, it had a distinctly dark side to it. Surprised the heck out of me. And even though it’s not the story I had planned to write, I do like it and I’m letting it have its way. We’ll see how it turns out.
Okay, so I’ve built my wall, I’ve told my story and it’s done, ready to publish. Hold on, not so fast. How do you know when it’s done? In proof-reading my stories, whether it’s my own early copy or a final galley proof, I’ve found that “doneness” still evades definition. I might read a paragraph that was perfectly satisfying to me when I wrote it, but now suddenly it lacks something or it feels clunky and contrived. I rewrite it, sharpen it up, cut it down. Two days later I re-read the same paragraph and decide that the way I had it to begin with worked better, so I change it back. What I’ve realized is that any story, any book, is what it is only on any given day. Any other day, depending on my mood or frame of mind, it might need to be something completely different. I could look at a book every day for a year and probably have 365 different opinions about it. Even when I re-read my already published books, I can still see places that—at that moment in time—I would change slightly. So pronouncing a book “finished” is a very elusive process; it can change day by day and it’s never an absolute. Only by chipping away the less than perfect parts, grinding it down by finer and finer edits until I’m finally down to moving commas do I get to the point of completion. Today.
Tomorrow all bets are off.