A bit of background for this post: as you know, my writer’s handbook, “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction” releases July 31.
Part of the first chapter involves a description of what I consider the most common and most counterproductive misconceptions about writing a novel.
To help pump people up for the release, I asked Katie to write about what she considers one of the major misconceptions non-writers and beginning-writers have.
How much does an author REALLY know what’s going to happen to her characters???
I’ll let Katie take it from here:
When I was a little girl, I would have given up my softball mitt to know who my future husband would be.
I was convinced it was Devin, the first-grade hunk. He made my knees weak with his long hair, athletic tetherball prowess, and the cute way his cheeks turned red when he ran. He even wore hightop sneakers, and was the best tag player I’d ever met.
The thought of waiting twenty years for him to ask me to marry him was unbearable. I wanted to know now. There was competition to worry about. Whitney was a strawberry blonde with white skin and freckles, while I had frizzy brown hair that rarely left a ponytail. I needed some reassurance.
This plan is going to work out. I just know it.
For some of us, being a writer is a lot like being a lovestruck first-grader. We have a great idea and we want to make sure it’s going to work out the way we want it to. Outside influences be gone! The end is ours, and we own it.
(Insert obnoxious buzzer sound here.)
There’s a strange assumption in the world that writers always know the end of the story from the beginning. The odds of that happening are about the same as my odds for marrying Devin. Was there a chance? Yes, there was a chance. Some authors do know the end from the beginning.
But I’d say that most of the time, we don’t. Or if we do, it changes one or twenty times.
When I first started to take myself seriously as a writer, I thought I had to have the plot all planned out. Before I could get really serious about the story, I had to know the ending. I spent weeks drafting an outline, trying to figure out exactly how it was going to finish, and when. So much planning went into the story that I actually forgot to write. In the end, I was so frustrated that I didn’t have a perfect ending, I shoved the story into a closet and left it there for over a year.
And counting. (I still haven’t crept back to it.)
So I started another story called Miss Mabel’s School for Girls. It started itself as a short story for a contest, actually. It did so well, with so much feedback requesting the next chapter, that I realized I should keep going. So I did. I wrote like a maniac with no real plan in mind for the first ten chapters. Reviews poured in. “Excellent work. Give me more.”
Then I wrote chapter eleven without knowing what would happen in twelve.
And then up to fifteen.
And so on, to chapter sixty-six.
By chapter twenty, I had a vague idea how I wanted the story to end. Chapter thirty brought a stroke of genius. I knew exactly what I wanted at the end, and I plowed towards it like a bull in a pen. The suspense of the story built, and so did my love of this amazing finale. They are going to freak out! I thought, knowing my readers would melt. This plan is going to work out. I just know it.
Days and weeks of finger-blistering writing passed. When I got a few chapters away from the big scene, I stopped at a wall. A big, fat, brick wall. The ending was awful. It was out of line, didn’t fit with my characters, and my strategically placed snippets of foreshadowing were more restricting than helpful.
What? All my plans? It was a flashback to first grade. Am I going to marry Devin?
So after banging my head against the wall, I caved and wrote a different ending. Then I put it away for a week, and slipped into mourning. I wouldn’t marry Devin after all!
A week later, I pulled the scene back out and skimmed it. Then I doubled back and skimmed it again. Then I read it. Then I poured into it.
What was happening? I loved this scene! But… how could I give my allegiance to something other than my original idea, my first love? Wasn’t that disloyal?
Actually, it was quite easy. More than that, it was liberating! Allowing the story to unfold on its own is part of the excitement in writing. Admit it- we don’t get a lot of confetti or applause, holed up in our office, or kitchen, or closet. But the rush of finding a new place in our world, or a new character, or slipping in a scene that fits just right is almost as exciting.
Although he was the first boy to have my heart, and not even know it, Devin disappeared after first grade and I never saw him again. We didn’t get married. Looking back on the last twenty years, I can see that an ending with Devin wasn’t the best ending after all.
With Devin gone, I was free to choose another scene. A more perfect character. Without letting my expectations for control go, I’d never have found this guy:
What experiences have you had with writing an ending? Are you one of the chosen few who know the story exactly as you write it, before it’s ever on paper? Has your story ever taken you to totally different places?
Katie Cross is an aspiring writer that loves to run in the mountains, eat vegetables, play with her dog, and tease her husband. She plans on having her first book Miss Mabel’s School for Girls e-published by the end of the year. Visit her website at www.kcrosswriting.com Or get frequent updates at www.facebook.com/katiecrosswriting and www.twitter.com/kcrosswriting