Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Crossroads

Alexandre Philippe, One of the Lighthouse instructors at the week-long retreat I attended this summer conducted a session on narrative structure and at one point he said, in order to properly structure your story, you have to know the end. Ultimately, everything you write is leading up to that point – the entire payoff in a book is in the last chapter and in a movie, in the last ten or fifteen minutes. He allowed that it’s OK not to know the end in the beginning, but by the one hundred page mark, you’d better have it figured out.

I recently watched a movie called, The Hawk is Dying, starring Paul Giamatti. It was a film adaptation of a novel written by Southern gothic novelist, Harry Crews. Unfortunately, the movie wasn’t nearly as interesting as the special features, which included a fairly lengthy segment with Crews talking about writing. I’d never heard of him, but he’s relatively well known and has written close to thirty novels. He was coming up with so many gems, I had to grab a notebook, stop the DVD and start it over so I could write some of them down. The following quotes are not verbatim, but they convey the gist of some of the things he said:

“I threw away half a novel this week because I’d made a wrong turn. The amateur, the coward, the non-writer will keep it and try to make it work, but the real artist puts it in the fire and does it again.”

“All art is metaphor. Fiction is about abstract nouns like love, pity, mercy and compassion. I don’t know if I agree with it or not, but my teacher once said that all fiction is about one of two things. It’s about love or the absence of love.”

“The writer’s job is to get naked, to hide nothing, to look away from nothing, not to be embarrassed by it or ashamed of it; to get to the blood and the bone.”

“Good writers don’t try to answer questions. I don’t have the answers to questions raised in my books – if I did, I’d be writing tracts, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

“To the extent that I have any peace at all, it’s when I’m writing.”

“Having written a book is fun. Writing a book is agonizing.”

“I believe that writing a novel is the closest thing to childbirth that a man can experience.”

“Any piece of fiction that makes a point is bad because nobody knows what the f#*k the point is.”

He also quoted something he credited to Robert Penn Warren that really resonated with me. He said, “A good writer doesn’t have to know his story when he begins. All he has to do is trust his knowledge of craft and technique to discover the story. It’s all discovery.”

In my first attempt at writing a novel, I had the whole story outlined and pretty concrete ideas about how it would flow. Once I got a fair distance into it, I realized I’d made a number of wrong turns and I put it away.

I’ve been working on a new story since sometime in June or July. I have a pretty good idea what will happen, but as I move through the story, ideas and possibilities continue to materialize. It’s really pretty cool and it isn’t bothering me to improvise as much as I have been – if you know me at all, it should come as a huge surprise that I’m not freaking out at the idea that I don’t have total control over this. I know it’s because I’ve learned so much more about craft than I knew when I started that I’m not worried I’ll do something irreversibly wrong.

I’m about sixty double spaced pages in and now I’m wondering how much longer I’ll go on before I know for sure how it will end – which of the many options I’ve thought about that I’ll go with. In the meantime, I’ve been alternating between editing and tweaking the first couple of chapters and adding bursts of new material to move the story forward. My imaginary editor is starting to tap me on the shoulder and point at his watch, as if to tell me I have a little time left, but I need to lock this into place pretty soon.

Discussions about outliners and seat of the pants writers have come up many times before, but each time I find a post on it, I learn something new. Do you always know the end of your story when you start? Do you ever? Does it vary? If you don’t know the end when you begin, do you find it to be a process of discovery, as Robert Penn Warren noted? Is it fun and exciting to make these discoveries about your story and your characters, or does it fill you with anxiety until you nail it down?


reality said...

I am a panter. And i love the discovery process.
That doesn't mean there are no anxieties. Don't get me talking on that Lisa, you know a lot of my problems. But the bliss of nailing it down; what a joy that is to finally say Eureka.
Loved the quotes btw.

cs harris said...

There are some great quotes here.

As for me, I'm an outliner, although I will vary. Sometimes because I realize once I get into the story that I hadn't thought it through completely so a scene or a segment or a motivation won't work. That's agonizing. Sometimes I vary because I get a great idea that makes the story better. That's exciting.

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Lisa, what a great post. Wonderful quotes! I love the discovery process in writing. I always think I know where it's going, but as the characters make themselves more known, invariably there are shifts in direction. There are times it makes me anxious--to not know for sure--but when I figure it out and have one of those AHA moments, it's golden. And that's when you have to let go and let the story become what it was meant to be.

The Writers' Group said...

Lisa, thank you for this post. A lot to consider. I know the first line and last, but I like to discover what happens inbetween. It can be angst-ridden much of the time, but, like the reader, I want to be surprised.

Congratulations on hitting 60 pages.


Charles Gramlich said...

With short stories I rarely know the ending when I begin. Occassionally I do. With novels, I almost never know the ending when I first start, but if I don't have a pretty good idea of the ending by thirty or forty pages in I usually can't keep going. I won't know details of the ending, but will generally have a rough idea.

Sustenance Scout said...

I mentioned this yesterday in my first class at CU-Denver; the film I'd opted to share features Anne Lamott, who advocates developing characters first and letting them decide where the story goes. That idea scares me silly; I love to plot out every point and then fill things out from there, though I'm learning that strategy requires A LOT of filling out to make a story work. My latest short story developed on its own, so it seems I'm making some progress. K.

Patti said...

oh lordy, i never know the ending of any story i have written. i only know the full conflict of the main character. i only know that she will have to go from one extreme to the other before the ending reveals itself. in my latest book there are four deaths. what the hell? i never saw them coming.

my stories come from a kernal of real life. maybe a newspaper article that i found fascinating, or a snippet of conversation overheard, or of revenge i have been plotting. when the "whatifs" get bigger in my mind and i find i have to know what happens, that's when i know i'm on to something.

to outline would kill it for me. it's like the old adage of not talking about a work in progress. that the more you talk about it the more telling is taking place and then why the hell write it when you have told it to so many? i keep it all in my head until it ends up on the page...and even then, until the end, i am mum.

i think the greatest effort for the writer is to tell the truth. the peeled back and sometimes horrifying truth. and as we all know that is one of the hardest things to do.

Carleen Brice said...

I guess I know the feeling the end will have and the general direction the characters will move in, but what exactly are the last scenes? Don't have a clue for a good long time. I'm over 100 pages in now and I believe I know what the climax is, but...we'll see.

Lisa said...

Reality, I am familiar with your process and as I loosen up more, it doesn't sound as scary as it did at first. The quotes -- yes, Harry Crews is quite a character!

Candice, I was hoping you'd comment. Based on your background and the number of books you've had published I suspected you'd be very methodical.

Judy, I've really been enjoying the AHA moments -- out of the blue an idea occurs to me about a character's background or something they would do and I love that, especially since it's always an improvement (I think) on what I initially thought would happen. The first time through I think I was much too uptight and rigid and this wasn't happening very much.

Amy, you know I've never had the specific lines, just the flow of the story and sometimes some specific scenes and dialogue, but I am now beginning to search for the last line. On the 60 pages, it's interesting because I'm focused much more on getting the first part of the story right than on pushing through with an entire draft this time, so I wrote quite a bit and now the new pages added are coming much more slowly as I am tweaking the pages before and figuring out how it will end. I suspect it's something that's caught in my head about all things leading to the end that has me obsessed about the beginning, if that makes any sense at all.

Charles, I think right now I have two or three possible endings I'm considering, but I'm feeling my way along and as I continue to work through what my crisis points are and how the subplots will play out, I think I'll know which way to go. I feel like I should be really stressing on this, but for some reason I'm not.

Karen, the whole idea of not having it all figured out really scared me when I was working on my last effort and I don't know what's changed, but it doesn't now and it seems to make the work more interesting. Before, if I didn't know, it felt like I was stuck, but now it feels more like I have a lot of good possibilities and I just need to let the best one reveal itself. The filling out concept is also new and I love it. It seems like the longer I ponder questions, the more I discover layers and details to what I've already done. Hopefully, it's working :)

Patti, every comment you make has me more and more intrigued about your stories. I don't know what genre you write in or anything about it, but I am dying to read you!

Carleen, you don't know how relieved what you've said makes me feel! We'll see...that's where I am too.

Shauna Roberts said...

At or near the start of the story or book, I usually know what the characters' emotional and character journeys will be, which limits the number of possible satisfactory endings. I often know some of the turning points early on too. But usually it's only late in the book as I see how the protagonist has grown and matured do I finally know what choices they will make at the end.

Larramie said...

Why should the reader be the only one who's entertained? Yes, a writer needs to discover and experience the story as well.

Lisa said...

Shauna, that makes perfect sense and it explains something to me about the process I'm undergoing now.

Larramie, what an awesome point! If there were no surprises at all, it would feel more like typing, instead of writing, wouldn't it?

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post, as much to think about it. With short stories, I almost cannot begin unless I have a very clear idea of the end--although it can change in the writing. With my novel, although I am (very loosely) structuring it to fit with the Demeter/Persephone myth, I find that I am having trouble with the details of the ending. I have an idea, of course...but as of now it's more of an emotional resonance. I need to find the events that will make up its body.

And now I want to read some Harry Crews, so thank you!

Steve Malley said...

For me (Pantsy McGee that I am), it's all about the discovery. I think of it as 'listening', like the story's out there somewhere and I'm trying to tune into it. Just an analogy, but for now, it works.

Usually, what gets me writing a new novel is a glimpse that makes the hair stand up on the backs of my arms. It can turn ou tto be in the beginning, the middle or the end. Sometimes I don't know, and there's always the possibility that the glimpse I see will never happen.

Poison Door got its start when I saw a twelve year old girl running for her life. That turned out to be somewhere in the middle. The seed of Stagger is actually the opening scene, and the novel I'm on right now got its start when I saw two men on an icy plain (lucky, we have glaciers about two hours out of this city), beating each other to death with lengths of chain.

I don't know if that's the actual climax or not, but as I write, that visual certainly defines these men and their relationship to each other!

Lisa said...

Mardougrrl, the Demeter/Persephone myth sounds like a great place to start! I'll be anxious to know how it unfolds -- I think sometimes it's harder to do something that follows the structure of an existing myth or fable because I tend to get locked into certain assumptions, but a lot of people can do it. I've never read any Harry Crews, so if you do check him out, you'll have to tell me what you think.

Pantsy McGee (that cracks me up), great analogy! I believe it's all out there too and sometimes when we're struggling too much, it keeps us from being open to receiving a weak signal, yes? It's interesting that imagery has given you the seeds for your stories. For other people, it seems to be stories in the paper or tales they've previously heard.

BTW, I've read the sample chapters from Poison Door and you definitely have my attention! -- I'm ready to read more. I also noticed Anne Hawkins is your agent -- I will be auditing an agent workshop with her in a couple of weeks here in Denver.

steve said...

Lisa--Fascinating post. I'm not always sure how my nonfiction will end. One can't write history without omitting some facts and emphasizing others. And in the course of research, you can find things that can change your whole interpretation of events. Right now I'm working on a mystery story set in 1959 Venice, California, tentatively titled, "A Bath in the Gas House." I didn't know how it would end until I got to the end. (Now I just have to clean it up and make sure I don't have too many loose ends.)

Ello said...

Ive stopped and started so many novels and stories over the years that never really went anywhere. And I'm an outliner. This time around, I outlined my book and researched it thoroughly. But when I started writing, my characters began to take over. They told me what to write, how a scene would play out, even when it went against my carefully plotted outline. It was wild, it was a little scary. I had finally experienced first hand what writers have always talked about, the characters were in control, not I. It has been an incredible experience for me and a great learning experience. All those times before, the characters had not come alive before. When they do, no outline can contain them. You must step aside and let them tell the story.

Yellow said...

Goodness, goodness, goodness!! Those first three quotes made so much sense to me, and I'm a painter, not a writer. I love the idea of expressing abstract nouns. I think the works I've produced, and those by other artists, which I love most and feel connected to are those which arouse strong emotions in me. maybe thats why I can look at some art and know it's 'good' and yet not be touched by it.
I'm bursting to read some of your fiction. Reading your blog is like reading Van Gogh's letters to his brother Theo about his work, but not being able to see the paintings themselves.

Carleen Brice said...

Don't forget you can always go back and rewrite to emphasize or de-emphasize things to build to the climax once you figure out what it is. I did that with my novel. I didn't even know the big scene between the mother and daughter until good friends helped me figure out the title. Duh. Once that happened, I went back in and rewrote.

Lisa said...

Steve, I had never considered that the same decisions have to be made when writing much non-fiction, but the thought really intrigues me. Everything we read is told through the filter of the writer...

Ello, I love that you can go back and analyze this as an ongoing evolutionary process in your writing...THAT is pretty cool!

Yellow, so glad to hear from you! I'm glad to hear that quotes about writing apply equally to the visual arts. I find that there is rarely a quote about the arts that doesn't translate perfectly into the other creative arts. And what a cool sentiment about Van Gogh's letters! Hopefully, you'll have a chance to read my work before I go insane and die :)

Anonymous said...

There are as many different ways of writing as there are writers--thank God. What works for one will never work for another's thought process. Personally, I never know the ending although I sometimes get an idea where it's going along the way. Sometimes it's the journey, not the destination that's of interest or import.
susan @ spinning

Lisa said...

Susan, well said. I think it is all about the journey and it would get to be a pretty dull trip if we already knew everything about it in advance. Good thing too because as I follow writers in various stages, it is a continuous one that never ends :)

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon

Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf