6 Misconceptions About Writing, No. 3

Continuing with Rebecca Maclanahan’s essay of writing, as follows:

Rebecca Maclanahan

Writers know in advance exactly where they’re going,
and they get there.


“Some writers claim to carry whole books in their heads the way Mozart
carried whole sonatas, releasing the finished composition in one swift, turbulent flourish. Some say they know, even before the first word is written, exactly how the story will open, the plot thicken, the theme develop, and all the loose ends tie together on the last page.
“As for me, and for dozens of writers I know personally and hundreds whose journals, letters, interviews and memoirs I’ve studied, writing appears to be an ongoing act of discovery, or, as John Updike says, “a constant search for what one is saying.” Some writers begin in the dark, with only a word, a phrase, a cloudy image or emotion to guide them; they feel their way to the light. Some, like Katherine Anne Porter, who said she always knew where she was going and how her stories would end, write the ending first and then, in Porter’s words, “go back and work towards it,” thus making a kind of backwards discovery. Still others map out a plan but quickly discard it when the road unexpectedly veers off in a more intriguing direction.
“The idea that writers always know in advance exactly where they’re going is linked to the first idea we discussed—that writing gets done without writing.
“Since most writers publish only their final, edited version of a piece of writing, if indeed they publish it at all, readers are rarely able to glimpse a writer’s path towards a completed draft. We can’t see the crumpled pages, the cross-outs and deletions, the discarded chapters that were fed to the fire or used for lining the parakeet’s cage. Because we see only the finished product of a writer’s labour, it’s easy to assume that everything happened according to plan. Thus, the myth is perpetuated: Writers know exactly where they’re going, and they get there.”

I can’t imagine having a complete story in mind when I begin a novel. For me, a novel is an organic creation which develops as one creates it. Yes, I have an idea of the plot, the characters and the setting, but I reserve the right to make changes – additions and deletions – as I write. The point is that as the characters interact on the pages, new and more interesting events begin to emerge. And while I agree with the point made in a previous post that it is good practice to prepare an outline of the novel, and I usually write an outline of each chapter, I almost always deviate from the outline. In fact I have killed off a character for the sake of the emotional response of the other characters, and to strengthen the point of the novel. (Though I did cry every time I had to deal with his death.)

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