Dec 4 2008 9:35am

Practical Mysticism, or, Honestly, I Don’t Know the Ending

This piece is being written in direct response to a reader’s comment about a statement in my piece “Tailbone to Chair.” When talking about how I pace myself when writing, I said: “Toward the end of a novel, when I’m eager to find out what’s going to happen...”
The reader’s response was, “I have encountered this assertion from other authors and I have always wondered if the assertions were true. This also leads me to wonder: do you really not know the way a story is going to go when you start out?”

I’m going to try to explain, but I’ll admit this is tough. How to explain that there is a “feeling” I get when I know a story is “there”? Equally, the lack of that feeling tells me that a story isn’t ready yet. If I try to push the writing at that point, I’ll create something stilted, something, frankly, terrible. I’d do better to go and dig holes in the yard.

Let me make one thing clear from the start: Not every writer operates the way I do. There are plenty of perfectly wonderful writers who not only know how the novel will end, they know how the entire series is going to end. To a lesser extent, I have a good friend who always knows his openings and closings. He finds “the fiddly middle bits” the hard part.

Frankly, I’d find knowing so boring, almost claustrophobic, that I don’t think I’d ever write a book for which I knew the ending. After all, what’s the fun when you know what’s going to happen? And how wonderfully exciting is it when you see the pieces falling into place as if you intended them to do just that all along?

This is one reason I don’t belong to any writer’s groups or workshops. Comments before the story is completed would be detrimental to the weird way my brain works. This is also why I find writing proposals hellacious. I usually can tell where something is going to start—the initial problem. I can introduce a few characters. However, I can’t give a tidy plot summary.

Okay. I’m dodging. It’s not easy to admit that I’m functionally crazy, that I live in dreams, that I rely on visions to do my work.

But I do.

However, even if you don’t know it, you do, too.

How many times have you heard someone say “Let me sleep on it” or “I know I’ll remember that word/event/punch line at four a.m.”? That’s because, whether or not you acknowledge it, you rely on your subconscious mind to help you sort through complex matters or to tap buried memories.

Let me give an example of one of the more dramatic times I had an insight into how active my subconscious mind can be. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I’m a gamer. Well, one time, many years ago, I was involved in a game in which we played the roles of members of an F.B.I. unit devoted to hunting serial killers.

Anyhow, our “team” was about five murders into the case. Jim and I came home after the game and crashed. I woke in the wee hours and realized I’d worked out the pattern that connected the killings in my sleep. I shook Jim awake, and told him how it all fit together. He was astonished.

So was the game master when I revealed my insight. “But how did you figure it out?” said he.

I couldn’t tell exactly. I’d done it in my sleep.

That’s very much how my writing and plotting works. I start with the “feeling” that a story is there and ready to be written. Then I put tailbone in chair, fingers on keys, and start going.

Yes. There is a large amount of what one must call the rational element to the process. I am an avid researcher. However, I have never felt the impulse, which I have heard some writers express, to the effect of “I’ve done the research, so, by damn, they’re going to read it.” For me, research is feeding the Muse. If she chooses to use what I have given her, well and good. If not, also, well and good.

I do think about my story when I’m not writing. However, these thoughts are not strict outlining: what will happen next, then after that. My thinking—musing, one might say—is more a shuffling of impulses and possibilities. Eventually, I “feel” what is right.

This last is why, despite my devotion to making sure I write text each work day, I’m glad I don’t have a set time where I must write. Sometimes, the best thing I can do for a piece is walk away from it.

I still recall how, after getting quite frustrated while working on Changer, a key element came clear when I decided I was getting nowhere and headed out the door for some exercise.

I was two-tenths of a mile from my house when what had fought me at the keyboard came mysteriously clear. I was so thrilled, I had to force myself to finish my two and three-quarter mile ramble.

I think my characters benefit from my reliance on my subconscious as well. I never create a character to simply serve as a victim or object lesson. (Yes. Sadly, there are many writers who do so.) I never force a romance, even when I think two characters are perfect for each other. If they don’t agree, okay, I go down the more difficult road.

Sometimes this annoys my readers. I’ve gotten a tremendous amount of flack that Firekeeper and Derian didn’t end up together. I still remember the really annoying, self-assured person who came to a signing for Through Wolf’s Eyes and, after reading the dust jacket and asking a few questions said very superciliously, “Of course, she’s the missing princess.”

I wonder if he ever bothered to find out...

The end result of my living dreams is that my books rarely go the expected route. I like that, because it keeps me interested. Some readers also like this. Some have admitted quite honestly to being unsettled.

That’s okay. I can’t write other than the way I do. I hope I’ve made the weird way I work just a little more clear—even if the process itself is necessarily opaque, even to me.

1. MiltonP
I'm an outliner from way back. But now that I'm over 50000 words into a manuscript (thank you, NaNoWriMo!), I find myself writing just like that.

I've just started a scene set two years ago, where my main antagonist is deciding for himself what to do. That scene won't be in the final book, of course, but the result will.

Phil Frederick
2. flosofl
You know, I've tried outlining and I've tried just sit down and start at point A and see where it leads me. I either never get started (in the case of the former) or I just run out of steam (in the case of the latter).

Recently, I've found a new technique that works for me. Actually, it's not so much a new technique as much as a little from column A and a little from column B. I first get the major characters fixed in my head (as fixed as they can be). I then write out all the major scenes I've envisioned. Now, my goal is to connect the dots.

As an example, I have a later scene I've already worked out where two major characters have an easy friendly relationship. But in an earlier scene, they hate each other. How did they get there? I don't know! But that's the cool part, I'll find out as I try different chains of events to get there. I have a goal in mind, but it's up to me to find the path in the most efficient and believable manner possible. I've already fleshed out the characters and a (very) loose plot arc, now I just make sure I write them consistently.

Is it more writing? Sure is, and it causes a lot more major re-writes. But doing it this way seems like much more of a joy than actual work.
3. DweezelJazz
The process you describe is how it works for me too. I didn't know that until I started writing. I discovered it as I relaxed and stopped trying to control and work things out in advance. It's great fun; I enjoy it as much as I do reading or watching a good story. I too work things out while I'm asleep or out walking, when my mind isn't trying to solve the problem.

Thank you for your great articles.
Dave Robinson
4. DaveRobinson
I generally start writing then outline. If I wait to start until I know the ending I never get started. However once I've got the characters and opening down, then I try to outline at least partially. I did my first novel outlining a chapter ahead with just key points beyond that.

Even when I do outline, I sometimes veer when I reach the ending, and sometimes it's not the ending I expected.
JS Bangs
5. jaspax
I'm very much like your unnamed friend: I know the beginning and the ending, but it's often a painful ride trying to get from Here to There.

I always find it interesting when other writers claim they couldn't be motivated writing a story they already knew the ending to. For me, knowing the ending is part of the motivation: I have this beautiful, exciting, and moving climax in my head, and I just can't wait to get it out on paper. Being able to write the ending I've envisioned is the prize that I keep working towards. If I didn't know the ending, I wouldn't have anything to write about. (This is also why, unlike some writers, I never write scenes out of order. It would kill my motivation.)
Natania Barron
6. Aldersgate
That's pretty much exactly how I do it, as well. It's a kind of meandering, working my way through possibilities as I think, off-site. You're right, too. Those musing moments often give a variety of options, but usually one just glows a little brighter than the rest, and you realize that's the road to go down.

I'm a believer that the journey is as important--if not more important--than the whole story. My concentration is always on what the characters are doing, how they are changing, and how the world around them is affected. Yes, it's important that plot and climax and all the nuts and bolts function together, too. But for me, in the books I read and the books I write, it's the characters that make it really work.
Tudza White
7. tudzax1
If you look at the writing of a piece as the tool for exploring the subject, then I don't see why it should puzzle people that you don't know how the story will end when you start writing.

How about this scenario then, you know how it starts and you know how you want it to end but you don't know how to get there yet. I'm sure anyone who has done enough creative writing has been there too.
8. pavid
Ms. Lindskold, I thank you very much for responding to my question. And thank you to the commenters for providing alternate points of view.

I find Jane's response both refreshing and liberating. I have always laboured under the impression that everything should be done step by step, in a particular order. This regimented point of view has prevented me from pursuing the story in my head since, not only don't I know how it ends, I don't even know where it goes once the opening has been laid to paper. To hear that a successful author does not employ step a, step b thinking gives me hope that if I start with the beginning that rattles around in my noggin, the rest will follow.

Again, many thanks Jane, you've more than answered my question.
Chris Byler
9. cbyler
I’ve gotten a tremendous amount of flack that Firekeeper and Derian didn’t end up together.

Wow... those people must not have thought it through. That would have been a terrible ending - Yes, Virginia, biology *is* destiny. Ignore the whole rest of the series, and the fact that "what measure is a nonhuman?" has been one of the major themes since the beginning, and throw together the people who are the same species.

Well, I guess if you had aimed there from the beginning, maybe it would have seemed less forced when you arrived. But given the middle that you wrote, that end wouldn't have fit it at all. And the series was much more interesting with the species vs. sentience issues front and center. IMO.

Besides, why does every female central character have to end up with someone? (I could write a rant on this, but this is already long enough for an OT post. I can't really contribute to the main point since I'm not an author.)
Matthew Brown
10. morven
I suspect things are made harder if you're writing a series in which you're letting the story tell itself as you go along and which the first stories are published and un-take-back-able before you finish the later ones.

I know P.C. Hodgell has mentioned the difficulties of that a few times in her Livejournal, for instance - not so much about major plot points but about little throwaway details that end up being continuity problems in later works.

In her case it's combined with an unwillingness to reread her earlier works, which appears to be something I've heard other writers say as well; in fact, there have been cases of her asking her fans what exactly she said in the earlier books, because that was psychologically easier than rereading her own work to recall it.
J Sierra
11. jhsierra
nice subject and I am glad that It works for some people. =)

If and when i write, I begin in my head and make a vague outline, a couple main chars and the overall sense of where the book or story, should go.

Then comes the hard part of "filling" it up. Its great fun and the most enjoyable experience. :)
Jane Lindskold
12. janelindskold
I'm very much enjoying people's comments.

As I noted in my piece on author events, one thing I love about panel discussions is that they give me something new to think about.

Your comments are doing something similar.

Thanks to cbyler for the thoughtful post on the Firekeeper stuff. I wondered if I should mention it at all, since it's a spoiler in a sense, but it seemed so appropriate to the topic.

I liked your comment on female characters ending up with someone... I may pursue this in a later piece.
13. rogerothornhill
I write nonfiction--in which, in other words, the facts are already known and unchangeable--but I have to agree with you. I may think I know the plot I want to spin out of those facts, but when I actually sit down to write it . . . it changes.
Jane Lindskold
14. janelindskold

I find the same thing when I am writing non-fiction. The creative element is there -- non-fiction is not just dry, connect-the-dots work.
Blaine Moore
15. Zackalthair
I haven't done enough writing yet to have a "process" set in stone or anything, but for my current work in progress, I set up the main characters and setting (after three rewrites) and then set an initial goal. The goal isn't very far into the work but also far enough for things to just kind of fall into place along the way. I'm just passing that initial goal now, and I've got a pretty good idea where it's headed, though it's still vague enough to be interesting.

With the way things fall into place, it's almost like the writing is alive. Anyone else get this feeling sometimes, or have I lost it on this one? One way or another, I don't think it hurts any writer to be a little bit eccentric.

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