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.


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