When you tell a joke, you have to remember the punch line before you tell it, or you won’t get it right. I know this from experience. And it’s embarrassing.
But to draft a novel, you don’t need to know the ending up front. Or the theme. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner says, “Theme is not imposed on the story but evoked from within it—initially an intuitive but finally an intellectual act on the part of the writer.” Yeah, I get that.
In the revision stage, writers engage their intellect, stepping back from a story to ask what the characters are all about, and what’s really going on. Then writers cut scenes, restructure, and maybe change the point of view, etc.
I’m reminding myself of this because I’m thick in the middle of a first draft, and at the same time I’m writing nonfiction talks that I’ll give to students and educators now that my novel, Brotherhood, has come out. (Viking released it yesterday. Hooray!)
Six days a week, I write fiction in the morning and nonfiction (blog posts, speeches, letters, emails) in the afternoon, and I’m feeling a little schizophrenic. The two couldn’t be more different. With fiction, I focus on sensual details—smells, sounds, textures, tastes—and with nonfiction, I’m all about themes, motivations, and the big picture behind my novel.
It’s easy to forget that there was a time when I didn’t know where Brotherhood was going, what the characters wanted, or even who the characters were, exactly. Their desires emerged over a two-year period. Beneath their story was an anecdote my father had told me years earlier, an anecdote that motivated me to write about a boy who felt stuck in circumstances beyond his control. That anecdote found its way into the talk I gave last night at the book launch party, but it’s not part of the novel. Not really. Not consciously.
In drafting this new novel, right now I feel impatient. I want to know the theme already! I want to write the ending. I want to understand what these characters want. I want the process not to take so long. I want to be done with it, and have another manuscript under contract. So… what am I doing? I’m drafting scenes that are all over the place, and meanwhile, writing blog posts. It’s so much easier to write a blog post than a novel.
But reading blog posts never gives me the sense of satisfaction I get from fiction. And I can pour hours into writing and giving talks, but rarely do I resonate with a talk the way I resonate with fiction. Yesterday I posted on The Lucky 13 blog that sometimes writing fiction is like playing the tuba. I live for that sort of resonance. (Click here to read that post.)
I can’t tell a joke to save my life, and I get what John Gardner means about intuition guiding a first draft. I have to trust that my intuition is finding its way into the novel I’m now drafting. I remind myself that the process takes a long time, and that’s okay. I don’t yet know the ending—the punch line, if there is one—and I’ll keep writing until it reveals itself.