The one time I met Kurt Vonnegut, he was having a bad hair day. To make matters worse, he just finished addressing an auditorium full of people and he confided to me that he thought he was invited to address a small class and if he had known he was going to have to give a lecture, he wouldn’t have come. (I think I got that bit of confidence because I was Mount Everest to his Hillary: I was there). But it was a double-whammy. A bad hair day and a bad mood! Still, I was determined to mine this mind because I had a drawer full of started stories, started novels, started plays even, and nothing finished. My great ideas always seemed to rise to the level of inefficiency and petered out (The Peter Principle)?
I asked him. “How do you finish?” He stared at me with those droopy eyes and almost smiled while I frantically tried to rephrase the question so he would understand what I was really asking. Fortunately, he smiled and spoke first.
“I never think about finishing.” He said. When I was clearly stunned, he explained:
Whenever he got a good idea, he would climb up into the attic room in his brownstone and lock the door. People knew enough to stay away from him at those times. He would stay up in that room for a long time, working. Once, it was almost six months. He said he spent all that time working on the first sentence. (I translated that as the opening of the story), but he said, once he got the first sentence right, the rest just poured out of him.
I nodded. “So while you are working on that first sentence, your subconscious in the back of your mind is busy plotting out the story, characters and all.”
He frowned before admitting, “Probably, but I try not to analyze it too much.”
I thought this was great advice at the time, and I soon added page after page of great opening sentences to my drawer of the unfinished. Then I read Camus’ “The Plague,” and recognized the character who spent his whole life trying to write the perfect opening sentence, and he died, the plague of course, without having written a thing.
It was not long after that I read an article about how a writer should always have an ending in mind before they ever start. I thought that made sense. Years later, I understand J. K. Rowling had the gist of the end in mind before she penned the first “Harry Potter.” It is not a bad way to go, and given my imagination, I came up with all kinds of great endings. The trouble was for some, I couldn’t find the beginning. For others, the trail veered off and no matter what I did, it was determined to go nowhere near the end. For still others, I could see the end on the horizon, shining like the proverbial city on the hill, but I was stuck in the swamp (bogged down) and could not find the path at all.
So someone told me I needed to outline the whole thing before I wrote a word. We even worked with storyboards so the outline turned out to be 15 pages for a 10 page short story. I finished it! But it read like it was encased in a straight jacket.
After several variations on the theme, I finally ended up with what I call the skeleton. One paragraph (no more) describing the whole piece – a good thing to have later for promotional purposes & book covers. Characters are often noted with just names, sometimes age or other important characteristic is given and a word or too summarizing temperament or personality is jotted down, but that is it. Then a sentence or two, perhaps just phrases but no more than a paragraph describing what needs to happen in each story scene or novel chapter. Such an outline might be 6-8 pages maximum for a 300 page novel. I have found that this works for me. I keep on track, I look forward to the next scene or chapter rather than the blank page, and I can breathe and move freely right to THE END.
This works for me. What works for you?
Writing Tip 11:
I feel there may be as many ways to THE END as there are writers; but there are four things to consider here: 1) Don’t let the unfinished works steal your time, attention or energy. 2) Don’t worry about what so-and-so recommends because it might work for you, but it might not. 3) Don’t assume that all roads lead to Rome. Some will peter out, some may leave you in the swamp, and some may leave you so exhausted at the end you can hardly breathe. 4) Don’t give up. Keep looking until you find YOUR path and then head for home.