A little boy in my new novel needs to swing into a room on the same 19th century door his father did a generation before. What does the door look like? Is it heavy oak or a cast iron frame with tempered glass? I can’t remember. A major character from a previous novel is going to show up again in the current one, but it’s been many chapters since anyone said his name. How is it spelled? I know it’s pretty obscure (arcane and Dutch), but why don’t I have it written down in an organized summary of characters? What progression did the plot take at the beginning of the last novel when the children were growing up together? Did it start after they’d become friends and continue with some backstory, or was it the other way around? Why didn’t I do the story-board and outline summary for each chapter I planned on? All MFA teaching about structuring a book includes that kind of advice. Did I end up ignoring it because I’m:
a) Lazy and Stupid
b) Don’t have an MFA
c) Stubborn or
d) Something else
The correct answer, of course, is d). But what is that ‘something else’? Ever since my earliest days as a student I’ve been dealing with the guilt of not organizing my work in the neat, orderly fashion we were all introduced to in school. We had notebooks, tabs, 3 x 5 cards for research, and made outlines up the wazoo before any writing was committed to. By the time I’d finished all the prep work (months of it) the joy of creating had up and left entirely. What remained was a strange suspicion that I’d lost something much more important than control and the trouble it would save me ‘in the long run’.
I’m used to this guilt. It’s been with me a long time. Now it floods me every time I have to check back to a chapter for plot, scene or the spelling of a character’s name. Oh why didn’t I plan ahead the way I was taught to, knowing it would save me so much time and effort ‘in the long run’? Because there’s so much wasted effort up front on something that has absolutely nothing to do with the creative process it’s not a saving at all; not for me, anyway.
I’m now working on a sequel to my last novel; something that sprang itself on me rather than waiting to be carefully planned, I might add. It’s given me a new discovery. That is that when I go back to check the facts I need, I become immersed in the story all over again in a wonderfully resonant way. The old feelings and longings brought on by the story come rising up to the surface again where they can rekindle the heat that made the plot boil in the first place. The going back to read over probably wouldn’t happen on its own, but when I need a piece of information I can’t remember, the return to the original scene satisfies both the need for information and the reason things are happening as they are now. It’s like reviewing my characters’ historical memories. That’s why the pretty, neat, organized mechanisms for summarizing my books don’t work for me. I actually need the messiness of life to remind me of how they got where they are and suggest where they may go.
In the long run, it would seem to make more sense to let the story unfold as it would in real life (the way Mozart structured his concertos); messy, confusing, and possibly not as straight a line as we’d like. I find it much more real and honest when I haven’t kept track with a score card that’s supposed to make things easier for me as an author but in my case, makes things artificial and hard. All those devices rob me of the fun of going back. and when it’s my story and my characters, that’s all that matters in the long run.