Stumbling into the furniture

After 41 years,* I finally have confirmation that the process I use to write long-form fiction works.

Despite my penchant for order and control in other areas of my life, I have always been an intuitive and freewheeling fiction writer. I once described to my mother the process of writing a novel as feeling my way through a roomful of objects in the dark with a small, weak light illuminating only a foot or so ahead of me.

In her workshop “Jump-Start Your Novel” for the SF/Peninsula Writer’s Club on Saturday, author and teacher Ellen Sussman invoked the image of driving cross country without necessarily having an idea of where you are going to end up. For her, as for me, the process of writing is mostly about discovery.

Of course, successful writers like Sussman don’t become successful by bumping into furniture in the dark or taking off on joyrides without a destination. But rather than planning each step along the way by producing a detailed outline before beginning to write, we can make the process of writing an organic pas-de-deux between character and plot, an unfolding that happens as we write. It is the drive to discover and the excitement of not knowing, Sussman maintains, that keeps authors committed, keeps our prose interesting, and keeps our readers turning the pages.

Learning that the novel-writing techniques I have arrived at through years of trial and error are sound ones both delighted and dismayed me. I was delighted to have confirmation of my process, but dismayed to think that I might have obtained this knowledge a good deal more quickly than I did by writing three “practice” novels.

Good things often happen when an unconscious approach becomes conscious. Maybe now, using some of the ideas Sussman suggested in her workshop, I can finish my current work a little sooner than I might have otherwise–and avoid some stubbed toes and bruised knees.

*Yes, I was writing in utero! Just kidding. I started sometime in grade school, but I won’t tell you exactly when.

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