Sunday, November 29, 2015

Writing Novels: Plans versus Reality

This post contains spoilers.

When I first outlined my novel Learning to Live Again over a decade ago, I had a specific goal in mind for the outcome. Knowing what I do now, I realize that was silly of me, but I was new to writing back then and I was under the deluded impression I controlled the plot and the characters. Learning to Live Again quickly taught me otherwise.

When I first began writing the story, I had every intention of having Clay reconcile with his wife, determined to be a better husband after figuring out how badly he'd failed in that role. And Vicky? She was supposed to end up with Nick after the death of his wife, Abby. (Which explains Nick's interaction with Vicky in the story, but those who have read both Learning to Live Again and its second part, River of Life, may be feeling as squeamish as they had upon learning Luke and Leia were brother and sister, but read on. I'll address that later.)

That's how I imagined it would go, and I still remember slipping into the cold bathroom one November night after an idea for the ending woke me at three in the morning. As I sat on the closed toilet lid, I scribbled out a scene that is as vivid today as it was then. Though eleven years have passed since I wrote it, I can still picture members of the Taylors Mill Police Department standing at attention on the hillside beside Abby's grave on a sunny spring day. After the graveside service, Clay walked across a carpet of new grass to his car with his wife Judith, their son by their side. Judith glanced back at Nick, who stood by the grave looking forlorn. Squinting against the bright sun, she asked, "Is he going to be okay?" As Clay watched Vicky walk up to Nick and wrap him in a hug, he opened the car door and said, "He'll be fine."

Clay and Judith were back together. Nick and Vicky would be together. Though everyone had had their hearts bruised and battered, they would all live on, happily ever after. That was the plan. So how did the story turn out the way it did despite my intentions? Three reasons.

First, when I originally outlined the story, I had no idea Nick was married. After he mentioned his wife in a scene and I realized, oh yes, he was indeed married, I was faced with the task of getting rid of Abby. That wasn't easy. Not only did Abby serve as the voice of reason and Vicky's mentor in the faith, Nick loved her. Killing her would have been a monumental and grievous loss for the characters.

I did take her to the point of death's door in the final version, but killing her off then would have extended the story, and I was nearing the climax. So within the context of this novel, she had to live.

Next, as a new writer back then, I had no idea if you wrote characters to be realistic, they would end up having their own characterization, which an author must go with and explore. Clay wasn't nearly as complacent as I had planned, sweet little Vicky was a tad conniving when it came to getting what she wanted, Nick took every opportunity he could get to encourage Clay to divorce his absent wife and be happy with Vicky, and though Judith truly was injured by her husband's coldness over the years, she was far too shallow and materialistic to return to a life she hated.

So, that left Clay and Vicky as a couple, but a couple who absolutely could not be together considering the circumstances. What to do?

I had to keep in mind the point of Vicky's journey wasn't to find a man who would make her feel secure, but to help her learn to stand on her own feet again. It took a few revisions, but that's what finally happened.

As for Nick's original relationship with Vicky, you have to remember I had a specific purpose when I first outlined the story, but as I wrote the first draft, the characters showed me they had another story to tell. I was learning as I went, and years after I penned the first draft of the sequel, River of Life, I finally figured out why Nick had spent so much time at Clay's house when he was a boy. After I dragged the truth about his past from him, I realized how off the mark I'd been about his relationship with Vicky (since Abby had misconstrued the relationship as well, I didn't feel too bad.) Once I discovered that, the entire arc came together, and I was finally able to bring it to a close. Granted, a few of the characters didn't exactly end up happily ever after, but they ended up as they should have--facing the consequences of their actions, because that's what happens in real life. And writing a real representation of life instead of forcing my will onto a story was the lesson I had to learn.

I also learned to stop outlining stories. It doesn't work for me, and it eliminates the element of surprise.

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