NaNoWriMo Week 5: Stories and bridges

You're at the point in your book where you're talking to yourself, aren't you? You're probably feeling a bit manic about the whole thing. It's an itch that runs away laughing every time you try to scratch it. You probably haven't bathed for the past 10,000 words. It's so close, that line. If you're on track, according to our recommendations, you should have about 45,900 words down right now. You are almost done.

Even at this late date, you may be wondering how the hell your book is going to tie up. Maybe you have an idea of what the end is, and maybe you even have it written out in outline and you know — beyond a shadow of a doubt — exactly what's going to happen when you get a little closer. But it's probably not quite working out the way you thought it would.

My experience was that as I wrote, the book kept changing under me. The more it changed, the further away I got from that ideal ending, which I had envisioned so clearly before I started writing. The more the work changed, however, the less that ending seemed either inevitable or appropriate. I became frustrated and started planning ways to make it all fit together.

Doesn't it seem simple? I want my characters to start here, and end there. It's like building a bridge, where one team starts on one end of the span, and the other starts opposite. They meet in the middle perfectly, the construction mapping perfectly to the engineers plans.

But building a bridge is not the creative part of the construction process. If bridges were books, the building part would be printing and distribution. Before the construction and blueprints and engineering was the design phase, and that is what writing a book is like.

Ask any experienced designer, and they will tell you that design emerges from constraint. You cannot create something without having limitations. Some of those limitations are the format itself — bridges have physics, novels have language — but many are imposed by the designer, either before their work begins, or in reaction to issues raised by the work.

Constraint is not backwards looking. You cannot plan the end of the bridge and then work from that to where you start. You must set up the constraints, because it's the constraints that will tell you the shape of what you are building: form follows function.

This means, in your novel, as you create the world and make choices of what to show your readers at what point, you will run into things that change the way you see the work.

You have been involved in a life-long study, and you may not have even know it. You have been studying the form of story since the day you were born. Stories are everywhere in our culture. Some sociologists claim that stories are fundamental to our species' success, because stories impart information down generations, warning of which plants to eat and which to use for medicine, and which to avoid altogether.

Your brain knows when a story isn't working — it tells you so when you're reading a story that doesn't hold together. You may not be a critic, but you do have a nose for things that are off the mark based on your many years of tutelage under the world's cultures, all of whom use stories. It is literally your birthright, the evolutionary advantage your clever ancestors used to succeed where their less-apt siblings failed.

So if you are an outliner, and you feel your story going off the rails you have so carefully laid, it can be really frustrating. You know the story isn't working, but yet, you have this plan! It was going to be so great! That clever ending is absolutely the right thing!

This is you coming up against both bridge building and your knowledge of story. Your story self knows that as you've made subtle shifts to the characters and situations as you were writing, and those small changes accumulated into whole new directions. Your bridge-building self knows that you either need to reverse those small changes to get back on track, or you will have to change the ending of the story.

So here we have a common problem of endings, then, and there are problems with either solution. First, going back and changing everything to align it is ludicrous. That will take too much work, and even if you decided to undertake it, this is not the job of a first draft, it is the job of a later draft (sneak peak: we'll be looking at what do do with your finished manuscript next week, and how to keep working on it). But second, going forward may mean abandoning everything you had hoped to achieve when you first envisioned this work.

Here's why I advise that you need to trust yourself. Trust your story-knowing self, and trust your bridge building self. Just for now, put your ending aside, and look at what you've actually written. What kind of ending seems inevitable, now, based on the work on the page? If it's different than the outline, so be it. There is always the next draft if it doesn't work.

No great art works without risk. Here, perhaps, is an opportunity for you to stretch, and to do so, you are going to have to trust yourself. Let your story be your guide, long after you've set the constraints and measured the gap. Throw away that outline, or that idea of what you wanted before you set word to page, and just put your nose down and work on finishing the actual book you have been working on so hard this month.