My biggest mistake as a writer? Thinking I know what’s coming next. Or, I should say, thinking I must know what’s coming next. Oh, I’ve tried. As I was wrapping up my last novel, I took the unprecedented step of sitting myself down and outlining the damn thing because I had too many loose ends and it was high time to get every flap nailed down.
So I did it. Plot point by plot point I laid it all down. Mind you, this was five drafts in, all of which had been written without so much as a note card’s worth of forethought. Nonetheless, with a few months of writing still to do, outline I did – and that was it: I was a changed man. I marched triumphantly into my kitchen and declared to my wife (also a writer) that I had seen the light and I was a convert. Henceforth I was an outliner, by God, and I would repent the willy-nilly days of misspent youth.
And so, as I finished my now-outlined novel, I began planning my next, imagining the meticulously detailed outline I would craft for myself, and which I would follow strictly, thereby removing all the fear and doubt that comes from sitting down at the computer and not knowing what is going to happen next to my characters. I would always know, because I wrote it down ahead of time, which is what any sensible person would do.
Then, the moment of truth. It was time to start the next novel. Watch me outline. I opened my computer, opened a new file . . . and nothing. All my ideas about the next novel—smoke. It felt like trying to act in front of a mirror. Still I plugged away, burning thousand of killobites of memory on great meandering, looping, twisted storylines, until I turned dropped the outline file, opened another, wrote, Chapter One, and started writing. That was 400 pages ago, and I’m happy as kitten in a yarn shop.
So that’s me. I don’t know. I like to pretend I do, but I don’t. I just know I want to write, which I do. Just as I wake up thinking sometimes I must know what to do this day and then of course only end up doing what I actually do, so too with the writing. Because if I listen closely, there is always something waiting beyond the next paragraph, the next sentence, the next word. I’m just a translator, after all. Fortunately, whatever I’m listening to keeps talking.