Monday, June 27, 2005

Making It Up As I Go Along

I may have touched on this topic before. To the two or three of you who have read the Writing on Writing series at Bark Bark Woof Woof and repeated way back at the beginning of this blog, I apologize if this is repeating something I've said before. However, the latest chapter of Small Town Boys (see below) made me think about one rather important aspect of my writing process.

It may come as a shock to learn that I do not plan out my writing -- my fiction writing, that is -- before I sit down to write. (Some might say that I don't do that with my blog writing, but neener neener to you too.) I meet the characters, get to know them, and then let them lead me on to tell their stories. That may sound as if it's random and borders on the episodic, but I'm usually able to find a discernible thread in them and I trust the characters to show me how the story comes out. If it leads nowhere, I stop. Actually, I never begin. More often than not I've killed a story idea when there's no there there, and the characters go away. Don't worry; they usually come back with better material the next time.

I don't know exactly when I thought of the idea for Small Town Boys, but it was when I was living in Colorado and working at a cafe in a small town, waiting tables to supplement my income from two other part-time jobs I had, so it had to be sometime around 1990. It was going to be a story about a diner in a little town in New Mexico, and the title was going to be Tucumcari Tonight! That was from the billboards you see along Interstate 40 that runs across New Mexico, advertising the town of Tucumcari and hoping that travellers would stop and spend the night in one of their many motels that stretch along old Route 66. In fact, the first chapter of Small Town Boys and the description of the people and the cafe are from the first draft of the story. The plot was pretty simple: life in the small town is disrupted when the governor shows up to cut the ribbon on the last stretch of the interstate that is opening, and he stops in for a glass of lemonade. (Something like that actually happened when I was working in the cafe in Colorado. Governor Roy Romer stopped in for a take-out meal on his way through town. The governor was in and out in about five minutes. Most of the people in the diner -- all Republicans -- were speechless.)

Well, obviously I never got very far with Tucumcari Tonight! If I had, you'd be reading it here. But about five or six years after I hatched that idea I was toying around with it when Donny Hollenbeck showed up, much like Bobby Cramer had: a fully-formed character right down to the brand of cigarettes he smokes and the way he looks at life. He is not as obsessed with finding the reasons behind things as Bobby is. He is an adult and takes things pretty much as they come. Bobby has yet to achieve that, and from what I get from him, he never will. Donny, as one of my readers pointed out, has a somewhat melancholy yet lighthearted outlook on life. How come?

As J.R.R. Tolkien once said, "the tale grew in the telling." When I picked up the story of Donny Hollenbeck living in a small town in New Mexico when he'd obviously lived someplace else and had a somewhat mysterious past, I wanted to know what it was. Yeah, I know it sounds like I'm playing games -- c'mon, you're thinking: you must know the whole story -- I assure you that while I have a very good idea about the overall story arc and I am sure that I can get the story to a satisfying conclusion that will answer most, if not all, of the the questions, I do not know the little details that will make up the story itself because the characters are still growing as I write. There are things that they know that I don't, and only when I get to where I need to know them will they tell me. I guess it's one form of job security for fictional characters: hold out on the author until the last. Donny is doing just that with me. I know where he is going...but he's taking me back on this journey with him so I can see how he got there. In many ways I am making it up as I go along, but I also feel fully confident that I am being guided by the one person who really knows the story better than I do.

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