Friday, May 16, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: Learning to Land It

YEARS AGO, WHEN I WAS first learning to fly, I realized two things quickly. 
   The first was that, as long as the wind stayed moderate and relatively constant, taking off is easy.  Airplanes are designed to fly. Being in the air is their natural condition. Put enough air past their wings, and flying is what they will do.
   And the second thing I learned is that landing can be difficult. There is even a condition known as "ground effect," in which the aircraft appears to resist the pilot's efforts to return it to the earth. Airplanes, after all, are designed to fly, and ... being in the air is their natural condition. 
   So, in a nutshell, the process of learning to fly is largely about coming to grips with the principles of landing. Master that, and the rest tends to sort itself out naturally. 
   Novels can be much the same way. Just about anyone can write the beginning of a novel, or at least compose the treatment that will guide the creation of that beginning. But resolving a plot and multiple subplots in a fashion that seems workable and believable? That's a much thornier issue.
   Even more challenging is to write a great ending—an ending that will resonate with readers and haunt them for days, weeks or months afterward.
   Yet, as a novelist, you want—want and should not settle for anything less than—that great ending. You want it because it's the last part of the book that the reader experiences, and so it should be the best remembered. And you want it because books with great endings are books that readers talk about, and books that readers talk about are books that sell well.
   I'm very fortunate in that my 2007 novel, In High Places, had an ending that got a lot of readers and reviewers talking. To their credit, most did so without giving the ending away (something that I will not do here, either), but it excited such passions in them that they had to share their excitement about the book. And the way I created that sort of ending was very simple, really.
   I wrote the ending first.
  Now, I know that to some writers, this is anathema. Knowing how your story ends, and knowing that before you begin writing it, takes away some of the adventure, some of the process of discovery. But that raises the question of who the story is being written for. And if the story is being written for the reader—and I believe that it should be—then I believe what John Irving once said in an interview:
"When I start telling a story, I already know the story. There must be authority and authenticity in a storyteller's voice; readers must trust that the storyteller is an expert, at least on this particular story. How can you be an expert if you don't know what happens?"
   Sometimes—and this happened with In High Places—I think of an ending first and the rest of the book just falls into place before it. Sometimes, I think of an ending and use it as my destination, so the rest of the book is a journey through which I find my way there. But often, and usually, I simply have to think about a story for days, months, weeks or even years before I come up with an ending that will resonate for it. And when I have that, then I know I can begin to write it.
   Because once you know how to land, that's when you can trust that you know how to fly.

No comments:

Post a Comment