Writing a novel is such a long process that I spend a great deal of time imagining scenes that won’t be written for a long time. This both keeps me going, because I can’t wait to get there, and frustrates me because it’s hard to keep track of all the thoughts I want to remember.
I imagine every author has his or her own way of planning a novel, but I’ve learned from experience not to plan too much. Right now, I am roughly halfway through the first draft of my new novel, and I have a detailed plan only for about the next ten pages, rough notes for the next thirty or so after that, and nothing at all for the rest except a general trajectory for the plot. Even that plan for the next ten was just rough notes a few days ago, but as I near the point that I will begin writing it, the energy of getting down what comes immediately before makes me see the details of what’s next more clearly. By the time I get around to writing the new pages, it will just be a matter of finding the right words.
Sometimes I lie awake in bed in the morning thinking of settings for future scenes, or ponder future dialogue while I walk to my office or work out at the gym. Often these yet-to-be-written parts of the novel come to me with such clarity I can hear the characters speak and know exactly what they will do. I’ve learned from experience, however, not to try to write these scenes down, because so much changes so quickly in a novel that it’s pretty much a guarantee they’ll have to be rewritten anyway to make them fit once I get to that point in the book.
There’s also another nagging problem with writing ahead. Once I’ve written something down, I assume the reader already knows it. I’ll forget that something hasn’t actually happened yet, leaving readers to wonder why I’m casually mentioning something they know nothing about. It’s best, I’ve found, to settle for adding no more than the basic idea for a future scene to my notes, and continue writing where I am at the moment.
Sometimes these future glimpses can be so thoroughly worked out in my mind that I’m even hearing the dialogue, but when I get around to writing the scene, the words will be different than I first imagined them. If a conversation between my characters seems to come out of the ether already well-formed, shouldn’t it remain the way it was, then, now, and forever? It’s weird to get around to writing the scene and find a substantially different way to say the same thing. Or three ways. Or ten ways.
Authors spend so much time revising that we’re all aware that pretty much everything in our books could have been said (or has been said) at least one other way. Somehow, we reach a point where we feel we’ve said it right, but perhaps it’s more accurate to say that we settle for telling a story well enough just one of the possible ways it could be told.
“It’s not good enough, but it’s the best I can do.” If John Steinbeck felt this way, the rest of us are in pretty good company. And if he hadn’t been willing to call that particular book finished, we wouldn’t have THE GRAPES OF WRATH.
Back to work. My new novel isn’t good enough yet, but someday it will the best I can do. You’ll see it then.