One of my all-time favorite novels is Catch-22, so when I came across an interview in which Joseph Heller discussed the process of writing it, I was completely sucked in. The interview took place in 1974 (you can read it here, if you’re interested), so it’s not exactly breaking news, but, until recently, I hadn’t given much thought to the manner in which a novel was written. Even as I wrote my first one, I never really considered my approach to it. It wasn’t until I started working on a second book that I became conscious of my method (or maybe my lack thereof).
At the end of the day, everyone’s mind works differently, so I’m not sure how much we can take from studying another writer’s process, at least in a practical sense. For example, Heller said that he didn’t begin his novels with a theme or a character in mind. Instead, he thought of an opening line, and then let the story evolve from the possibilities that were suggested by that sentence. According to him, within an hour and a half of coming up with “It was love at first sight…” he’d figured out the form, the tone and many of the characters in Catch-22. He wrote the first chapter that week, and then sent it to his agent. A full year of planning followed before he began chapter two.
I found all of that quite fascinating, but it’s not something that I plan to try for myself. I am decidedly not the sort of writer that maps a whole story out before I start typing. I wrote about a third of Peripheral Involvement before I figured out what it was really about. When I started it, I imagined it as a satire. Over time, it evolved into something with more of a mystery/suspense element (I’ll save my thoughts about genres for another post), but even once I started going in that direction, I pretty much made it up as I went along. I didn’t know how it was all going to come out until just before I wrote the ending.
I’m sure that part of the reason that I went about it the way I did was the long timeline over which I wrote the book, so I was very curious to see how things would go when I tried to write a second one. I hoped to be able to come up with an outline, and to have a pretty good sense of the story before I started. It hasn’t worked out that way. The only thing that I was able to figure out before I began was that I wanted to set the novel in the Florida Keys. I chewed on that for a while before I came up with an idea for a character (a ne’er do well gambler whose family circumstances take him to the Keys after government regulation puts an end to his career as an online poker player). So that’s what I started with, and it wasn’t until after I’d written a bit that I started to populate my character’s universe (with the likes of a sleazy local lawyer and a disgraced former televangelist, to name two). And it wasn’t until I’d gotten though a few scenes with them that I figured out where the story was going to go from there.
At this point, I’ve written about 55,000 words of the second novel, and I feel like I have a pretty clear vision of where I want to take it (although, given my track record, I wouldn’t be shocked if it continued to evolve). In that sense, it developed much more quickly than Peripheral Involvement did, but I suppose that’s not a suprise.
I’m curious to hear from others on this. How much (or how little) do you figure out before you start writing?