I’m totally jazzed about my interview with Les Edgerton. He’s answering questions about his books and the writing life.
In conjunction with the interview – and in celebration of Hooked, his book on openings – I’m hosting a FREE contest here at Write On. Enter your first page of a WIP (any genre) by January 29. The winner will be announced by February 12. See submission guidelines below. The writer of the best first page will win a copy of Hooked from me and a signed copy of Finding Your Voice. A big THANKS to Les for his donation of a signed book. Now polish up those first pages and be ready to submit. See details below.
Les Edgerton is a full-time writer with nine books in print and teaches creative writing on the university level, through private coaching of writers, and on various on-line venues. He graduated from Indiana University with a B.A. in General Studies (Honors of Distinction) and obtained an MFA in Writing from Vermont College.
Les Interview Part I
Write On: You said, “The beginning of every story should contain a “hint” of the ending.” (Which sent me scurrying to my work to see if I met this.) It made me wonder, should the writer always know their ending before they begin?
Les: First, let me preface my answer here as well as provide a preface to everything else, including the advice in my books. For starters, there are no absolutes in writing, especially in the craft and art of writing. Also, whatever the standards are today, they’ll be different in a year, in five years, in ten years. I feel I have to provide that disclaimer for folks to put anyone’s (including my own) advice into proper and useful context. John Gardner, author of the intelligent classics On Becoming a Novelist and The Art of Fiction, among other writer’s texts he wrote, understood that completely, when, during a dinner with his most noted pupil, Raymond Carver, shortly before his motorcycle accident and death, told Carver to “forget everything I told you back in college [about writing]. It’s all changed and it no longer applies.” (Loosely quoted) Gardner knew that fiction standards change. We’re working with living, mutating languages—English, French, German, Japanese, whatever—where the language changes constantly as does the culture. What passed for gospel five years ago in fiction may no longer apply today as tastes change. Which always amazes me as Gardner’s books are even today presented in many (most?) college writing classes as the end-all and be-all of writing instruction when many of the precepts he offered at the time no longer hold true in contemporary story structure. Gardner himself realized this, as evidenced by his statement to Carver, but many writing teachers don’t, or they would present the parts of his advice that still hold true and point out the ones that don’t. But, that doesn’t happen. The average teacher puts Gardner’s books on the reading list and the implication is that everything in them is directly transcribed from God’s mouth to John’s ear. The Gospel According to Gardner. Not so, as Gardner himself wisely realized and revealed in his statement to Carver. His advice, because he’s room temperature, is frozen in time and doesn’t always reflect what is expected in contemporary literature. Same as my own books. Things change. It’s why it’s important to keep up and read new books and seek out the contemporary wisdom.
I’m taking a bit of space here to provide this disclaimer, because it impacts not only everything I might say here, but everything written in my books. Nothing in fiction is carved in granite. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.
Also, it’s important for a student of creative writing to understand that most writing texts like mine are intended to guide the student toward a better-written finished book or story. The precepts and concepts and advice given are intended to provide a quality final draft. That’s important to realize. It’s not your first or fifth or fifteenth draft that we’re talking about. It’s the final, polished draft—the one you send to agents and/or editors—that we’re concerned with.
Which (finally!) leads to the answer to your question. Thought we’d never get there, didn’t you! To restate it, you asked: “Should the writer always know their ending before they begin?”
The answer is… maybe. If it’s the first draft. For the final draft, the answer is… absolutely.
There will be writers who don’t outline, who prefer to begin with a character or a situation and “set them free” and see where they go. The “free spirits” of writing. They don’t have a clue how their story will end, or so they claim. Or, they know the ending, but they don’t at the onset know how they’re going to get them there. While this can work and there are hundreds of successful writers who do just that, I’d try to convince most writers that this is counterproductive and wastes enormous amounts of time. This is perhaps the main reason many writers end up with bushel baskets full of unfinished stories and novels. They end up on the show “Hoarders” with manuscripts piled up in every direction instead of empty MacDonald wrappers…
Here’s what happens. For those writers who don’t know or care what their ending will be when they begin to write the story without knowing where they’re going, what they’re actually doing is creating very long outlines. Ernest Hemingway is a prime example. Papa claimed he never outlined. But… he did. Instead of a page or two of an outline, he created 100,000 word outlines. Instead of calling it what it was—an outline—he called it his “first draft.” But, in reality, it was an outline. It was important to him to present himself to the world as an “arteest,” a “rebel.” He was a genius and by not outlining, he proved it. Only he didn’t. His final manuscript proved it, not how he got there.
Other writers claim that by not knowing the ending, by not outlining, they can then experience the “thrill of discovery.” Well… perhaps… but I submit the thrill of discovery more profitably lies in the writing of a story you’ve created in your mind. Not wandering about the countryside until you get there. Can you get there by wandering? Sure. But, you can get there a lot quicker using a map and compass.
Here’s an idea. I suspect that when Moses was wandering through the wilderness for forty years trying to get to the Promised Land, he would have been forever grateful if God would have just sat him down and told him to “go north by northeast for two hundred clicks and you’ll be there, dude. Here’s a map. This thing’s called a ‘compass’ and here’s how it works. See ya in a week and we’ll celebrate with some milk and honey.” I’ve got to believe that Moses and his merry band got more than a little tired of waking up every day to face three more meals of manna and no A/C in the tent. Think?
Planning. That’s kind of the secret to being productive. In the case of a novel, outlining. To outline means you know your story. The thrill is going to be in the writing of it. Not “discovering” it during the journey. If you think the reader cares a fig whether you’ve demonstrated you’re a “free spirit” or a rule-breaker or are a person who doesn’t go by any damned rules, you’re probably wrong. They don’t care. All they care is that the book they just plunked down $24.95 or $14.95 (or $9.99 on the Kindle) for, is that it’s entertaining and worth the money they just spent. Get this: Nobody cares how you wrote it.
If that’s true, then why not write it the easy way?
And, the easy way is to figure pretty much what your story’s about and how it ends and all that and simply outline it and then write the thing.
Now. Normally, when the average writer sees the word “outline” he or she groans and curls up into a fetal position. That’s because most of us automatically think of those godawful things they made us write back in h.s. You know, the ones with Roman numerals and things called “topics” and icky, boring stuff like that. Or, they think of page after page of copious notes on plot points and character bios and all that junk. That’s not the kind of outline I’m proposing at all. The outline I propose consists of 15-20 words. That’s it, period. It looks nothing like Missus Grundy’s outline you learned back in P.S. 102. I won’t show how to create one here, because of space, but if interested, you can see how to create one on a post on my blog at:
Now, the answer to your question— should the writer always know their ending before they begin?—is yes.