When I first got the idea for Liar I thought it would be a comedy. I thought it would be a goofy, screwball comedy with a protag who was lying about herself out of boredom and insecurity and that as the layers of her lies were peeled away chapter by chapter—“Actually, I’m fourteen, not seventeen, but that’s only three years diff. Not that big of a lie, right?”—through a series of misunderstandings and misadventures she would learn to like herself and lose the need to lie so much. It would be heartwarming, they’d all hug it out, and everyone would learn and grow. You know only funny. Really funny.
The finished Liar turned out somewhat differently. Less with the funny.
This happens to me a lot. I suspect it’s because I don’t plan or outline my novels. Writing the first (or zero) draft is where I do the planning and figuring out and where I discover what kind of book I’m writing. Though maybe that’s what those planners are doing as they outline?1
Just before I start writing a new book I have the shiny wobbly spherical-ish ur-idea of it floating at the front of my brain. I can see the colours and I know what it smells like. It is gorgeous and wonderful. But something happens the moment I start writing it: the-texure-colours-shape-and-smell-novel I thought I was writing begins to fall apart. Every new word on the screen speeds up the process. Within a few thousand words all that’s left is this very faint residue. By the time I finish the first draft I can barely remember the floating sphere of wonder. The book has become its own self.
When I first started trying to write novels that process really bothered me. It drove me nuts that I couldn’t capture what I’d been imagining on the page. I thought it meant I was a terrible writer. But now I know it’s just part of the process and I enjoy it. I’ve decided that exactly capturing those early imaginings would be boring. There’d be no discovery, which is part of why I can’t outline. I really enjoy finding out what kind of novel I’m writing as I write it. I like that my novels surprise me.
But of course as I’ve said here many times before: every novelist writes differently. I’m sure many of them will not recognise what I’m talking about and write exactly the books they imagined. I wonder what that’s like?
- Who knows? Their ways are a mystery to me. [↩]