Tuesday, January 15, 2013
The Price of 'What If'
I recently had a chance to catch up with an old friend that I haven’t seen in years. We met ages ago in class at the University of Kentucky (which neither of us finished) in Lexington, KY (where neither of us stayed). But while we were still starry-eyed coeds we had so many plans, from opening an aviary together to having double weddings and making sure our children went to school together and grew up to be best friends. 20 is a great age for making plans. 30 is a great age to be grateful if those plans didn't pan out.
Em: “Do you ever wonder ‘what if…’?”
Me: “I write fantasy. It’s my job to wonder What If… Everything.”
I was being glib at the time, but I really should have given more thought to her question and given her the kind of answer it deserved. The truth is, ‘What If?’ is the price I paid for everything that I am today and everything that I have ever written.
Every decision we make, no matter how large or small, closes the doors to infinite possibilities labeled ‘What If,’ and behind those hide all of the other lives we might have led. It’s easy to imagine what those doors might look like; in my case, I picture them standing in a long Wonka-style hall dwindling away to a tiny speck at the end. Incidentally, the carpet is purple. I’m tempted to visit my earliest What Ifs for fun, like the one that would have led me to a life of hardened crime if I’d chosen to play the Baroness instead of Lady Jaye or Scarlett when we played GI Joes as kids. Or maybe the What If from those days in college when I decided to sidetrack my dream of writing by giving up on my English major and declaring Business instead out of a sensible fear of starvation. It’s so tempting to open those doors again… but the price you pay to make that choice is the same you paid for this one. Open another door and the one behind you shuts forever.
Granted, that was a fairly gross generalization (the kind I’d normally hate to read, let alone write) and if I dwelt on that analogy for too long I’d end up frozen in a decision-paralysis and even the Hershey bar vs. Snickers choice at the vending machine would send me into a drooling fit. But sometimes taking an idea to an extreme is useful because it helps prevent you from taking the more moderate consequences for granted. And here’s the kicker:
It’s every bit as true in writing as it is in life.
Were you wondering how much longer before I turned this into a post about writing? I held off longer than I thought possible. But think about it… As writers we write life the way we see it (or would like to see it) and we have no less difficult decisions ahead of us than the characters we create. There have been so many times in the past that I've wrestled with some plot problem or another and finally moved on, convincing myself that it was minor enough that I could work it out later. Well, guess what? It turns out that there are no minor plot problems.
Those problems represent decisions that need to be made because every element in your story line is dependent on the rest. And if it isn't, then in all likelihood you have extraneous fodder sneaking into your story that needs to be gutted to make your novel tighter. Making the right decisions early on is crucial to completing your vision and making sure your ‘What Ifs’ don’t haunt your characters on their journey to the end you want them to have; the doors that you might inadvertently close with a hasty/easy choice might not even be evident until you’re ¾ of the way through your book! Unlike in real life, we do have that wonderful thing known as The Second Draft where we can reopen the doors we needed and perfect the journey. But could anything be more magical than getting all the way through your First Draft and discovering that because you were careful in your decisions and true to your vision, you don’t have to rewrite almost everything?
And be sure that this is a ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ kind of moment for me. Having completed only four full novels, it might be four or forty more before I can master that trick in my outlining. I may be aware now of the importance of these issues that I usually ignored, but I’m also about to delve into a heavy rewrite for my 2nd draft of Tilt because I had never given any credence to it before. So to quote the sagest advice we ever receive as kids, “Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.” - Some real American heroes.
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