By Art Taylor
The simplest answer to this week's question—"Did you know how your book would end when you started it?"—is that I didn't even know it was going to be a book when I started it.
"Rearview Mirror," the first story in my novel in stories On the Road with Del & Louise, was originally written as a standalone story, with it's own complete narrative arc. It was only later, after I'd thought more about these characters and their lives beyond the end of that story, that another story and then other stories and then the full novel came into being, with the original standalone tales needing to be revised to fit into and complete that larger narrative arc. That said, however, I was pleased at how so many of the original elements of that first story—both aspects of the two title characters but also small motifs—were able to be threaded through the longer novel in productive ways. Just this week, at dinner with a book club that had read the book, someone asked me about the final image of the book and how solidly I knew how I wanted to end the book with that specific image when I introduced it in the first story—which circles us back up to that first confession above. Is having everything planned out in advance a necessary step in building an organic final product? Not hardly, at least not in my experience.
Another example: a story I wrote called "A Voice from the Past." I wrote the first half of that story and shared with a couple of writing buddies back during my time in the MFA program at George Mason—and they loved it, but just wanted to know what happened next. "I don't know," I told them. "That's as far as I've written." It turned out that a couple of years passed before I myself figured out what happened next and finished the story—but in the end, this one too turned out OK: It was published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in 2009 and ultimately earned me my first "honorable mention" for the Best American Mystery Stories anthology.
Are all my stories written this way? More than I'd maybe like, which makes it sometimes time-consuming (did I emphasize that word years enough in the previous paragraph?). But I enjoy the sense of discovery that accompanies this process, and hope that readers feel that same sense of discovery too—both in terms of the surprise and, hopefully, the rightness of where a plot ends up.