Those of you who follow this blog will be saddened to learn of the passing of our friend Jon Zech this past Friday. He was a writer and a friend. He fought a long battle with cancer. Death may have taken him, but it did not win. Jon’s work lives on in his books, and his spirit lives in the hearts of his friends.
Here’s this week’s blog:
In the last six weeks or so I’ve been hard at work on a new novel. I’ve written five chapters as of this blog, and have the writer’s excitement that this is the project I was meant to write and which will someday prove successful.
But unlike my previous, unpublished attempts at novels, I’m not outlining this one. There’s a general plan, of course—a central idea, a major theme and several sub-themes, and a group of characters I have been living with and getting to know, but I have not planned this book to the end.
Nor will I.
The first novel I wrote was my thesis project in the MFA program at NILA (a fabulous and fast-growing program, I’m proud to say). About half of it was based on the events in the last week of the life of a French politician and newspaper editor who almost single-handedly stopped World War I from starting. Despite the fact that I had a historical template from which to build my plot, I outlined and re-outlined events and timelines, more than a dozen full revisions and countless smaller ones.
But as I’ve changed as a writer, I find outlines of less and less use. First, I’ve come to realize that setting a long-distance, immovable goal for a novel is futile, since I have so much to learn about the story while writing that it must change.
My second novel, Mr. Neutron, also used many outlines, but by that point I began to realize their diminishing value. Most of them were constructed after I was about a third to halfway through the writing, when I had a clear sense of direction. I believe that keeping the path of the novel open led to a more fulfilling character revelation and a much more profound climax and dénouement (which, of course, someone will have to publish before any of you gets to read it).
A novel, they tell us in grad school, is supposed to make a statement about life, what it means to be human. If that’s true, then we can only plan so much, and expect that our plans will change as the results of our decisions to achieve our goals become clear. We adapt in life; our characters adapt in theirs. And just because I’m the author doesn’t give me the right to restrict my players to rigid, predetermined paths. I’ve given them histories and goals, and a boatload of problems, but they’ll have to take it from there.
At most I’m going into each chapter with a single thought—after what just happened, what is X going to do next? It’s a bit scary to proceed this way, but then, it’s not much different from what we do every day in our real lives. And it keeps me wanting to write, because I want to know how it turns out.
 Which is why writers never allow themselves to get too excited.
 And I still believe Curtain Calls will see publication someday.
 For which I also still entertain high hopes.
 Not that anyone does that anymore—more like they make statements about their lives.