Reading like a writer

May 31st, 2011

I haven’t tried to write fiction in years. I’m trying to remember the last time I actually completed a work of short fiction – was I still in the States? I know back in DC I wrote some stories when I should have been writing my dissertation; I’ve sketched ideas for stories here in Switzerland, but I don’t think I’ve completed any. Let’s just say it’s probably been close to a decade since I considered myself an aspiring fiction writer, and I still don’t see myself turning to fiction any time soon, but a strange thing has been happening lately when I read certain novels, intricately constructed novels like A Visit From the Goon Squad or The Children’s Book.

I read these novels and find that a part of my mind is trying to work out how the author did it, how she kept all those balls in the air at one time, how she mapped the story, how she plotted out all the twists and turns so that on page 61 she knew to drop the hint that would make the reader say “Oh!” on page 149. I picture a novelist floating above her work, able to see the whole thing below her like a map, already knowing at the outset how the thing was going to work; or standing in a closet like Charlie Crews mapping out all the connections between her characters. I’m almost finished with A Visit From the Goon Squad, and I feel a part of myself wondering with each page how Jennifer Egan plotted it all out.

What does it look like for an author to hold such a complicated thing in her head? How much did she know before she started writing, and how much did she discover along the way? I have read interviews with authors in which they say the writing of the novel was an act of discovery, that they wrote the story to find out how it would end, but novels like A Visit From the Goon Squad or The Known World by Edward P. Jones are so complex the author must have known a great deal going in. How did they build the scaffolding? When did they go back and add all the multiple layers? How did they keep track of everything? I find a part of my brain working on this level more and more frequently Рhow was this built as a piece of fiction? Рeven while the rest of me is reading for pleasure.

And I wonder if some part of my brain is making the long walk back to fiction.