In the entertaining movie Hook (Robin Williams as Peter Pan and Julia Roberts as Tinker Bell) Dustin Hoffman (as the evil pirate Hook) tells Smee, one of his scruffy underlings, “I’ve had an epiphany.” Later in the story, Smee, emulating his idol, declares, “Oi’ve just ‘ad an apostrophe.” It’s one of my favorite movie lines.
I’m happy to say I’ve just had an apostrophe. For three weeks, my current novel-in-progress was stuck at 77,800 words. Like some other authors have done—John D. MacDonald, Elmore Leonard, and Lee Child for examples—I don’t write to an outline, preferring to make up the story as I go along, letting my characters do as they will. I wish I could work to an outline like Jeffery Deaver so cleverly and successfully does, but I cannot. (I met Deaver at a writing conference and had dinner with him and his wife. They collaborate to create an elaborate outline for every book, refining it repeatedly until it’s all laid out in detail; I know it’s one of the reasons his stories are filled with so many exquisitely devious twists.) It means I sometimes have to go back and revise my story line to fit new happenings, but I’ve always lived with that shortcoming. One of the questions I’ve been most frequently asked in workshops and talks I’ve given on the craft of writing has been, “Do you outline?” I’ve never been able to come up with a satisfactory answer why I do not. Sometimes I’ve said, “Well, if even I don’t know what’s gonna happen next in a story, the reader surely won’t, either, and that ought to keep the story interesting.” But it seems a lame answer. And it’s not the most comfortable or confident way to write. Working on my second novel in a trilogy some time ago, I was 65,000 words along and facing a looming deadline before I even realized who the killer was going to be.
The other day I woke up and sat there on the edge of the bed as the sleep cobwebs cleared to reveal a glimmering of how the rest of my current novel could perhaps unfold. I went to a local restaurant owned by a friend for my usual cup of cinnamon coffee and a low-fat peach muffin, and took a booth. I opened the novel I’m reading (one of many thousands I’ve read over the years) but my eyes were only scanning the words, my brain unable to retain anything because my own novel plot seemed to be growing ever clearer by the minute as if by some wonderful magic, my relief and enthusiasm growing as well. All of a sudden I could see nearly to the end of the story, with most of the loose ends weaving themselves together nicely like an exotic tapestry.
It was an excellent feeling. A major apostrophe.
I’ve always suspected writers like the great John D. MacDonald really have outlined their work, albeit subconsciously. Their stories seem too refined and cohesive to think otherwise. I believe my own subconscious mind has been churning away at my novel the whole time I’ve been working on it, and finally that aspect of my mind came through for me with clear visions for the rest of the story. Now all I have to do is write it.
Wishing you happy apostrophes in your writing and in your life.