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'I have to know where I'm going'

4 January 2021

‘When I'm putting together a novel, I leave all the doors and windows open so the characters can come in and just as easily leave. I don't take notes. Once I start writing things down, I feel like I'm nailing the story in place. When I rely on my faulty memory, the pieces are free to move. The main character I was certain of starts to drift, and someone I'd barely noticed moves in to fill the space. The road forks and forks again. It becomes a path into the woods. It becomes the woods. I find a stream and follow it, the stream dries up, and I'm left to look for moss on the sides of trees.

Before I can start writing a novel, I have to know how it ends. I have to know where I'm going, otherwise I spend my days walking in circles. Not everyone is like this. I've heard writers say that they write in order to discover how the story ends, and if they knew the ending in advance there wouldn't be any point in writing. For them the mystery is solved by the act, and I understand that; it's just not the way I work...'

Ann Patchett, author of The Commonwealth, Bel Canto, Truth and Beauty, The Dutch House and eight other novels in Harper's Magazine