I write for the surprises.
Now don’t get me wrong: I like the moments when it feels like I have some semblance of control over my story, and I know what I want in a scene, and it happens correctly, and the prose feels solid and evocative.
But the best is when something happens as I’m writing that surprises me. Because in my experience, those surprises are where the magic lives.
Here’s an example: In my novel HONESTLY BEN (coming from AAL Books/Scholastic, March 28th) I have two characters who are in love but struggling to admit it. One is a gay boy named Rafe. He has known he’s in love with Ben for a long time, but he also is aware that Ben isn’t gay, or doesn’t consider himself to be gay. They had a fling but it didn’t work for various reasons, and there was a lot of pain for both characters.
Now they’re trying to negotiate their feelings and their relationship, and in a scene I wrote for the middle of the book, I have them beginning to get closer, beginning to regain trust. I had them going for a late night drive to the ocean in frigid February in Massachusetts. I went into writing the scene with no real goal except for them to come away from the scene feeling more in tune with each other.
I thought they might run into the ocean naked together. Yes, that would be chilly! That was just a thought of what might happen.
Instead, as I wrote, I found Ben chasing Rafe in a joking sort of way along the hard sand.
And then: a surprise.
Ben leaps and tackles Rafe. Hard. On the sand. And they wrestle. In a serious way. I was not expecting that! I thought they’d dealt with a lot of their feelings, but it was so, so right, and I knew it as it happened. They quarrel verbally while wrestling, and when it’s done, they’re better.
That there is a surprise! As I was writing, my skin got all shivery.
There was a level, a layer, of passion that I did not understand until the tackle and wrestling appeared, and it carried me, it gave me a sense of momentum that would carry the book to its climax. Without the surprise, I simply don’t know how I would have moved forward.
Sometimes our best plans aren’t good enough, and we don’t know it. Not until a surprise appears.
And I guess my point is that when our novels take an odd turn, we have a choice. We can nix it. We can decide it doesn’t fit into our perceived ideas of what the book is, or what is going to happen. We can steer the ship rather than allowing the ship to turn on its own. That’s my prerogative.
But I tend to think that when a surprise happens, I need to have a little faith that it means something. That I should follow it, and see where it leads. Because to me, surprises are God-or-Whatever’s way of showing up and leading me somewhere.
And I’m going to follow!
Bill Konigsberg is the award-winning young adult author of four novels. THE PORCUPINE OF TRUTH won the PEN Center USA Literary Award and the Stonewall Book Award in 2016; OPENLY STRAIGHT won the Sid Fleischman Award for Humor, and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in 2014; His debut novel, OUT OF THE POCKET, won the Lambda Literary Award in 2009. HONESTLY BEN, available in March 2017, has already received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and School Library Journal. Bill is Assistant Professor of Practice at The Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University. He lives in Arizona with his husband, Chuck, and their Australian Labradoodles, Mabel and Buford.