In my last blog post, I wrote about how my old water aerobics hat had gotten faded without my noticing. What was once cute was now shabby. I decided I needed a new hat and went on a quest.
After looking locally and finding only blah tan hats, I decided to order one off Etsy. Because so many people list their handmade items there, I had a huge variety of patterns to choose from. Should I get one particularly appropriate to water exercise, such as the hats with whales or with rubber duckies wearing tiaras? Or should I get whatever pattern appealed and not try to be thematic? I peppered the sellers with questions: How wide was the brim? Could they make a special order?
Finally, I selected a polka-dot hat. The brim was generous without being so wide it would drag in the water. The light-colored material would be cool. It had a toggle I could fasten under my chin for windy days. The seller would swap out the standard lime green lining for a darker, more glare-resistant material. What color would I like? Pink, I decided.
As I placed the order for my custom hat, I contrasted this process to the way I got the last hat. One day I was walking through Macy’s, right by a table of clearance accessories. Everything was jumbled together: purses in odd shades of green, belts with huge buckles, tiny, zebra-print pocketbooks that would hold no more than lipstick and a credit card. And sitting in that pile of miscellany, a bucket hat with sexy cowgirls on it. I had no use for such a hat, but I wanted it. (I often find clothes and jewelry in the clearance section that I love and no one else seems to.)
So what does this have to do with writing? Well, to me, it seemed like a metaphor for the difference between how I write novels and short stories. Short stories, for me, mostly happen serendipitously. I see something like a squirrel’s poor attempt to hide an avocado, and a story is born. I’m essentially walking by the clearance table and am inspired to grab an intriguing detail. A story (especially a flash fiction) is an impulse buy.
Novels can start with a momentary impulse or small detail, too, but I’ve found that as the writing process continues, I need to become more calculating and selective. If the character does that, will I run into trouble later? What can I do now to plant the seeds for a development coming towards the end of the book? I don’t outline, but by the time I’ve written around half the novel, I do have a general idea of where I will end.
Novels cannot completely be impulse buys. At some level, you have to make sure the plot elements you get suit your overall purpose. Select them as carefully as a new hat.
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Ann Hillesland writes fiction and essays. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, including Fourth Genre, Bayou, The Laurel Review, and Sou’wester.
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