Come back Mr Casaubon, all is forgiven
Revising and Editing: building the Orient Express

How are you going to get there?

The other day, at the end of a class, we were talking about what writing each of us had on the go at the moment, and one member said that he had a couple of really compelling ideas - the sort of idea which is a cluster of an images, resonances and sounds - but they didn't seem to lead anywhere. He couldn't see what they were the beginning of, or how to develop them: he'd tried all sorts of techniques and ideas, and they led nowhere. And in a rare moment of inspiration, I suggested that maybe they weren't the beginning of a story, they were the end. Or maybe the middle, I said tentatively, as he looked struck all of a heap. But no, he said, at least one was definitely an end: his writing-cogs were already beginning to turn fast enough to tell him that.

This isn't a student who's new to the whole thing, but one who's been writing for some time, and done high-level courses. The basic creative writing dynamic of starting with a kernel and growing it makes a lot of sense, but where does the assumption come from, that one's always developing forwards? Certainly most exercises give you the start - the approach to the assignation, the journey with a purpose, the cute meet. And I suppose it's basic logic to write in the direction that the reader will be reading - and, indeed, a lot of my personal process is about trying to work in the same profluent way, whether the flow is fast or slow. And then there's the fact that one of my favourite analogies for writing a story is building the bridge, which assumes that you know this bank well, and build your way across, pier by pier, to find out what the far bank is like. This process makes use of way that we use writing to work out what we think, where we're going, what happens next, including the fact that we'll allow something to surprise us. Modern conceptions of creativity put a lot of emphasis on freedom to follow the will o'the wisp of inspiration wherever it leads, and non-writers love the idea that our characters take over, or that the book turns out quite different from what we expected.

It's true that a lot of creative writing process, from a splurge of free-writing to working over and over to create a ruthlessly organised sonnet, is dedicated to getting people's minds and imaginations to jump the tracks, to see connections that haven't been seen, to link things (sounds, images, ideas) that haven't been linked, to put things next to each other so that sparks can jump the gap. Whereas when you've been given the end, it would seem to be very different: you have a goal, not a muse of fire. It's the modern management idea, of course, setting goals and then making a five-year plan to reach them, and it was presumably originally intended to get a company to think beyond the way that things have always been done. Creative thinking doesn't work like that, does it? If you have a goal, surely the precious inspiration won't be able to breathe and dance freely. Will it go off in a sulk because it's not allowed its way but must follow the railway tracks to the terminus? But if jumping the tracks is what's needed, it seems to me that starting at the end can help you to do exactly that. 

One of the most useful aphorisms I came across in my early days (so early that I must apologise for not being able to credit the author of it) of learning to write was, a propos short stories,  'Start as near the end as possible.' Now, of course, it's not nearly as simple as that really, and I suspect that the phrase is really aimed at beginner writers, whose stories so often never get off the blocks for the weight of explaining they start of with. But in a different way, I think it's useful for all of us: you can only start as near the end as possible if you know what the end is, so you can then decide or discover the start. And since change is the motor of fiction, knowing the end gives you something to think against: if this is the changed state/person/world, what used it to be like?

You think I'm being theoretical? Here's a case study. I'm not primarily a short fiction writer, but one of my favourite stories, and certainly my most successful one, came from knowing the end of it first. In researching prosthetic limbs for Stephen in The Mathematics of Love I'd come across all sorts of stuff which was useless to me for the novel, bionic limbs not being available in 1819, but full of weird resonances which I hadn't then explored. But it made me want to write a story about human bodies and machines, and instantly (so instantly I'm not at all sure which thought actually came first) I knew that the story would end with my narrator at the top of the London Eye, that huge machine built for nothing more than the pleasure of the little humans rattling like seeds inside the pods. There was my end. So where was my beginning? I started to think against that image of the ending, to find out what the change was going to be along the way: what was the same, but different? What would be both very different, and mean that at the end of the story there was that sense of echoing or even returning to the beginning? At the other end of the story I would be at the other end of the scale: the narrator is having a coil fitted, because an IUD is a tiny machine, a pretend foetus, inside a body. Suddenly there, too, was what you might call the second subject, the subsidiary theme: engineering versus fertility. After that, writing the story was simply a case of writing the journey from one to the other, and Maura's Arm was the result.