The Paris Review's website of author interviews really is a treasure trove. I still haven't finished reading the interview of Jeffrey Eugenides, but I found this back and forth last night and had to post it:
"Do you rewrite your sentences over and over again or do they come out fairly finished in a first draft?
"The Virgin Suicides was written in a slow, methodical fashion, sentence by sentence. Parts of my other books were written that way as well. There were small transitions in Middlesex, even though they were only three or four sentences long, where I had to spend a long time to get them to move. There are so many time shifts in the book, and it was difficult to give the right signposts so that the reader knew what was happening. I rewrite a lot. That’s why I don’t publish books very often. The fact that I’m working every day and publish so seldom shows that I’m reworking and rewriting a lot on the sentence level, and on the paragraph and structural levels, too.
"Do you outline your novels?
"I don’t start with an idea and outline it. I don’t see how you can know what’s going to happen in a book or what the book is about beforehand. So I plunge in headlong, and after a while I get worried that I don’t know what I’m doing or where I’m going, so I begin to make a fuzzy outline, thinking about what might happen in the book or how I might structure it. And then that outline keeps getting revised. I’ll have it there, like a security blanket, to make me feel better about what I’m doing, but it’s provisional. Always you discover things and have ideas of how it might work out as you’re writing, and often the surprise of coming to these conclusions is what makes the book’s plot points surprising to the reader, too. If you can see on your first day what’s going to happen, the reader can likely guess as well. It’s the more complex ideas, the more difficult-to-foresee consequences of your story, that are more interesting to write about, and to read about as well."
There's a lot to like and learn from in here, but first, it is a very good author describing his process of learning how to write and create simultaneously. His first successful book, The Virgin Suicides, was a very intentionally written thing. He labored over each sentence because he wanted to be sure that each word carried as much weight as possible. Later in the interview he says he wrote quite a bit of poetry when he was younger and wanted to find a way to combine the lyricism of poetry with the narrative of storytelling. Therefore, you have to labor over each sentence and word in the much the same way that poets do. I used to write Donald Hall and once I asked him how many drafts he put his poems through and he said an average of 125. There is a lot of intentionality behind each word.
Eugenides then goes on to say that when first starting a story he allows it to develop on its own, but at some point he needs to know where he's going and this leads him to create a "fuzzy" outline as a road map. And he uses it as nothing more than a road map. It isn't a formula or recipe that must be followed exactly, but a map to guide him as he travels forward and that allows him a lot of flexibility to try new ideas and routes toward the goal of the book. It even allows him to alter the end point of the book.
Despite the flexibility of the fuzzy outline, it gives him something to hang his hat on each morning when he sits down to write. He knows in that moment where he is going even if by the end of the day it may have changed. This type of structure, I believe, is critically important to writing, especially those with day jobs and other reasons for not being able to afford the luxury of sitting in a beautiful office all day long writing and creating. We have to do the best we can and that means not locking the muse in a cage, but ensuring we know how to find her when we need her. Some structure helps us do that.