19 May 2018

It’s a pretty simple question, but it can be hard to answer if you’re a writer: How do you get from the beginning to the end?

Did you always know where you were going? I was asked that question many times after my novel was published. Did you make it up as you went along? Are you an outliner, or an improviser?

The truth is a little bit of both. When I started writing my first novel, The Futures, I knew what the central conflict would be. Evan and Julia move to New York after college. They’ve been together for several years, and their relationship propels them to a shared life in the city. But it’s the fall of 2008, and the stock market crashes. The economy implodes. The hairline crack between them—always there, if you knew where to look—starts to widen.

That vague vision was hovering in my mind when I sat down one day in April 2012. I remember it vividly. I was visiting my parents one weekend, sitting on the couch in their den. My feet propped on the coffee table, my laptop hot against my legs, the windows open to the spring breeze. My family went about their lives—puttering in the yard, the dog barking—and I felt a thrilling, terrifying kind of excitement as I stared at the blank white page, and began typing.

What are you doing? I thought to myself. You have no idea how to write a novel.

This was true. This was why it would take me many years and many drafts to have anything remotely good. Along the way, there was a lot of flailing and digressing. But from the very beginning, there was that nugget of feeling. A few pages of rambling notes was the closest thing I had to an outline. But it was something to return to, tangible and tactile, like beads on a rosary.

Each draft presented its own challenges, but each draft got slightly easier. A novel begins with a blank page. That blank page can become anything—a sprawling fantasy saga, a juicy romance, a historic epic, an emotional coming-of-age story. With successive drafts, when I began to make decisions, I began eliminating my options. The characters became sharper as the path ahead of them narrowed. Evan would work in finance, and Julia would work at a nonprofit. Evan would find it dangerously easy to justify his shady dealings at work. Julia would cure her boredom by turning to a person from her past.

Draft after draft of the novel, and time went by. Months, and years. The three of us spent a lot of time together. Evan and Julia didn’t exactly take on a life of their own, speaking dialogue that could be transcribed neatly into the plot (if only!)—but gradually I developed respect for them, as people who were distinct from me. Separate from me.

Anna Pitoniak on not writing a happy ending

When it came to writing the very end of the book, I didn’t exactly feel in charge

This is always the goal, as a writer: to create characters who feel alive. Who are capable of making their own decisions. So when it came to writing the very end of the book, I didn’t exactly feel in charge. Yes, I was choosing the words and crafting the sentences, but mostly I watched and observed what Evan and Julia were doing. We had spent several years together. We had over 300 pages of history. What would they do, in those final pages of the story? I wondered—would they find their way to a happy ending?

Symmetrically, I can tell you exactly where I wrote the rough draft of the last scene. I was on a train passing through Connecticut, headed back to New York City, sitting beside my boyfriend and my sister, who would later become the first people to read and critique the book. Elements of the scene would change—the setting, the long drumroll—but the basic resolution was always there. I remember typing that last line, adding the last quotation mark around the last line of dialogue. I remember closing my laptop, while announcements from the train conductor blared, and thinking: I’m not sure whether that’s a novel, but I wrote something.

I wanted Evan and Julia to find some measure of resolution—some answer to the question that permeated the pages of the novel. Coming of age in New York City is exciting and terrifying and overwhelming. And their relationship during that stretch of time was rocky, to say the least. But I’d like to think they learned from it. I’d like to think that they changed; maybe even matured. So what did they deserve? A perfect ending, ribboned and gift-wrapped? Or did they deserve something truer than that?

In real life, happy endings are slippery things. There are weddings and graduations and newborn babies, glowing and triumphant moments that get preserved in photo albums. But those perfect days are followed by a string of merely good days, and bad days, and regular days. To think that happiness only resides in those picture-perfect moments is a recipe for disappointment.

Evan and Julia didn’t get that picture-perfect moment on the very last page of The Futures. There were no fireworks, no roses, no soundtrack. It was never really an option for them; it wasn’t their style. But I like to think they got something better than that. They got a regular old day. They got their privacy back, because it was time for me to close the laptop and leave them alone. Inside that fictional version of New York City in 2009, they got their own fresh start. Their own blank page.

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