10/12/2010 06:41 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Making of a Novel: What If?

I teach a course in writing memoir, which began today. I love memoir -- as a writer, a reader, and a teacher -- and find many joys in it, on many levels. One thing that does not enter into a memoir writers' head, however, is the question, "What if?" That question belongs to fiction writers alone -- and asking it, answering it, and finding where it leads, is a distinct pleasure.

It's particularly fun to ask it in conjunction with a careful reader. I just did this, with a new friend of mine. This friend was asking what I was working on, and after I told her, she said, "Can I read some of it?" I'm not used to non-writers asking that, and was a little taken aback. I said, "Sure," and sent her some pages. I figure nothing would come of it. She might call and say, "It was good," or "I liked it," or something benign.

But instead, this friend called and said, "I feel like I wanted something more." I was taken aback a second time. Not only had she asked to read it, she had offered an actual critique. How lucky I was to find such a friend! She wasn't able to articulate what she felt was missing, but we talked around it, and finally got to the place where we were asking, "Well, what if...." We were all over the place with our musings, and then suddenly I said something and thought, "That's it!" The "what if" was exactly what was needed to punch up this piece of the story, and I recognized it the minute I heard it.

I hung up the phone so thrilled, and so grateful, and have been waiting all day for the chance to put into my pages my new "what if."

I guess it just goes to show you why it's always good to make a new friend -- and to say YES when someone asks to read your work.