In the middle of our party this weekend, I noticed that books and parties have a lot in common: You get everything set up beforehand, but once the guests (or characters) arrive, you have to let go of control over how it proceeds. You think you know what to expect, but a party (or a story) really has a life of its own, doesn't it? The best you can do is to have all the supplies ready, stand by, and try to accommodate where it's going.
Sometimes, experience helps; other times, not so much. Here are a few of the unpredictable party elements and how they went this time.
Guests per square inch. At the last party for my husband's lab, the guests spread out all over the downstairs. Some were eating in the kitchen, some were on the couch in the living room, some sat on the floor and put their plates on the coffee table, some sat on the couch in the family room. Getting ready on Saturday, I made the dining room table just big enough to hold the food everyone was bringing; I didn't plan for anyone to sit there. Early in the party, though, a lot of people sat down at the dining room table. Other people came and joined them there. Before long, the dining room table became party's center. Once they sat, people tended to remain planted. As more guests arrived, we ran out of chairs. The boyfriend of one of the graduate students and I collected additional ones from the rest of the house. The guests seemed happy to be squished tightly around the too-small table, so I didn't even try to spread them out.
Coffee. At a party a long time ago, lots of people wanted coffee and tea. So for the next one I bought two heavy-duty Thermoses and made the coffee and tea beforehand. For the next several years, no one has wanted either. This time, I forgot all about it. Naturally, 8 people wanted coffee. So all righty then, I gathered some mugs on a tray and made a huge pot.
The dog. This was our first party since getting the dog. I was worried that some people might have a problem with the dog, or that the dog would get freaked out by all the people. I had a plan in place, and I briefed all family members in advance. If Sammy misbehaved or got hyper, we would put him in his crate with a treat. We did not have to activate the plan. Sammy loved everybody; everybody loved Sammy. At one point I looked into the living room, and our dog was snuggled happily between a brother and sister, ages 10 and 12, who were lolling on the floor with their Gameboys.
Duration. Some parties are shorter than others. This time, a group of guests stayed seated around our dining room table for 5 1/2 hours. You just never know.
We're hosts to our stories too. Our job is to have the discipline and control to show up every day at the notebook or computer and write. Once we're there, though, we have to be willing to lose control and go in any crazy, unexpected direction the writing takes us.