A Team Effort with Imaginary People

 

 

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Writing a novel isn’t easy.

There are moments of doubt about the overall book. Crippling, terrifying doubt. (This idea is stupid. I am stupid. None of this makes any goddamned sense.) You pick your story apart, piece by tiny piece, until it’s in ribbons. But that’s not even the hardest part.

For me, at least, getting the characters going is the real nail-biter. At first, they feel flat and tepid and boring (and that’s being polite). There’s a time when it feels like the minor characters, especially, are just hollow plastic dolls that you’re bashing together while you play pretend in your head.

The thought of breathing life into dozens of imaginary people can be paralyzing.

Think of all the people you talk to in a day. Imagine their thoughts, their dreams, what they ate for lunch, where they’re going after work. They’re running late. They’re out of milk. They got shit to do.

Characters are like that. Individuals, all with their own concerns and priorities and issues. They don’t give a crap about your Hero’s story; they’re too busy living their own. It’s tempting not to give a crap about them, either: how dare they not fawn over your Hero the way you do? But each of them needs just as much attention as your main attraction, if they’re to feel real. And the only one holding the God-pen is you.

It won’t happen. Not this time. I’ve used everything up.

You show up to the story anyway, feet dragging if they need to. Tantrums are expected, if not outright encouraged. You sit and scowl at one of these pretend people until both of you feel a little uncomfortable.

Eventually, one of you will break.

“Okay, fine,” she’ll mumble. “I’ll tell you a little about myself. Listen close; I won’t do this again.” And your character will talk about how she couldn’t afford college, which robbed her of the career she wanted. She settled. She pretends like she’s happy, but she’s far from it: she’s miserable and exhausted and bitter. And, okay, sometimes it makes her grouchy. It makes her snap at your beloved Hero when all he’s done is ask for more coffee.

She won’t tell him why she does these things, but if you’re very, very lucky she might tell you.

And now you’re talking, and though you get to ask some questions most of it is just listening. You take notes as fast as you can because this faucet, once turned off, might not reopen.

And then suddenly, you know her. You know exactly what made her who she is.

And if you sit very, very still, the others will begin to come forward. “I had no friends.” “I was State Champion before I hurt myself.” “I fought against the odds, and won. These losers need to suck it up.”

You don’t breathe. You don’t dare scare them away. Minors are well aware they’re not the stars of your show, and understandably they’re reluctant to give you their stories. Why should they bother? You won’t use most of it, anyway.

But you want them to be alive, just as alive as your Very Important Person. Because if they’re just props, we’ll all know it and none of us will feel very good about it.

Here’s the thing: you can’t go any further in your novel without these temperamental jerks. They hold the fate of your story in their stubborn little fists. And sometimes they like to make you sweat for a while, wondering if they’ll ever tell you what makes them tick. So you wait (im)patiently, fingers crossed, hoping that eventually they’ll help you flesh out this world of yours.

My minors finally came to chat over coffee this weekend. They told me their secrets. Some went deeper than I expected. I am thrilled to finally know them.

And (just like that!) all those loose ends tied themselves up. There’s nothing in the way of the book, now.

Game on.

When I Think How Good (Life) Can Be…

“Sometimes when I think how good my book can be, I can hardly breathe.”
– Truman Capote

 

Today is a holiday for most of Canada, including Ontario, where I live.

All long weekend I’ve been having these… flashes, presentiments I guess, of what life would be like if I were ready to write full-time. I mean, for the last 72 hours I haven’t worn a lab coat; I haven’t worn safety glasses or gloves or sensible footwear. I haven’t spent any time at all doing things according to what other people wanted.

Instead I spent time outdoors, with family. I rose when I felt like; I stayed up late, reading. In short, I made my own schedule, a privilege denied me by my workaday week. And while I never stopped thinking about writing or where my career is headed, it was with excitement and hope, not dread.

When I came to the page I felt refreshed and thrilled to be so lucky, and I can’t help but yearn for the time when this will be my daily routine. Nothing excites me more than the idea of spending eight, ten, twelve hours at my desk, watching movies play in my head while I chase the words that describe them.

I had one of these little flashes just now, sprawled on the bed reading We Need to Talk About Kevin (which is brilliant, by the way). The sun’s going down, and the branches of the trees are starting to do that black-silhouette thing I love so much. I just felt so calm, so at peace, and it makes me want to move forward into the time when I won’t be under fluorescent lights at this time of evening. When I can look forward to spending time watching my bats after a long day of writing, when I can sit on the back deck with a hot cup of coffee and not have to worry about whether it’ll keep me up that night.

I get these little glimpses, and they make me briefly so happy. But like a junkie, I want more. It used to hurt unbearably, reaching for something that seemed so out of reach. But every month my writing’s earning a little more, then a little more, and it makes me start to think: There could be something here, if only I can keep on track and push myself a just a little further each day.

The Onion Weighs In on Chasing Your Dreams

“I have always been a big proponent of following your heart and doing exactly what you want to do. It sounds so simple, right? But there are people who spend years — decades, even — trying to find a true sense of purpose for themselves. My advice? Just find the thing you enjoy doing more than anything else, your one true passion, and do it for the rest of your life on nights and weekends when you’re exhausted and cranky and just want to go to bed…” – David Ferguson

Any of my fellow Creatives need a kick in the butt today? Find the rest of the article here.

Writers: Try a Writing “Sketchbook”

But, you’re a writer, right? Not a visual artist. What the hell would you want a sketchbook for?

I got caught up in YouTube recently, one of those tangled webs of clicking random “suggested video” links, and I ended up somehow at videos of sketchbooks. Page after page, turned for the camera, sometimes with the artist describing their ideas or inspirations. They’re visual candy, and what struck me about them was the freedom of the artist’s sketchbook.

Trying something new, crossing it out, fiddling with styles and colours and composition. Knowing even before you start that whatever you’re trying may be a colossal failure, and doing it anyway. Scribbling out, starting over, playing with ideas. Not caring about the end product, because if it sucks you don’t ever have to show anyone. The sheer joy of a happy mess unapologetic on the page.

Which is why I’ve adopted the “sketchbook” model for writing.

Sitting in front of a cold, impersonal monitor watching a cursor blink doesn’t exactly rev up my creativity. The harsh glow of the blank screen offers little in the way of inspiration. Show me a white screen and I’ll show you boredom, frustration, and occasional panic.

But show me a blank page, put a pen in my hand, and it’s on. Scribbling (even the word, scribbling, describes a freer way to write than the measured clicks of keys) encourages experimentation. Stuck? Doodle in the margins. Plotting? Draw the path of the story. Flash of inspiration? Throw a key word in the middle of a page and weave a web of related points, characters, and themes all around it. Try writing in a different colour (though not red ballpoint, trust me. It’s a bitch to read later). Your “sketchbook” will become art all on its own; ink stains, wrinkles, coffee and crumbs all marking the times and places you fleshed out your story.

At some point, it’s likely you’ll want to type up your story, whether it’s for publication or just to see it in print. I resisted the sketchbook method for quite a while, since it’s double the work: first writing longhand, then inputting every word. It feels like a huge waste of time, if you miss the major benefit: You can always edit your work on the fly as you type it up. By the time your story’s down, you’ve already caught a lot of the simple errors of tense, missing words, and the like. You’re one draft ahead. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll find that the time lost to typing is more than made up by the extra output of a few scribbles here, a few paragraphs there. A notebook can be crammed in a pocket or purse and snuck out almost anywhere in moments of inspiration, which puts you way ahead of the game in terms of production. No booting up, no waiting for apps to load, just uncap a pen and go.

Try it out, and let me know: Does it work for you?