More on that title at the end of the post.
The writing had me in a weird place yesterday. I was stressed about where my story had ended up and where it was headed, and I felt the significant gravity of self-doubt and intimidation about the task of writing a novel weighing heavy on my shoulders. It was one of those days when I really think I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, when I wonder if this whole thing was really such a good idea and whether I’d be better off using my spare time to play video games or read or watch TV or otherwise waste my time. Of course, you have those thoughts, and then you remember the old adage about how nobody on their deathbed says they wished they’d watched more TV. No, Writing this novel is one of those — I won’t say Bucket List items, because that’s a term that gets tossed around too whimsically for my tastes — but it’s one of those Things I Wanted To Accomplish. And, like with so many other things in life, I’ve found, the day-to-day struggles become easier to bear if you keep your eye on the prize, so that’s what I try to do.
Well, it pays off. Today’s writing session was over before I even felt like I’d gotten my feet wet. Rather than obsessing over whether I was telling the right story or whether the characters were doing what they ought to be doing, I simply wrote the characters that I’ve created up until now and allow them to be who they need to be in the situations they find themselves in. And the dharmadest thing happened: they solved my problem for me. One of them, anyway.
It proves to me one of the things that I really believe about literature — and by literature I mean storytelling in particular, be it drama or novels or television or short stories — which is that the story really is all about characters. All the rest of it is just window-dressing. The grand, sweeping countrysides, the majestic, soaring castles, the picturesque skies, the mad cascading chains of events that unfold, the themes and motifs that run like veins of ore beneath the rocky surface of the sprawling text; to quote Yoda, a Jedi craves not these things. They don’t matter. They’re nice, sure, okay, pretty to look at, and maybe in the right story they add something to the tale. But the characters are at the heart of it. To say that characters are the meat and potatoes is to sell them entirely too short: they are the meat, the potatoes, the greens, the sauce, the fitzy little salad that you get beforehand, they’re the goldfinger bread that you stuff yourself on before the meal begins, the fine, aged wine that cleanses your palate after each bite, they’re the decadent dessert that you gorge yourself on after you’ve already eaten too much. All the rest might as well be a sprig of parsley on the heaping plate of character that you should be serving up to your readers. An audience should need a… Dharma it, what’s the opposite of a gastric bypass? A gastric enlargement? The audience should be unbuckling their belt and unbuttoning the top button of their pants because you’ve shoved so much character down their gullets.
One particularly salient point of advice that I plucked from Chuck Wendig’s site lately (yeah, I know, I keep referencing him lately, what can I say, his Sharknado resonates with me) is that you have to get out of the way of your story. Today I did that. I had laid the groundwork and put my characters in a really tenuous position; a situation that I was pretty sure was a mistake, that they’d be unable to escape from, that, in short, they would need more than a little of a Deus Ex Machina to proceed, and I spent last evening and this morning tossing ideas around in my mind about how to get them over the hump. Then it was time to write, and I had nothing. Great big goose egg.
But, all the writing advice I’ve seen everywhere has said that you have to write through the dry spells, you have to push through and write on the days that you feel like you don’t have any ideas, you have to let it all go and at least get something on the paper, so I did. I thought, “okay, these characters are here, what would they do?” And hey slap howdy, suddenly it was forty-five minutes later, I’d written twelve hundred words (passing the overachiever goal for the day!) and the characters in question had leapt the hurdle, charged down the aisle, and left the stadium behind as they headed through the parking lot. All because I got out of my head and let them do what they wanted to do.
Let’s be clear. I’m not saying that there should be no plan. If you let your characters do what they want to do, they will end up drinking beer and watching cartoons (seriously, this happened to one of the characters in my book, in a scene that will probably end up on… What’s the cutting room floor called for novelists? Oh yeah, it’s called the DELETE BUTTON). No, ultimately, it’s the author’s story, which means you are the driver and you hold the map. It’s your job to keep your eye on the prize and make sure that your journey to Florida doesn’t take the scenic route through fargoing Canada. That said, even the best of drivers needs a break every now and then, and occasionally it’s worth putting your characters in the driver’s seat for a while and letting them stop off on a few side streets.
*THIS SIDENOTE TYPED AS I SCAMPERED FROM THE BUILDING MAKING THE SIGN OF THE CROSS*
I wanted to close this entry out with a little update on progress so I opened up WriteMonkey to see where I was at (yeah, I know, don’t end a sentence with a preposition, BLAH BLAH BLAH this is too weird to mess with all that), and apparently I have written Sixty-six thousand, six hundred and sixty six words as of the end of my session today. Much as I love hyperbole, I am not making that up. Um… anybody have any holy water for me to sprinkle on my draft?