First, Happy New Year. I hope last night was fun and safe for everyone.
Second, you might have noticed I didn’t post last Tuesday, on Christmas Day. I’d like to say that was out of reverence or whatver, but it wasn’t. I wanted to leave up the post on Challenges for another week. After all, today’s a great day to begin a new challenge. (grin)
Let me be clear: if writing fiction wasn’t the most fun I could have with my clothes on, I probably wouldn’t do it at all.
Writing fiction is an escape for me. Like going to the beach or going camping or taking a cruise is for other people. It’s just fun, something I love to do.
I enjoy writing stories I haven’t read before. I enjoy practicing (subliminally) new techniques I’ve learned from a mentor or from my reading. Occasionally, I even enjoy re-reading a short story or novella or novel I’ve written. Because even if that story has been told before, it’s never been told the way I tell it.
And by “the way I tell it,” I don’t mean only my authorial voice. Let me explain that.
I see my role as a writer as twofold: god and reporter.
As the god of the story, I create characters with completely free will. Then I give them a problem and place them in a world. That’s it.
Then, as they are wont to do, Things Happen. Situations come up. And the characters, not I, deal with them. Hey, I have my own life to live, my own situations to deal with.
Sometimes the situations in which my characters find themselves are thrust upon them by external forces (or other characters). Sometimes they occur as a result of the characters’ own actions.
But in either case, I don’t “save” them. I let them work out their problems on their own. If you’re a religious or spiritual person — or even just a person who believes in personal responsibilty, an increasingly foreign concept — and if you believe you have free will, this should sound familiar.
I’m aware that many writers are unable to trust their own subconscious, their own storytelling ability. That causes them to take the “god” responsibility to extremes.
They write extensive outlines, create in-depth character sketches, develop rising and falling action in graphs, carefully add plot points etc. (Ahem. None of which is writing.)
They effectively create and control every situation and everything their characters say and do in response to a given situation. Thus their writing “process” becomes laborious, even tedious. Often the process itself takes precedence over the writing! Then the worst among them hang out at launch parties, sling one forearm across their forehead, and proclaim writing “drudgery.”
I don’t wonder.
Now I’m no less the god of my story than they are of theirs. But I’m a different kind of god. I don’t lounge on a pedestal among the clouds, micromanaging or directing the actions and voices of my characters from afar. Or at all.
I gave them free will, remember? And I meant it.
Once the story is peopled with one or two characters, I kick off my robes and become a mild-mannered recorder. An observer. I’m just another reader, waiting to be entertained. And that’s where the real fun of writing begins.
As the recorder of the story, I roll off the parapet into the trench of the story (or into the interconnected trenches of the novel) and run through it with them.
Sometimes, though very seldom, I can foresee what the characters will do or say next. But more often, just as in “real” life, I’m surprised by what they do or say.
Most of the time, I don’t have a clue what’s about to happen, and frankly, I don’t give it much thought. I’m too busy racing along with them, trying frantically to keep up, and writing down what they say and do.
That free will of the characters and letting situations unfold as they will is all-important. And not only to me.
In a recent interview, Lee Child said his New York editor mentioned that the book he’d submitted might have been better if a set of situations had occurred in a different order.
Child agreed with him at first. “Yes, it might.” Then he said, “But that isn’t the way it happened.”
And this isn’t anything I’ve learned recently.
Back in the early 1990s, when I was fairly well known for my poetry and was making the circuit, doing presentations at writers’ conferences and in private seminars all over the country, writers occasionally asked about my fiction “process.” (I’d written some even back then.)
I smiled and said the same thing I’ve said ever since: “I don’t really have a process. I just follow the characters around and write down what they say and do.”
Which brings us back to the notion of keeping writing fun.
What could be more fun than being a perpetual spy and evesdropper on a group of characters? And getting paid for it?
Still, even with all the military training I’ve undergone in my own life, I seriously doubt I’m clandestine enough to avoid detection if my characters really wanted to notice me. In fact, I suspect they know I’m there. But they never mention me.
They’re so busy living their own lives that my presence doesn’t bother them. After all, who, as they move along a busy city street all wrapped up in their own tense situation, notices a non-threatening stranger loitering on the corner?
In an alternative view, my characters pay about as much attention to me as most characters pay to their creator. They know I’m around, and that’s fine. But they’d prefer to work through their problems themselves. And who can blame them?
So once I put them there, my influence is finished. It’s up to them to lead their own lives in whatever manner they see fit.
My only job is to have fun and be joyously amazed at how they do that.
And I am.
‘Til next time, happy writing!
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