After 40 years in journalism, worrying constantly about getting every fact exactly right, I thought it would be liberating to make stuff up. So last summer I retired as writing coach of The Associated Press to become a full-time novelist.
Fiction writing has been less work than play for me, especially once I started believing in something that I’d often heard novelists say, but that had always sounded like hooey to me. I’m sure you’ve heard it too, or maybe even said it: The characters came to life and took over the story.
I had a good laugh several years ago when I heard the great Elmore Leonard talk about this. Once, he said, he called his publisher in a panic because he was only half-way through a novel when his main character got shot dead.
To the rational journalist in me, that seemed like mystical nonsense. Only one person touches the keys – the writer. The characters are the writer’s puppets, saying and doing what he or she tells them to and nothing more. The idea of characters developing wills of their own, I thought, was artsy-fartsy nonsense, just like all that prattle about muse and inspiration. Journalists have daily deadlines; they write whether they are in the mood or not. Getting the job done, I knew, had nothing to do with inspiration. It was about putting your butt in the seat and pounding the keyboard.
But when I started writing Rogue Island, something unexpected happened. The characters took over the story. The protagonist’s ex-wife, who started out as a minor irritant, turned into a vengeful bitch. A big, dangerous hit man shrank to five-foot five and developed a bad case of psoriasis. A fire chief who began as a minor character decided to become a major one. And then he decided he was a she.
It happened gradually, the characters stealthy, the changes they sought sneaking up on me. Perhaps that was because my plot was loosely based on two short stories I’d written. From the start, I thought I knew how the story would unfold, how it would end, and who the characters would be. Zerilli, a bookmaker, would be based loosely on an elderly mobster I’d heard about when I worked in Hartford. Lomax, a newspaper editor, would be a composite of several bosses I’d worked for years ago. Mulligan, the protagonist and first-person narrator of the tale, would be a lot like me, except six inches taller, 22 years younger, and with a quicker wit. Ok, I admit it. He’d be closer to who I want to be than who I really am.
But the short stories totaled 4,000 words, and the book would be 75,000 words, so I had a lot of typing to do.
When I began, I started each scene with a clear idea of its purpose and how it would unfold. But as soon as I set the characters in motion, they started doing or saying things I hadn’t planned on. In one early scene, for example, a mobster named Giordano met Mulligan in a hotel bar to give him a cryptic tip about some wrongdoing. As I typed, Giordano surprised me by slipping a Partagas from his jacket pocket and snipping the end with a silver cigar cutter. That led my narrator to say this:
The ban on smoking in public accommodations was still hung up in committee, cheating him out of the opportunity to flout it.
I liked the line – the way it enriched the characterization of both Mulligan and Giordano. It made me want more such surprises. I quickly discovered how to make that happen.
I wrote each scene rapidly, letting the characters say or do whatever popped into my head. As a result, scenes diverged wildly from their original purposes, and dialogue meandered all over the place. Once a scene was drafted, I’d go back to the beginning and read it through. Inevitably, a lot of it was crap that I immediately discarded. But there were always a few delightful surprises that would never have happened if I’d written according to my original plan.
I also learned that there was nothing mystical about this.
In real life, encounters and conversations never unfold according to plan – not even when you carefully rehearse what you want to say. One thought leads to another, and the conversation veers off in unpredictable directions.
When you loosen up and let it happen, fictional characters do the same thing, and the writing is richer for it.
Of course, I was right about one thing all along. Writing is not about muse. It’s about putting your butt in the seat and pounding the keyboard.
— This first appeared on stimulating-conversation.com