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The Magic in the Room

I was talking to a friend the other day about what it’s like to create. This friend has recently been welcomed into the small and selective group of friends I call my Ideal Readers Group, named after Stephen King’s suggestion in On Writing. I know I’ve spoken about that book before on this site. Anyway, this group helps me attain clarity in my books, after I’ve written them, but before the first real edit. During my time of shelving the project and letting it simmer, they go through it with a fine-tooth comb and make notes of anything they find that doesn’t fit. Continuity errors, misspellings, bad grammar, plot holes, the usual stuff.

So we were talking about how I write. Or what it’s like to write. To create. The magic feeling of seeing things appear on the screen as my fingers are pounding clumsily on the keyboard – things that I wasn’t aware I was going to type. And that’s the magic part of this thing. People probably don’t believe when I say I don’t know what’s going to happen. Stephen King said so himself in the aforementioned book. I owe a lot of my success to that book. It was very helpful in zeroing in my compass and knocking off the rough edges of how I write books. The rest, I owe to a lot of reading in my genre – I see how all the others do it, and learn from that – and from my readers themselves. When they tell me they really like a certain character, or a scene, that brings me a fair amount of joy. And it makes me do better. Create more scenes – or characters – like that in the future.

But as I said, Mr. King was the first I had ever heard talk about how writing isn’t a flowchart or a map – or even a timeline of things you want to happen. In your bag of tools as a writer, he says, Plotting is the jackhammer. It destroys the story you’re trying to raise from the rock and dust around it. It may be hard to believe. How else is one going to know what to type? Well, that’s the fun part. That’s the part that makes you feel like David Copperfield, getting to make the Statue of Liberty disappear. Or, I guess, in this case, appear.

So if you’re interested, I’m going to tell you what I know about how it happens, using some metaphor. I think it’s interesting. And I would like to write it down for posterity. And also because I like to write, and I like to put fresh content up on my website.

The first part is knowing what I want my story to be about. Resurrecting Mars was about a doomed mission to the Red Planet. It was meant for the reader to know almost as soon as the first few chapters, that they weren’t making it to Mars. No way. But the characters didn’t know. They had to learn the hard way. But that was all I knew when I embarked on my journey to write it. I didn’t know how it would happen. Who would do what. But I did know the who. As in who would be in it.

And that’s the first real secret to writing – at least for me. I come up with characters who are so real and vivid in my mind that they’re almost like separate people. I think them through so thoroughly in my creation of them, giving them realistic personality traits and character quirks, that they become real people to me. I know for instance, that Walter will never back down from a fight. He can solve a Rubik’s cube the hard way. He steals the rings off of tavern puzzles. He collects records an entire artist’s discography at a time. And if someone gets smart with him at a party and says, “We came from apes”, I know he’ll hold a finger up and say, “Well then explain to me, please, because I’ve been having trouble with this part of it, why the human eyeball has forty-plus separate working systems in it. Evolution doesn’t take forward progressive leaps on its own. So systems can’t be created. How did the eyeball come about?” I also know he’ll never order a ‘Scotch on the rocks’. Or a Lemon Drop, for that matter. Knowing these things makes him very realistic in my head. I know how tall he is and what he looks like. So I know when another character I know very well walks up to him for a hug, where her head will be in relation to his. If it’s Callie, he could rest his chin on her head. If it’s Rebecca, her forehead might crack his nose for him. If it’s Codi Cohl, he will have to bend down a little to embrace her. These things help me know how he acts, or would react, to any situation. So with that knowledge, I know how he would react if he were locked in the trunk of a car.

And it’s the same with all my characters. They’re so fleshed out and realistic to me that all I have to do is put them in a situation and then try to keep up. The words will be flowing from my brain, through my arms and down to my fingers that have learned so many bad typing habits over the years. I am now a terrible typist, where once I could fly so smoothly it was almost like watching Beethoven on a piano. Well, maybe not that smooth. But I was good. Now I’m not. So it is hard to keep up sometimes. The ideas and the events are happening and I’m trying to get them all down.

One of the best ways to tell what a character would do in a situation, is to practice with them. I might write a short piece about two characters going for a drive to meet a guy about getting back a stolen watch. And I may have no intention of ever putting that interaction in a book. It will likely never see the light of day. But it trains me on these characters. It helps me get to know them. It fleshes them out. And now they have depth. And a history. I could, in theory, mention that in one of my books. He had seen her fidget like this once before. On a trip they had made to Fairbanks to retrieve her brother’s stolen watch, she had fidgeted just like this. And that had turned out fine. “Calm, sister. You’re overthinking this!” And so on.

These little plays where characters are given the chance to come to life for short practice periods in my mind helps me get to know them just like real people. So then they’re ready to put in my book. All I have to do is come up with an idea for a story. Someone wants to build a submarine that will go down to the deepest part of the ocean, in search of a mythical monster. Add a character, and see how it develops. It’s really fascinating – even to me. Because I know where they’re going, but I can’t tell you how they’ll get there. It’s as much a mystery to me, the writer, as it is to you, the reader. And it all happens because of personality traits.

I also mentioned to my friend that the creative process, to me, was like looking through a viewfinder. I can only see the story happening when my eyes are pressed up against the viewfinder. And it happens right there in front of me, in real-time while I’m looking. I only have to keep up with my fingers. When I pull back, the story pauses. It waits for me to join again. And this viewfinder is the keyboard. When I sit to write, it just comes. It flows out of me like wine from a spilled bottle. I can’t see what’s coming. I just see what’s happening. And I write it as I see it.

The weirdest part about it is that I know, I know it’s from my head. My imagination. But I don’t really have access to it ahead of time, like a movie preview. Maybe certain parts I do, sure. And I can gently guide my characters to those parts. If I imagined – or dreamed up – a cool part, I can put my characters in that in my book. If I see someone turn too fast on the road and slide into the other lane, rolling their car and knocking over a fire hydrant, for instance, I can say, “Ooh. I want that to happen in my book.” And then I can put my character in a car in a bad mood and make it happen. But I still don’t necessarily see what’s coming until it happens. And that is so fun.

So sometimes things happen that I wasn’t expecting. But also, things happen that I didn’t want to happen. Like someone might step too close to the edge of a building, and since I know that character is clumsy already, and she’s have a few vodka-tonics this evening, and she just came from a fancy dinner where she had donned high heels, well, you know what happens in that situation. I suddenly have to clean up a mess on the pavement below. And though I didn’t necessarily want that to happen, I more-so don’t want to wield my eraser just because I have that power. If it happened naturally, organically, who am I to take it out? I’m God the story-telling process. But I don’t want to abuse that power. It makes for a choppy, rough-edged tale that wouldn’t be as fun and realistic. So I let things happen the way the characters tell me they happen.

Does this all sound like bullshit? I hope not. Because it’s not. It’s truly the way I write. I would be interested in knowing if all authors had the same process, or at least something close to it. I know Stephen King does. What about the others? It’s an incredible feeling to watch it happen in real-time. That’s why I’ve taken a shot at describing it here. I love when I’m able to find my muse and put my hands on the keyboard for another round of creation. It’s like nothing else in the world.

I’m over ninety thousand words into my next novel, and it’s coming along strong. I wrote 86,000 of those words last month. From April 4 through the 29th. I expect I’ll do the rest this month. I see no reason why it won’t happen. And then I get to put my hands back on the half-completed novel I walked away from a few years ago where I tell the tale of a superstar singer and her journey to the top. Or rather, a guy’s journey in falling in love with her. Exciting times. I hope you’ll read them when they’re done. The current one I’m writing will bring closure to the last two in the character-series. The questions left unanswered in Resurrecting Mars, and then actually asked in Into the Darkness, will now, finally be answered in this installment. And then I may be done with the Callie and Walter novels. Shrug. Or I may not. I’ve invested so much of my writing life building these two people that they’re incredibly fun to write. I might have trouble putting them away. We’ll see.