Letting Them Breathe

breatheSix months later, plus a couple of breaks, and the hectic nature of work, but I’m finally nearing the end of the yellow brick road on this new novel. The hardest part is finishing the first draft, especially when the world tends to intrude on the fictional more often than not.

It started with the challenge, to create 50,000 words in 30 days, way back in November, and I accomplished that with no problems. The words just flowed more often than not, my imagination soaring and the characters coming to fruition as characters tend to do. The month flew by, and I was over 60,000 words when it did, but once the rush was over I still had to finish the novel.

Because it’s not enough to just stop on November 30 and pronounce it all done, to let it collect dust on a flash drive, never to be seen from or heard from again. I’ve done that before, and I don’t think I could do it again. These characters want to live. They want to breathe. They want to be out in the world, living their lives. And I will oblige them, but I just want to make sure I’m faithful enough to them before unveiling them. It’s my job as an author.

So I’ve been working, in bits and pieces, over these past six months, trying to finish the story, to take them to a satisfactory conclusion that makes me feel something inside. It’s been a difficult process, not because the words won’t come (because they always do), but because I let the real world intrude way too often. Without a strict timeline it got easier every night to just let it slide, to say I will work on it the next night, and like dominoes the nights fall one by one, and no writing on the novel gets done.

But somehow here I am, and I’ve been writing, really writing, on the novel for the past five days. My word count has gone up drastically, but more importantly my characters are progressing. They’re stressing out, and falling in love, and getting hurt, and just simply living their lives again after an interminable pause. And I’m falling in love all over again myself, with this world, with these characters, and with this storyline.

This is the point I always get to in my novels, when I know I’m nearly done, and I’m dying to reach the end, but I know I’ll miss having them so close to me. It’s a wonderfully thrilling part, though, a culmination of so much time spent together, the words an extension of myself. They always will be. Now it’s time to finish up this draft, to begin the editing process, to let this story live on its own, to let these characters breathe on their own.

And write the next one.

Sam

Characters Who Live & Breathe… & Leave

“So what’s your new book about?” my mom asked while we FaceTimed tonight.

“It’s a mystery,” I responded, that double edged sword cutting both ways at the same time, because as always it’s hard to break something down that isn’t quite done yet, that still has some plot left to ravel up.

“You know I love mysteries,” said my mom. “I’m still working my way through your last book. It’s Greg and Jason, right?”

“If you’re talking about characters, I honestly have no idea,” I replied, shaking my head. “Once they’re out there in the world they belong to everyone. They’re not my little secrets anymore, not only mine anymore.”

“I know what you mean,” she said, but I’m not sure she does. I’m not sure she can.

Being a writer is a solitary endeavor, but it’s not really solitary when I think about it. It’s about creating characters that live and breathe on the page, that I can connect with, that I can both love and despise. They become my friends, my confidants, my family, and my enemies. I live and die with their mixed emotions, always on the verge of  breaking down when they do.

And that’s something I can’t adequately put into words. It’s an ironic side effect of being a writer, of publishing something that is now out there in the world living and growing on its own. In its own way it is like giving birth, and I’m proud of every one of my children living out there in words. I love them all, but I’m not done just because they’re out of the nest.

Which is why I told my mom it is a mystery, because books write themselves, because while I know my characters I am not my characters. I let them live their lives, and these new characters in this new book are doing just that. They’re making their own mistakes, solving their own problems, and doing things I wasn’t sure they could do when I started this process. I know where they’ll end up by this book’s conclusion, but how the journey gets them there, and what state of mind they’ll be in is anyone’s guess. Even mine.

The hardest part of the process for me is having the patience as a writer to let my characters get there in their own way, and not trying to force the issue. It’s easy to say I’ll do it, that I’ll be patient, but once the writing begins to flow it’s difficult to be that guide on the side, yet so satisfying when it finally comes as it does.

And yes, it was Greg and Jason, but I had to look at the book flap to remember. Which is okay, because soon it will be Jennifer and David, and everyone who inhabits the world of this book. Then on to the next.

Sam

Cutting Room Floor: Why?

why-me11

There’s something to be said for having an overflow of material for a new novel. Being overstocked with chapters, pages, characters, and scenarios can be a real pain, though, when I sit down to begin the arduous task of editing. That’s because I’m in love with every single one of my chapters, pages, characters, and scenarios in each and every one of my drafts. But they can’t all survive the knife, the delicate cutting that eventually reveals the survivors, who are looking pretty svelte if I do say so myself. The ones who make it out alive are lucky, and the ones who are left behind on the cutting room floor look up at me and always ask “Why?”

I always have my reasons, yet every single reason doesn’t truly answer the question. Sometimes the only reason a character gets the axe is because I have too many characters who are similar or who are just taking up space. So I’m sorry Colin for leaving you to fend for yourself. Occasionally I kill off a character because I was never able to find his/her voice. Forgive me Susie for writing you into a corner I wasn’t adept enough to get you out of without wasting too many pages on what would have eventually amounted to an unnecessary detour.

Then there are the characters who have done absolutely nothing wrong. They weren’t in the wrong place at the wrong time. They weren’t just there to take up space, and they had a distinct voice. They were just unlucky that the plot hinged on others and not on them. If they had just come along later in the process I could have gladly just spun them off into their own novels instead of this one. But they came early, they hung around, and then I had to say goodbye while they looked up at me with those accusatory looks.

And I’m sorry. I really and truly am. Sometimes these characters do show up again, fully fleshed out, in other pieces, be they other novels or short stories, or poems, or even in one of my two complete plays. Usually if I resurrect them from the ashes of their own demise it’s for reasons far beyond what they could have accomplished in the novel in question. Most times when they come back it’s to redeem themselves in my eyes, even if they never did anything wrong to begin with. They’re still my children, and they still deserve a chance to prove themselves.

To those who come back bigger and better than ever, that’s the answer to “Why?” Because it just wasn’t your time before. It wasn’t your time to shine, and later is. But to those who never show up again, whose ghosts still haunt me from the graveyard of lost characters, perhaps your time will come too. For now, though, there is no real answer to “Why?” For now there are just more questions that perhaps you could have answered if I had left you in as written.

But where’s the catharsis in that?

Sam

Like a God

ManPraising_7574147_sIf we write what we know, then why do I keep penning tales about absent fathers who try to buy their daughters’ affections with gifts? How come I write poems about lost love that still twists the knife in deep every single day even though it’s been ages since that love was manifested? Why is it that I am most at home when I write about pain, and blood, and backstabbing characters with horrible backstories?

I don’t know. Or maybe I do know. It’s easy to write about dysfunction, about families that have no central roots, who behave in nefarious ways because of some sort of disappointment from one to another. It’s second nature to pen characters who wouldn’t know love if it was outlined in neon outside their open window. And that’s not because my life was a neverending wilderness of pain and disappointment. It’s because I convinced myself it was.

That’s one problem with having a wealth of imagination and creativity, the ability to craft characters and situations that aren’t anything that has ever happened to me. I immerse myself in them, in their environments, inside of their very skin, and I look through their eyes to see myself staring back. It’s difficult not to draw that connection, not to feel a kinship with them that goes beyond creator and creation.

I write about dysfunction precisely because it’s not what I know, because it’s probably as far from my insular world as I can get. I wrap it around me like a coat, like a second skin, and I breathe it in, letting it infuse me with its warmth, completing me. It’s the other side of me, the one that I never let out to play for fear that others will judge me, except that through words I can still make it real. It’s not that I want to live through it, but that I want to understand it without living through it.

So I send my characters into the trenches, to fight the battles I know I will never have, to rage against the status quo in a way I will never rage against it, to defeat the ideologies that abound and rescue themselves from what eats them up inside. I take them out of the comfortable confines of my mind and place them at angles to themselves, to fight it out and see who winds up still standing. And I smile over it all like a God who hands out favors to those who don’t deserve it and places wagers on the rest.

Sam

Joining the Family

Welcome-MatI’ve been writing since I was 10 years old, and what I’ve learned is that the writing process is never the same for any one of my pieces. Sometimes the story takes me along for the ride while other times my imagination is driving the storyline. Half of the time the place is central while the other half is character-focused. On occasion the pace is quick and succinct, while most of the time the narrative is detailed and descriptive. Sometimes I write in first person while other times I prefer a third person perspective.

But every single piece I write has a bit of my soul in it, whether it be a short story, a poem, an essay, a blog entry, or even a novel. Someone once said that we write what we know, and I wholeheartedly agree. That doesn’t mean, though, that I think all of my characters are me. Quite the contrary. While they all have a piece of me none of them are ever wholly me, which is the point. Having a cast of characters, each with bits and pieces of me, makes them all my family, and what a sordid and diverse family I have after more than 27 years of writing.

There’s the man who goes back to a house he knows is haunted because he wants to see those ghosts one more time before they kill him. And the woman who breaks up with a man outside of a rest stop because he just wasn’t good enough for her. I enjoyed the kid who ran away from home to find out that the world wasn’t all that he thought it was supposed to be, and ended up coming back home to find out he wasn’t even missed. And it couldn’t be a real family without the woman who dreamed dreams that became real when she woke up.

They’re all a part of my family, for better or for worse, but mostly for better because I’m a better person for having known them, for having their stories flow through my fingers and darken my pages with language, with dialogue, and with… character. Today I can officially add another heroine to my family by virtue of her telling me her story over the course of the past three months, and now that tale is done… at least until the first edit. Welcome, Christina, to the family. Let’s hope you don’t mind a little dysfunction.

Sam

Dear Journal: In Character

character_profile_boyDear Journal,

When I write in first person it’s sometimes hard to forget that the main character isn’t me. Sure, there are always bits and pieces of me present in each and every one. They all bleed the same as me, with their hearts on their sleeves, and with ulterior motives coloring almost every one of their moves, but they’re not me. They’re some other animal indeed, figments of my imagination that inhabit the page.

We all write what we know, or at least someone said that ages ago, so that’s why my characters seem to resemble me more often than not. And I have to admit that when I’m in the throes of writing, when I’m ankle deep in the trenches, I can’t separate the two, and most times I wouldn’t want to anyway. At those times, in those moments, I am my character. I am the epitome of everything metaphorically sweet, but also of everything devastatingly foul, about each and every one of them. I can love them and hate them with equal fervor by loving and hating myself when I’m over this keyboard breathing life into them.

Then, at other times, there is a distance, a forced focus to maintain this separation between me and them, at those times when they’re at their most despicable. I see them in the mirror and I turn away because I know they’ll give me a look that says “we’re in this together now,” and I don’t want to take the journey with them. I keep my distance so I can keep writing, so they can keep breathing and I don’t strangle them to death with my bare hands for being something I could never in a million years be.

But regardless of it all, we’re connected in a way that cannot be outdone. Once I’ve given them life they live and grow, believing in themselves and in their potential, even if I at first didn’t see where they could go with what I had given them. And I’m glad, despite where some of them end up, because each one is a part of me, like it or not.

Sam

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