I’m of course talking about when you hear that little voice in your head. You know the one.
“What are you doing,” it says. “I wouldn’t do that.”
“But my plot device doesn’t work otherwise,” you say in defiance.
“Then it’s a stupid plot device.”
“Stop talking to yourself,” it says.
And then you angrily delete the past four pages you’ve worked so hard on for nothing. But here’s the thing. It wasn’t for nothing. My wife made that perfectly clear to me a couple of days ago. The following has been paraphrased for thematic drama and because I can’t quite remember everything clearly. But you get the point.
“I just wrote four pages of tripe,” I said. I rarely if ever use the word tripe but it sounds good here. It makes me sound worldly.
“So?” said my wife. She often speaks in one word phrases that encompass a plethora of untapped wisdom.
“So it means it was all for nothing.”
“Bullshit.” See what I mean? For the record, she probably didn’t swear.
“You’ve written four pages that allowed you to see who your character really was,” she said.
“And now you can write a real character.”
“And it won’t be forcing puzzle pieces to fit where they don’t belong.”
“Did you read that article by Laini Taylor that I told you to read?”
“No,” I said. I felt guilty. Superbly so.
“Hmm.” Which means, this wouldn’t have happened if you had.
I’m convinced, completely and absolutely, that everything I know about writing I’ve learned from my wife. Sometimes I feel like the bylines of any novel I get published in the near future will say “By David Bock, made possible by Cathy — who is much smarter than him and cut out all the stupid filler that he put in to sound clever.” That’s not to say that I’m not a good writer. I’m a damn good writer, or at least I like to consider myself to be a damn good writer. I read C.D. Payne when i was far too young to do so. I own old copies of Treasure Island. That makes me a good writer, doesn’t it? She tells me I’m a good writer and she’s one of the best writers I’ve ever read (though she’ll tell you otherwise because she’s adorably modest) so that must account for something.
I’m getting side tracked. My point is that when you go to start writing a novel, or at least when I go to start writing my next novel, I recommend figuring out who your main character is before even putting them down on the page. So you’ve got this great idea for a story about an old woman who was a substitute health teacher. She collects dead cats, mounts them in obscene poses and delivers them to past students who were rude to her in the hallway. That’s crazy. It’s absurd but the point is: why cats? I’m glad you’ve got this great idea but what made her become a substitute health teacher of all things? Why not ferrets or the large goldfish that you find in a half-filled tank at a Thai restaurant. The reason that’s important is because when you begin writing you’ll start hearing that whisper I mentioned earlier and you want your main character to be happy with you.
“Oh yes dear that sounds nice,” she says.
“You think so? What about the black cat? The one grabbing its nipples?”
“I think it makes more sense to be white, darling. That boy deserved far worse but I’m being gentle.”
“You’re so miserable and bizarre and I love you,” I say and type furiously away.
“I love you too. Now how about a tabby giving Mr. Thompson the finger.”
It just works better. So that’s what I’m doing now. I’ve got a great idea for a world and a potential conflict but I started writing too quickly. I got excited and I wrote a bunch of stuff that forced what I wanted to happen rather than figuring out who my characters were and seeing how they got along. I’m starting to hear them whisper and I can’t wait for them to yell loudly, to bang drums, to pull their hair out, to point and laugh, to throw up in the corner of the room and pass out. That won’t happen if you don’t know who they are first, or at least have some idea of their motivations, their dreams and desires or the things that make them tick.
Good luck. I’m right here with you.