I’m in the throes of the hardest part of writing a book and I’m only 5,000 words into it. It’s always this way when I first begin a novel. I’ve done the research, I’ve set the scene, I’ve plotted the storyline, I’ve prepared my notes. I begin, and I immediately run for the Advil to chase away the thundering headache from those first attempts to write a character whom I’ve never worked with before.
For me, the aspect of novel-writing that takes me to the mat is character-fleshing. Not character-creating; that part is easy. Character-creating is sitting in Starbucks or on my patio with a yellow pad and mechanical pencil, happily imagining someone who who wants something. I like that day. It’s invigorating. The unvigorating part is giving that wispy, personish idea flesh and bones. That part doesn’t happen on a day; it happens over the course of agonizing weeks while I squeeze out of that character’s nothingness a somethingness. Moving her forward on her quest to have what she wants requires that I know her intimately; that I know how she responds to change. I have to have already imagined how she thinks, and what makes her sad, what makes her angry, what makes her feel safe, feel threatened, feel empowered, feel defeated. And I have to tease the readers into caring about her, and whether she gets what she wants. The character has to have flaws and virtues. Strengths and weaknesses. It’s mentally exhausting. When I finish writing this blog post, I will click off every Internety thing I have open (distractions, distractions) and will spend the rest of the day making the flat girl in my laboratory come to life. And I will do it tomorrow and the next day. And the next, and for likely the next 30,000 words. By the third-of-the-way mark, I am usually over the worst of it.
I will have to pull off the first third by writing as if this character was already this richly detailed person whose deepest thoughts are already known to me. Yep, that’s the killer. A character reveals herself as I write. And yet I can’t write unless I know the character. Scary stuff, that.
I love this quote from a CNN interview with Mo Willems on this conundrum of which comes first.
“CNN: Which comes first: the characters or the ideas?
Mo Willems: It all depends. A lot of people think of ideas as objects, or animals that you hunt. You go into the woods, you find an idea, you capture it and you bring it home. And ideas really are more like gardens. And every day, you’re planting lots and lots of ideas. Some of them get eaten by birds, and never go anywhere. Some of them grow up to be really horrible things. Some wither and die. Every now and then, over time, some idea grows up to be big and beautiful and filled with fruit. You can cut that down and burn it for profit. So it’s an evolution.”
And the evolution happens – for me, anyway – not on lovely Starbucks day, but in the grueling salt mines of writing that first third.
It’s a wearisome wonder. A demanding delight.
Call me when it’s over…