Tonight is your night.*
You’re off to Your World
Where you’re always right!
You have ideas galore.
You have visions aplenty.
You can choose who says what,
To whom, how and a-gently.
You rely on your thoughts and your deeper insight
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide what to write.
( *I don’t know about you, but I frequently choose to write at night. Why? Be patient. I’ll get to it.)
I’m pleading Ogden Nash in writing this verse. Not his talent, I hastily add --- I have never regarded writing poetry as my strong suit (no need to agree quite so vigorously, thank you very much) --- just his comic penchant, as I often point out to my students, of frequently and deliberately misspelling words or otherwise torturing them to make his rhymes fit. (To which they ask why they can’t do the same. “Because he was rich and famous, and you’re poor and anonymous,” I reply sweetly. It’s a sad truism that fame excuses a multitude of sins, isn’t it? Although it does provide a teachable moment with my scholars, bless their hormonal little hearts.)
I penned this doggerel because several people asked me about choices in writing (although they’re probably regretting it after my dreadful poetry). How does one choose characteristics for a character, for example? Gender, height, weight, eye colour, hopes, fears, abilities, baggage, etc.? How does one choose how a plot unfolds? The setting of a given scene?
Well, I think there’s three ways: Dictated, Deliberate, or Random.
Dictated choices are the ones where, really, you don’t feel you’re making much of a choice --- or get to choose, ironically. It’s there mentally, always been there, and you have absolutely no say in the matter. Sometimes, I think it’s very much as C.S. Lewis said: “I never exactly made a book. It's rather like taking dictation. I was given things to say.” As I mentioned in a previous post, for example, my gryphon Aquilea just was a girl, and there was no use arguing with myself about it, because it was an Immutable Truth. I don’t know why it was so, but it was, and with those sorts of things, it’s as if the Muse looks at you sternly and says, “Don’t you dare tinker with it, mortal author. At your peril.”
(I’ve been asked why I made Rhiss a boy instead of a girl --- quite a lot of popular literature lately, especially Young Adult, features female protagonists. Was I making a deliberate statement for a strong male protagonist? Well, no, not really. It was more the dictated sort of decision. ‘They’ say that your first novel tends to be autobiographical, and there’s probably some truth to that, as I have poured much of me into Rhiss. So his viewpoint was simply male from the get-go.)
Other things --- quite a lot of things, really --- are not as set in stone, and you’ve got deliberate decisions to make. And boy, they’d better be good decisions, or that Classic for All Time you’re writing is not going to be anywhere near as eternal as Shakespeare (something beyond most of us mere mortals, anyway). I’ve said before that I usually plot things out in advance. I think you have to do that a goodly chunk of the time, or you run the risk of your story slowly degenerating into chaos/nonsense. Although occasionally, something that seems Immutable turns out not to be so. For example, Arian, my protagonist’s mentor, was originally Arias (Ah RYE as). Male. For the first draft, maybe two, he was a crusty old man guiding Rhiss through the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. And then I got to thinking... Gandalf. Brom. Ben Kenobi. Priest in The Count of Monte Cristo. And so on. In an awful lot of stories, the mentor is an old man. What about, I thought, turning that on its head, making the character female? And boom, Arian came into focus. That’s an example of a deliberate choice. (If you want to know what Arian looks like --- at least as far as I’m concerned --- Google the late Canadian/American actress Colleen Dewhirst playing Marilla in a 1985 production of Anne of Green Gables. That’s Arian to me --- right down to the gravelly voice and perennially exasperated manner.)
Sometimes, as I’ve also mentioned before, something you thought was immutable --- a character’s behaviour or a situation or some such --- suddenly rears up, assumes a mind of its own, and the outcome is as unpredictable as it is wondrous. If that character or situation is flowing well, my advice is to simply ride the wave and let it happen. I think it’s a sign your work has really come alive: the characters are behaving like real people with wills of their own.
Random choices... I don’t think those happen very often, at least in my experience. And frankly, I don’t they should. If you’re making writing decisions and choices with no plan or agenda in mind, you should question why you’re doing this at all. Occasionally it will work, but not often.
Finally... that pesky little asterisk at the beginning. Writing at night. Well, it’s partly prosaic, partly romantic. Writing is essentially a solitary occupation --- at least to begin with, although the odd thing is that we simultaneously write for ourselves and others --- and it’s hard to do when the world is awake and noisily stomping about its business. I frequently write after my nearest and dearest have given up on me and departed for the arms of Morpheus (who, by the way, was the Greek god of dreams long before he was Neo’s mentor). When the house is quiet, there’s a stillness that seems to facilitate moving between worlds, especially if one is a night owl, like me. I can sit there in my den, listening to my iPod (we can talk another time about music while writing), imagination unleashed as I watch characters come alive and do the most incredible things. It’s joyous... and hugely rewarding.