Monday, May 10, 2010

Who's the Boss?

I used to think that once I typed a story, that was it. The words could change a little and we'd call that an edit. I might move a sentence or two, clear up a question, add a beat. But the story that emerged, that was pretty much set in stone. After all, if that's the way it came out, that's how it was meant to be, right? That's what the characters were telling me to do and I had to listen to them. Right?

Not so much. At least, not this time around.

When I started writing Wish You Weren't, I had a pretty good idea where I wanted it to end up. I wasn't sure about all the in between stuff, what Avi calls "the muddle," but I knew the ending so I figured I could flail my way there.

Well, I did plenty of flailing. I wrote this weird, melodramatic, dark crap that I hated. I kept thinking if that's where the characters wanted to go, didn't I, as the author, have an obligation to follow them there?

I've decided that way of thinking is wrong, at least for me, and certainly, for this story. My characters are NOT the boss of me.

When it came right down to it, the problem was lack of confidence. I didn't think I was good enough to write the story the way I wanted it to be written, so I fell back on easier solutions. I gave the characters stupid obstacles to overcome and made it too easy for them, for ME, to find a way out. And it was boring. I hated the story so much I put it to the side and worked on other things.

But this story didn't want to go away. Thankfully, my subconscious kept working on it and when I came back to it months later, I ended up throwing away more than a third of what I had written. This time I took charge of the story. I made it the story I wanted it to be. And it was hard. I honestly wasn't sure if I was capable. I studied other writers and every time they awoke an emotion in me or made me smile or took be by surprise, I tore the writing apart to figure out how they did that so I could do it too. I learned from books that weren't even close to my genre, as well as from books you could say are like mine. And it helped, to not just read good books but to study them.

I think I showed my characters who the boss is, but the work of getting there has made the story stronger, made me a stronger writer.

Have you ever had characters try to hijack your story? Who wins: you or them?


Lisa K. said...

I think all these struggles make us stronger writers, and it sounds like your story is all the better for the lessons you learned in the writing. For me, I've almost always written without an idea of where I was going, and sometimes that means that when I've finished that first dratt, I have to go back to the beginning and change a lot so I totally know where you're coming from!

JEM said...

I know exactly what you mean, which is why I had to turn to outlining. But the idea of tearing apart a piece of writing when it evokes an emotion, that's a brilliant idea. I will definitely be making use of that one.

Lydia Kang said...

Yeah my characters sometimes hijack the story, but most of the time, it's a good thing. Sometimes, it's awful and I have to stop the whole thing before I trash the whole chapter. It's just my imagination working things out, you know?

Anne Gallagher said...

My characters always hijack the story. I write what they want, but then, when I finish the first draft and start revisions, if I don't like what they say, I take it out and write what I want.

lotusgirl said...

I used to think that way too. I think it's very naive. I've learned so much about the writing process in this journey. Now I know that writing is rewriting.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

I love the way you described the process you've been through - and the learning that took place along the way. When my PB decided it wanted to be a chapter book, I let it win. This time! :-)

Laura Pauling said...

I'm in the middle of trying to figure that out! And trying to figure out if I like the direction my new wip has gone. The jury is still out. Congrats on conquering your characters!

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Good for you - not for (just) showing the characters who's boss, but for doing all that fantastic work to push yourself as a writer. Writing is darn hard work, and that is part of the frustration along the way.

I often have to get halfway though a first draft before I have any idea what the story is really about. I know I'm going to have to go back and change all kinds of stuff. In a way, it's freeing.

Susan R. Mills said...

Been taking control back myself with my rewrites. I feel the same way as you about it. Lots of hard work, but so worth it in the end!

Kelly Polark said...

I have had scenes go the way the character flowed, but ultimately the main parts are what I want to happen.
Thank goodness we can go back and change a story as many times as we want to make it what we want!

storyqueen said...

Great post!

I am not sure if it's always the character's fault, but I think sometimes I am either lazy or lacking confidence and I will end up with something that makes me say to myself: Self, this is not the book you want to be writing.


Carolyn V. said...

They try all the time! But I totally won in my current wip. Yay! =)

Sherrie Petersen said...

Lisa: I sure hope it's stronger! It sounds like you're very familiar with the rewriting process: me too :)

JEM: There are some brilliant writers who are worth studying. Believe me, it helps!

Lydia: I've had good hijacks as well. But sometimes the drama queens need to be put in their place :D

Piedmont: Thank goodness for revision time, huh?!

Lois: It's amazing to realize how much more time is spent on the rewriting!

Shannon: I guess we're always learning, right?

Laura: Sometimes when the characters go off track it can be a good thing. It's different every time.

Susan Q: I do the same thing! It's like I need to write part of the story to figure out who these people are and what makes them tick.

Susan M: Good luck with the rewrites! I know it's hard...

Kelly: Sometimes the characters do know best, but ultimately they have to answer to me :D

Shelley: That's exactly where I was!

Carolyn: Congrats! It feels good to win sometimes :)

Beth Kephart said...

oh, listen, yes. I fight those characters all the time, they fight me, and sometimes the war goes on for years.

I'm currently locked inside a ten-year battle.

I hope someone wins.

Tess said...

I love this story because it is a really important concept and discussion point. I guess, if your really, naturally brilliant, you can write anything and it will be great. But, for me (and most, I bet) it doesn't work that way. I've had characters try to take over the story and - like you say here - it usually doesn't work.

nope. we're the boss. and sometimes we have to put our stories in time out to get them to behave :)

Lydia Kang said...

Oh hey, I gave you an award over at my blog!

Unknown said...

Your honesty about yourself and writing is refreshing. Thank you. :)

Creepy Query Girl said...

Wow, that does sound hard. Good on you for seeing what needs to be done and taking the time to do it! My characters often change a scene that I had already planned out. This happened recently actually. I had a scene planned that was supposed to be a hot kissing scene and it turned into an emotional blubberfest. I let it stand because I think it was important to the characters. But it's always weird how that happens:)

Michelle D. Argyle said...

Sherrie, this is an excellent, excellent post. I think we reach a higher level as a writer when we see our work not as set in stone, but as something fluid and flexible and something where we can break the walls down and rebuild and rewrite without ruining ANYthing. When we reach that point, we're really writing, not just spitting out stories in our head.

Thank you for this. I might reference you tomorrow in my Lit Lab post if that's okay. :)

PJ Hoover said...

I love when my characters take over my story. I let them have at it when they get this motivation.

Tabitha said...

What a fantastic post! It's hard to find a balance to give your characters freedom so you can discover who they are, but at the same time they can't go too far out of control.

I actually love it when my characters try to take over. It always lends another layer of depth to the story. I will let them go off in their desired direction, but only so far. I never let them lose sight of the story.

There are times when I'm so caught up in my characters that I need to let them go off on a tangent, and then set that aside for a bit. When I come back to it later, it'll be easier to see how to reign them in and put them back on track.

Sherrie Petersen said...

Beth: I'm sure you'll win in the end :)

Tess: Time out usually works for me. Then when I come back to it I have a fresh perspective.

Lydia: Thanks!

Cindy: You're welcome -- and thank you!

Katie: I've had characters surprise me and change scenes for the better, but when they start changing the story I want to tell, then I have to take charge. Of course, like I said, it was just me being afraid that I wasn't up to the challenge of this particular story :) Fear is always tough to overcome!

Glam: I'd be honored if you mentioned my post! Thanks!

PJ: It's different for everyone! And there have been times when I like the results of a takeover :)

Tabitha: Balance is exactly right. When I'm getting to know my characters I love just typing whatever comes into my head to see where they go. But once I know where I want the story to end up, I have to take control and guide them there.

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