Monday, April 9, 2012

The Impatient Character a She Reads Guest Post

My biggest reading surprise of 2011 came in the form of Diane Setterfield’s gothic masterpiece, The Thirteenth Tale. Though published in 2008, I somehow managed to miss this novel until last summer when my family took a 1500 mile road trip. I packed five novels in the hopes that one of them would be good. I never made it past the first. And I’m not entirely sure if I spoke to my husband at all during that trip. I was consumed.

In her novel Diane Setterfield introduces us to Vida Winter, a prolific, reclusive author who chooses to tell her life story to a young biographer by the name of Margaret Lea. Vida Winter is one of the most memorable literary characters, and certainly the strongest female character I’ve ever read. She says something in the novel that felt so familiar to me that I’ve never forgotten it:

My study throngs with characters waiting to be written. Imaginary people anxious for life, who tug at my sleeve, crying, ‘Me next! Go on! My turn!’ I have to select. And once I have chosen, the others lie quiet for ten months or a year, until I come to the end of the story, and the clamor starts up again.”

I have experienced that demanding character, but never so intensely as while finishing my recent novel, The Rule of Three.

For months a new story had been nagging at me, creeping in during those moments when my mind was quiet. A long shower. That stretch of thought before drifting off to sleep. The dream that comes in the stillness before waking.

I recall writing a scene from my newly finished novel. It was a particularly tense argument between my Hero (her name is Stella) and Opponent that took place in an old, Jazz-era bar. There they were, leaning across the table in a dark, corner booth, both of them reaching for a tattered envelope containing a long-kept secret. I paused for a moment, fingers lightly touching the keyboard as I mulled a piece of dialogue. And then…

In the far corner of the bar was a woman delivering a baby! Of all the strange and bizarre things, the character in my next novel had walked into my current novel and set up shop. I could see it in my mind, like a fuzzy TV station that’s been caught between two channels, superimposing one face, one story, over another.

Vida describes that sensation best:

And every so often, through all these writing years, I have lifted my head from the page—at the end of a chapter, or in the quiet pause for thought after a death scene, or sometimes just searching for the right word—and have seen a face at the back of the crowd.”

I knew who this character was, of course. Her name is Martha. She’s a midwife. A mother. A diarist. A strong and capable woman if ever there was one. But in that moment she was an intruder. So I gave Martha her own notebook. I scratched down what she was frantically trying to tell me, and I politely escorted her from the premises. Then I shook off her specter and went back to the bar, and my characters bent in heated conversation.

The scene turned out well in case you’re wondering. As did the rest of the novel. But now it’s done. My mind, so battered after wrestling that story to the page, is finally rested. And Martha has renewed her protests, filling all that recently vacated space. It’s her turn. Tomorrow I will open her notebook.

There are other faces in the shadows behind Martha of course. A carpenter. A hoarder. A tattoo artist. They are waiting patiently. For now.

Questions for you: What was your biggest ‘reading surprise’ of the last year? Do characters stack themselves in your mind, waiting to tell their story? Or do they come to you one at a time? How do you fend them off until it’s their turn? Are you capable of writing more than one novel at once?


Megan Sayer said...

Ariel I LOVE this story!
I love the fact that whenever you talk about your writing process I come away feeling like a very, very normal person.
Well...okay, maybe that's an overstatement. But I feel greatly encouraged that there are other people in the world whose brains do weird things like this too : )

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Ah, yes. Those crazy, attention seeking characters! I jot down notes about them and/or give them a short story to satisfy them until later. Oh. And I have no idea how anyone is able to write two novels at once. That takes superhuman brains that I just don't have!

Thank you, Ariel! I'm with help me feel almost normal!

Julia M. Reffner said...

I do have some that come to me, but I need to file them in a notebook and try to think about them later. I'm pretty new to this journey and I think sticking with one story (and one to edit) works for me right now. I'm in awe of those who keep multiple stories going.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Oh I love this post so much b/c just as I was pulling my covers up over my legs last night a character from a novel I won't even be able to get to until probably Sept. began revealing herself to me. Bit by bit. Detail by detail. Some dialogue thrown in. I felt anxious, excitement, and sentimental.

It's hard for non-writers to relate to this swollen imagination I'm guessing.

But I love it. And I was grateful this character is making herself known.
~ Wendy

Patti Hill said...

When I was a mother of toddlers, I complained to a mentor that my son was forever tugging on me for attention. She said, "Then what you must do is stop whatever you're doing, get eyeball to eyeball with your son, and give him your full attention. He just wants to know that you're available to him if he needs you." She was so right. When I started doing what she suggested, Matt's anxiety disappeared. Within weeks, I had to go looking for him for the toddler love I needed!

My characters are a lot like anxious toddlers. If a character from a future story shows up, I find they're a bit eager for their time on the stage of my swollen imagination. If I don't do as Ariel did and give them a notebook (eyeball-to-eyeball attention), they only tug at me all the more, very distracting.

Cherry Odelberg said...

Your quotes from "The Thirteenth Tale," struck fear in my heart. I am afraid to pick up that novel and read least I become so satisfied that my story has been told, I find no desire to pick up pen and continue writing.
No. Instead I will follow your secondary advice, create the next notebook, and persevere-secure in the knowledge that everyone needs to read what I have inside me to write.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Ariel. And I love The Thirteenth Tale. It's a fabulous novel. I complete relate to what you shared today. I finished writing one novel a few months ago and I had 2 or 3 ideas of what my next one should be. I settled on one, wrote a synopsis for it, "found" my characters on some of my favorite headshot sites. But in looking, I came across the photo of a young girl and I knew she was the model for a a character whose story was one that I had considered. I have been haunted by that girl, and eventually I tabled the novel I thought I'd be writing, and am beginning the synopsis process for this girl's story. She refused to wait in line, and in her sweet subtle way, just by the look on that face, convinced me to tell her tale. I love, love, love the writing life.

Marybeth Whalen said...

I am in the throes of writing a novel-- one populated with characters that used to talk to me regularly, but have gotten increasingly quiet, even boring and tedious, as I approach the 3/4ths done mark. My eyes keep straying to other, newer characters like an illicit love affair outside of the marriage I am currently in.

And so, this morning, before I read this post, I did what you spoke of and gave the latest characters (the ones who started talking to me on my beach trip last week-- characters always talk to me at the beach)a few pages in my writing notebook. I jotted down their names and their complaints, and a few lines I wanted to capture.

Now that I have done that I'm hoping that I will be able to turn back to my wip with a renewed sense of gusto. But I have a sneaking suspicion, these ladies in my head will continue talking, especially now that I've given them an official stage.

This writer's life is an odd one for sure. I agree with those who said it's nice to know we're not alone in our afflictions. As my husband often says, it's sanctioned mental illness. :)

Margaret Snider said...

I just wish that I were diligent and prolific enough (maybe superhuman would be more like it) to write all of my conceptual books as soon as I think them. How far along I'd be, and the skill I would have developed! Instead I struggle along at glacier pace, one at a time.

Anonymous said...

Marybeth, that ALWAYS happens to me as I near the end of a novel. Characters with new stories fill my imagination and I have to push them to the back burner, but I always write down what they're saying so I don't lose it. It's so funny how we're all so alike in our nuttiness.

Julie Kibler said...

"Swollen imagination"... I like that. Sounds about right.

Ariel Lawhon said...

Megan & Susie, thanks! Although I fear I'm not a good standard against which to compare "normal." So glad that I could encourage you though!

Julie, the notebook works wonders. And it's a great way to determine if an idea is book-worthy. There are some notebooks I never return to and others I carry around with me. It's a cheap way to buy a little sanity.

Wendy, it's such a magical experience, isn't it? Like making a new friend. Or twenty. But I wonder if I'll ever have the time to write all the novels that are swirling around my mind.

Ariel Lawhon said...

Patti, you're so right! Characters and toddlers are very much alike. Always pulling at your pant legs, wanting to be played with. But what would we do without them?

Cherry, you must write your story. Even Vida Winter agrees. Here's another of my favorite quotes from The Thirteenth Tale: “But silence is not a natural environment for stories. They need words. Without them they grown pale, sicken and die. And then they haunt you.” You don't want to be haunted by an unwritten story. Trust me.

Sharon, I adored The Thirteenth Tale. I plan on re-reading it this summer (a rare thing for me). Every line in that novel oozes with purpose. And how exciting that your character has cut in line. It means she has something important to say.

Ariel Lawhon said...

Julie, how cool to see you here! Let me introduce you. Everyone: meet Julie. Julie: meet the lovely ladies of Novel Matters. I think you'll get along famously.

Angela D. Meyer said...

It is refreshing to find people who relate to the multitude of characters in their head. I keep a notebook handy at all times to jot down ideas that come to me just about anywhere. Then I transfer those I know are keepers to files on my computer(if I can find time!). I have files for several stories that are outlined in my head - they just have to wait their turn. Sometimes I do want to hurry over and work on something other than what is in front of me.

Angela D. Meyer

Bonnie Grove said...

It's nice to know, sitting at my desk going slowly insane over a story, that I'm not alone in that non-mentally ill way. Other people hear voices. Whew!

I certainly relate to pushy characters from stories not yet conceived. I think you're right, Marybeth, that we have to give these interruptions their due, jot down the important bits and hope it renews our verve for the current work. The lure of a new story is almost too sexy to resist sometimes, and we have to find ways to make it through the just-about-but-not-yet finished story.

Maybe it's akin to the days before you go off on a two week vacation, so much to do, but mentally, you're half way to Hawaii already.

It has to be a bit of a relief when those characters show up. It is for me, I'm always worried I have no more stories left in me.

Anonymous said...

Quite recently, I realized that I would have to kill off a character and replace her with someone else. As I was mulling over how to do her off, I thought "well maybe she could die in childbirth" and then I heard a very indignant voice in my head say "I most certainly will not!"
I had to drown her.

Bonnie Grove said...

Accidental Poet: remind me not to cross you, Susan.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Latayne C Scott said...

Oh, Ariel, you let me read that scene in the bar last year, right? And I've never forgotten it. I'm so glad you finished the book! It will be wonderful!

Henrietta Frankensee said...

I am worried. I commented but it didn't appear. Now I see the administrator has been busy. I deeply regret if I inadvertently offended someone. Perhaps my unusual vocabulary was mistaken? This wouldn't be the first time but truly I meant no harm.

Bonnie Grove said...

Henrietta, it wasn't your post I removed, it was a spam post the content of which had nothing to do with Novel Matters whatsoever.

I'm afraid your comment was lost to the internet goblins, and I'm very sorry it was. We always love to hear from you, Henrietta. Please try again to post your original comments.


Kathleen Popa said...

Hey! Where did my comment go? I said pretty much the same as Bonnie, but sooner, and it's gone. The goblins don't discriminate.

Oh - and I said thank you to Ariel for a wonderful, beautiful post!

I just realized, Blogger wants me to sign in before it will post my comment, but last time I just clicked "publish" and didn't wait to sign in. That might explain your goblin too, Henrietta.