This phenomenon is probably familiar to a lot of writers: You're cruising along, maybe writing some dialogue and all of a sudden Character A busts out with something shocking or surprising, and the entire course of the scene--maybe the entire plot--is forever altered. Or you had planned for Character B to kill someone and instead they had an epiphany and rescued them instead. And the best part is, there is nothing you can do about it.
To non-writers, that last part sounds insane. Or perhaps silly; as if it's just a subconscious decision that we've made and if we don't like it, we can always change it, no big whoop. But it doesn't feel like that, does it? It feels like the characters are running the show and when they veer off-script, we're just helpless to do anything but let them go. You can't change it, it would feel totally wrong! So now you have to work with it, to make it fit the rest of the novel, sorry, hands tied.
I actually love it when this happens. I think it's what Stephen King said in his fabulously invaluable writing memoir/how-to On Writing when he said (paraphrasing) the story is a treasure buried in the ground and our job is not to make it but to dig it up. To chip away at the layers of dirt to get to it. In other words, we may have a pretty good idea of where we're going, story-wise, but sometimes that's not what happens. It's not what's not meant to happen. You go in thinking your going to dig up a Ming vase and instead it's a pile of doubloons and there's nothing you can do about it.
My characters did this recently. I have my hero working at a job-site with his fellow co-workers. It's going along fine, according to plan, and all of a sudden a minor character (VERY minor) saunters in, starts mouthing off about the Hero's woman and the next thing I know, a fist-fight has broken out and the hero is in danger of losing his job. BOOM. All of a sudden I've got extra conflict--is he going to become unemployed when he really cannot afford to be unemployed?--and character development--he's defending the woman's honor even when she's not there to see it. Not planned. Not consciously included, and yet it happened and now I have to work with it.
"Just delete if it doesn't work! It's just letters on a page."
Nope. Done is done, and to mess with it would be to dig up the treasure, chuck it over my shoulder, and just play in the dirt. No thanks.
Another weird way this manifests for me is in character naming. Not so much the bit-players but the leads. I do not name my leads, they name themselves. I don't know how or why. I'm not particularly thrilled with it sometimes, as they don't always pick names I like; they certainly don't pick my favorites.
In my last book, the lead female, the heroine, was named Natalie and that's all there was to it. I needed names for her parents and they popped into my head as if she had introduced us. In a way, I guess she had.
In this book, both leads told me their names. I had nothing to do with it. Cory Bishop is the Hero. He told me his name even before I started writing and while I like Cory okay, Bishop was not my first choice. But then it wasn't really my choice anyway.
The Heroine was worse. She introduced herself as Alex Gardener and I didn't like either name. I figured I could live with Gardener, but Alex? Sure, it's short for Alexandra but I didn't like it for a romance heroine. And for you non-writers who think this is a mild form of insanity and might shout, "Just change it for god's sake!" I TRIED. I actively tried to change her name and I couldn't. I started writing scenes using two other names and both times it just devolved back to Alex. Out of my hands.
Then all of a sudden, I'm writing a scene where we learn that Alexandra is a title from ancient times meaning Defender of Men. I didn't know that. I Googled it as a point of research for the scene. And lo and behold, that title fits several themes and plot points of story as if I had planned it that way. As if I had consciously chosen her name and then worked in its origin to make it all fit in a neat, tidy package.
Except I didn't. I just dug up the treasure.
Writer friends, you know how this works. It's crazy to think we're not completely in charge of what we write. After all we're the ones creating the worlds and the people in them. Maybe it's just a happy coincidence that Alex's name worked out the way it did, or that Character B saving instead of killing Character A is just what your mystery needed to give it that extra oomph. Maybe. Probably.
When I first started on this self-publishing road, my hubs said to me, "You are going to make mistakes and learn things that will only serve to help you for next time. It's unavoidable."
Of course, making mistakes was not on my list of Things To Do no matter how helpful and informative they might prove to be in the future. 100% error-free perfection is the goal, isn't it? That's why the draft of my novel was perfect after one typo-sweep and I'm totally NOT still finding missing words or clunky bits 183,597,305 read-throughs later. Right? Right.
But I digress.
Naming the book came late into the process. Usually does. I take in all the themes and pithy bits of dialogue and scour them for a title. This romance is about a shy book-nerd and a reclusive writer. I wanted to encapsulate the writerly/bookish aspects of the story and tie it all together neatly at the end. Hence, The Story of Us. The perfection of it was dizzying, truly. At least to me. Okay, only to me.
The hubs wasn't blown over. He thought it kind of...blah. I didn't care. It fit perfectly. And because I am nothing if not a paragon of perfection, and not at all sloppy or rushed, I quickly Googled "story of us" to see if my chosen title was already taken. What foresight! What incredible attention to detail! I was pleased to see that the Story of Us belonged to an old (and forgotten) Bruce Willis movie and a Taylor Swift song from 2010. I was in the clear! I proceeded with cover design plans and PAID FOR THEM with that title.
Fast forward a week later and my computer-savvy brother informs me that there is already a recent book (August-of-this-year-recent) with that same title. Whaaaa? How could this be? I Googled for god's sake, and everyone knows Google is the Shining Oracle of Truth. Had it forsaken me? Where, praytell, did my brother find this other charlatan using my title?
On Amazon, as a matter of fact. Oh, right. Amazon. THE PLACE WHERE I'M PUBLISHING MY BOOK.
Without delay, I examined Amazon in greater depth and lo and behold... There were not just ONE The Story of Us's. There were four of them. Being the optimist that I am, I rationalized that some were old. Ancient even. Like, from 2013. Sure, one came out a month ago, and another in March of this same year, but it's cool, right? More the merrier.
And because I am nothing if not detail-oriented, I meandered on over to Goodreads and typed in the title. NINE other books. Nine. And all of them, but for one, romances.
At this point, the writing was on the wall, but I took my dilemma to my Dilemma Committee, aka Facebook, hoping one of my beloved friends (most of whom are writers themselves) would say, "So what? There could be a million books with the same title and yours will just rise to the top and not get lost at all. It's brilliant. Trust me."
Instead, one for one, they told me to change it. And all were suddenly afflicted with a viral strain of honesty that prompted many to tell me the title Story of Us wasn't exactly...good. (see hub's initial reaction) Not that it was bad, but that it was just eh, and eh is almost as bad as bad.
I resisted. It was sort of like I'd given birth to this thing, my baby, and I just knew in my heart of hearts that it should be named Joe. Not the most exciting, but it FIT. Then I found out 20 other babies on my ward had the same name and the nurses were all confused about who was who, and people were hearing my choice of name and saying, "Oh. Joe. That's...nice."
I was not pleased. Already mildly stressed/nervous about the whole process in the first place, the last thing I wanted was to be upheaved with a title change. Especially after the first cover was already in the bag. (and paid for)
I agonized for about 20 hours and after a back-and-forth with a friend, I landed on a new title that I didn't automatically hate after 15 seconds. It matched my themes, and while there wasn't any pithy dialogue with it, it was writer/book related and romancy too. Love Beyond Words. I dug it. I Googled it. I Amazoned it. I Goodreadsed it. One truly ancient title, and not a romance. I could live with that.
One day and $75 later, the cover was redone, crisis averted.
I still like the Story of Us. I still wish that was the book's title in much the same way a new parent naming their kid Joe likes it: because it fits, not because it has the biggest wow-factor. But this is business, after all. If I'm not out to wow, what's the point? I don't know if the new one will wow, but at least its readers will be able to find it and tell me without having to play Where's Waldo first.
And, dammit, the hub's was right. With the second book, the chosen title will get a thorough research before any money goes to a cover.
Because I'm nothing if not the epitome of caution and not at all careless or impatient. Nope. Not me
A beleaguered radio producer must get his recalcitrant morning show crew to do the right thing. Dr. Phil demands it!
Morning Meeting, 5:43 a.m.
Jeff Tyndall sat ramrod straight at the conference table and confronted his employees, as if facing a firing squad. Going to work was like doing battle against a small army of eclectic, dirty-minded, foul-smelling soldiers whose apparent mission in life was to give Jeff a bleeding ulcer by his thirty-second birthday.
“It’s a very important cause,” Jeff said. “The Rainbow Children’s Foundation helps underprivileged kids—”
“Booooring,” Slobber drawled. The DJ looked like a young homeless Santa with his bushy growth of matted facial hair. His t-shirt was stretched tight over a protruding belly so the words: “Ask me about my explosive diarrhea” were almost illegible. Almost.
Jeff gritted his teeth. “They take impoverished kids to places like science centers, museums, parks, so that—”
“Museums?” spat Steve. “Yeah, if I were a poor kid, that’d be first on my bucket list.” Jeff tried not to look directly at the other half of the “talent.” Everything about Steve was sharp and cold and gray; a human knife in a pair of headphones.
Command respect, said a voice in Jeff’s mind, the one that sounded like Dr. Phil. Remember: we teach people how to treat us.
“This show is going to sponsor the Foundation to help them raise money,” Jeff said. “They are very grateful for our support.” He held up a pyramid-shaped prism with the words Rainbow Foundation etched in the glass.
Steve snorted. “What the hell is that?”
“It’s a prism. A paperweight,” Jeff said, feeling foolish. It had seemed so pretty, he’d been eager to show it. Now, he put it protectively behind his back. “Never mind. The point is, this show needs to do something for the community besides drinking orgies and concert riots. Something meaningful.”
This was greeted with blank stares and one below-the-breath expletive that Jeff was sure came from Steve. He sighed. “Meeting adjourned.”
Slobber: We’re back; it’s 6:30 in the morning—
Steve: Let’s take a call…
In the booth, Jeff popped an antacid in his mouth. He chewed it dry. They have to mention the Foundation. It’s the right thing to do.
Awareness without action is worthless, admonished Dr. Phil.
For awhile Dr. Laura had been his go-to therapist until the time Jeff mustered the nerve to call-in to her show. She’d berated him for stammering and called him a panty-waist. Which was sort of why he was calling in the first place. Dr. Phil, on the other hand, was safely tucked into the television with his easy-to-remember, non-threatening catchphrases.
Caller: You BLEEPing d-bags better give me concert tickets. I want to see Slipknot, BLEEPers. Slobber (laughing): What? Who are you? Caller: Gimme those tickets you mother BLEEPers or I’ll BLEEP your BLEEP with a dirty BLEEP until you BLEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP salad fork and BLEEEP BLEEEEP eyeballs BLEEEP and a diaper!
Jeff glanced at Neil, the sound engineer. “Are you sure an eight-second delay is long enough?” Neil nodded without glancing up, his finger hovering over a huge red button, his wrist encased in a carpal tunnel brace.
Slobber: (laughing) Holy moly! Kiss your mother with that mouth? Steve: Simmer down, chief. I got your tickets right here. Caller: You do? Steve: Yep. Here ya go. (hangs up on the caller) (laughter)
The show droned on. It looked warm and peaceful inside the pyramid paperweight. Jeff wanted to curl up in it like a cat under a summer window and sleep. A slant of morning light passed through the prism, creating a brilliant rainbow. It reminded him of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, which reminded him of radio which brought him back to…
Slobber: Ever fart so bad you wondered if you might be sick? Steve: Like, have some internal disease or something? Slobber: Exactly. Steve: No, but I’ve a feeling you’re telling us this for a reason…Ah, no! Dammit, Slob! Slobber: See? There’s something wrong with me, right? Steve: Yes. You’re a sick, sick man. Slobber: Here comes another one….Ah! Broccoli!
Jeff chewed another antacid, grateful, not for the first time—not by a long shot—that he was safely behind the studio glass. Are you doing what you're doing today because you want to do it, or because it's what you were doing yesterday? Dr. Phil asked.
Jeff thought back to his old job. He’d produced terrible video commercials for a family-owned furniture outlet. The ads featured poor sound quality and hokey slogans (“You’ll get a kick out of our foot rests!”) The eighty-six year old patriarch of the clan was often required to dress up as a mattress. Boring but oh so safe.
Jeff glanced at the clock. 7:56 a.m. They’ll mention the Foundation or I’ll quit. I swear to God, I will.
That’s right, said Dr. Phil. It's time to get real!
~ON AIR~ Steve: So, there’s an outfit called the Rainbow Foundation and these guys help underprivileged kids get out of the house and go to zoos and parks, and stuff. Slobber: Great organization. Top notch group. Steve: What we’d like to do is give these guys a shout-out and raise a few bucks for’em. Slobber: That’s right. Here’s what’s going down…
Jeff clutched the prism in his hands; the sharp edges bit into his skin so he knew he wasn’t dreaming.
Slobber: For this week’s Wet T-Shirt Tuesday with Morrie, at Morrie’s Pub & Grill, we’re going to charge a $10 dollar cover. All proceeds will go to the Rainbow Foundation. Steve: It’s for a good cause. You can see some boobies and help a poor kid pet a goat or something. Win, win. Slobber: Now it’s 8:00a.m., time for traffic…
Jeff set the prism down on the desk. From in the studio, Slobber gave him a double thumbs up. Steve gave him a death glare.
The most you get is what you ask for, said Dr. Phil.
Jeff smiled and flipped Steve the bird. “Damn skippy, Dr. Phil,” he said. “Damn skippy.”
This was written for an informal contest about a year ago. We were given prompts and had to write based on those prompts, but I was burnt out on the contest so I wrote this piece of tripe. (the prompt was "soul kiss.")
I've read fifteen pages of the first book and saw the first movie (against my will) so that's what this is based on. If you're a Twi-hard or something, my apologies.
It's been awhile. Some stuff has happened. ;) In a nutshell...
Leaving Shitsville: The hubs got a job in a beautiful coastal community where we're ten minutes from the beach!
The car was getting old: We now own a gorgeous 2009 Rav 4, which has been a dream of mine for some time.
The Situation: The baby is perfectly healthy and on track for a 10/10/10 delivery. Her name is going to be Talia. :)
There's a shit-ton of drama, stress, anxiety, more stress, threats of financial ruin followed by last-minute financial salvation and even prosperity, arguments, sleepless nights, waking up to glorious news, packing and arranging and cleaning, etc etc in between those three events, but that shizz would fill a book (a certain one of which is 400 pages away from a decent edit) to explain it all, so I'll just leave it at that.
Did I mention we're moving out of Shitsville? Yee ha!