When the Novel You Write Isn’t the Novel You Intended to Write
(Or, Three Ways to Listen to Your Characters)
When I was in discussions with Thomas Nelson about Stones for Bread, I was asked if I had any ideas for a follow-up novel. Of course I did, and I gave a very short synopsis about the aftermath of a commercial airline accident, one where seats were exchanged beforehand, creating accidental survivors and forcing families of the victims to gather their lives from the wreckage of such devastating loss.
There were also two sisters, a mentally-ill woman with uncanny wisdom, a pregnant teenager kicked out of her home by religious parents, a floundering coffee shop barista who wore only Converse sneakers, and a volleyball coach at a local high school.
In other words, the only thing my original idea and Still Life have in common is the plane crash.
Earlier this month, as I made my final tweaks on my galleys and sent them off to my publisher, I couldn’t stop thinking of Still Life as the novel I never intended to write. At least not in its current form. None of my characters resemble – even in the slightest – ones I initially conceived. And secondary characters I planned to include in the new plot? Well, most of those never made an appearance. In fact, I’m realizing right now that a character I expected to play a decent-sized role in this novel…nope, not there. And I’m honestly shaking my head at this revelation, and the fact – as I was writing – not only didn’t I try to make a place for this character, but I don’t remember thinking of her at all.
How does this happen?
Some of my readers know I do all my plotting (and, if you really want the whole truth, most of the actual writing) in my head. I turn things over and realign them until they click together perfectly, and I only sit in front of the computer to type once I clearly see and hear a piece of the novel in my mind. (Yes, probably – no, definitely – the antithesis of any writing advice you’ve ever stumbled across.) If I’m writing and I don’t know where my characters are heading, I stop. And wait. And wait some more, until they decide to tell me how to finish their story.
So there’s my answer. This novel happened because the characters had their own way of doing things, and I listened. How do authors do this? I’m sure there are multiple ways, but these are the ones I experienced during the process of discovering the novel I never intended to write.
1. Hold loosely to preconceived ideas about your novel.
One of the reasons I struggled writing Still Life at first – and by struggled, I mean I sat in front of the computer screen, paralyzed, because I had nothing in my head to write but was on deadline and needed to get something onto the screen, right? - was because I “knew” where this story had to go. I “knew” the characters I created had to act these specific ways. When I finally relinquished those first ideas and stopped fighting against the new ideas (and of course I was certain those new ideas wouldn’t work at all!), I saw these new characters clearly belonged in this novel…and my old characters disappeared without me missing them at all.
2. Mix and Match Scenarios.
Once I know who my characters are, they tend to descend upon me quite well developed, like a walking, talking, fully formed human being hatching from an egg. But that’s only after I hit upon the right combination of internal and external traits. Like a Rubik’s Cube, I twist and turn until all the colors line up just right, and then I see my character as clearly as my own self.
For example, one of the main characters in Still Life, Ada Goetz, loses her husband in the airplane crash. Originally, her name was Tessa and she was one of the aforementioned sisters, and she had been emotionally stunted due to her parents’ death (yes, in a plane crash) six years prior. But then I started twisting that cube. What is the character wasn’t a daughter, but a wife? Click. What if she was a newlywed? Click. What is she hadn’t know her husband long before marrying him, and felt others knew him and loved him more and better than she did? Click. Each “what if” increased the conflict and tension of the novel until Ada appeared, nine perfect squares of matching blue, saying, “Here I am. I’m the one who’s supposed to be in your book. Write me.”
3. Give the Characters Room to Roam…Around Your Head.
When I was in junior high school, there were young adult novels (Christopher Pike, anyone?) I would read over and over again until I had them memorized. Then, at night after my parents told me to go to sleep and my eyes hurt from trying to read by the glow of the hallway nightlight, I would lie in bed, eyes closed, and play those books in my head, like a movie, the words blending seamlessly into my imaginings.
Now I do the same thing with my own novels, in the pre-writing stages. Usually at night in bed, but sometimes when I’m driving (uh, no, I didn’t drive by my exit because I was thinking about my book, nope, not me) or in the shower – I toss a couple of characters onto the “stage” of my mind, and let the scene unfold with as little conscious manipulation from me as possible, playing the role of audience rather than director. Sometimes those characters do or say things wholly unexpected. Sometimes a new character enters stage left. Whether the scene makes it into the novel or not – and usually, some form of it does – isn’t important. These little character performances reveal pieces of my characters that I might have overlooked in the busyness of plotting and typing and simply trying to get a book onto the page.
So, have you been surprised by your novel? What are some ways your characters speak to you?