Caught in the Moment

First, some housekeeping.

I just posted a review of Mr. Strangelove: A Biography of Peter Sellers on the Book Blog.

I’m also continuing to add notes to CMS #1. I thought really hard about starting the book yesterday, but decided to wait until next Sunday. This week I’ll be reading Janet Evanovich’s One for the Money. Since I bought it, I probably ought to. Besides, $7.99 seems a bit much to pay just for the sake of getting a rough word count so I could work out my outline. Besides, as I said before, I might actually like this one.

Now onward. The title of this post is stolen from this post at a Writer’s blog I recently discovered called Screaming Writer. In the post, author-in-training Chuck describes a moment of writing like this:

…it is interesting how a writer can get caught in the moment, in the present I should say, and have no consideration for the past or future of his or her story. I once heard that Stpehen King killed the little boy in Cujo without meaning to. I have never read that story so I do not know if he left it that way and that is how the book ends or whether he went back and rewrote it to give the book a happy ending. The point is, he got so wrapped up in his story that he killed a character without meaning to.

I think what happened to Chuck – and Stephen King (but more on that later) – happens to authors a lot. They become so absorbed in their story that a kind of automatic pilot takes control, and they soon realize that what they are writing is not at all what they had planned for the story.

A lot of times this happens with a character – and as a result, when the author is interviewed after the book is published, s/he will inevitably say, “the characters just sprang to life on their own – it was like I wasn’t controlling them at all!” I used to think this was just cool PR on the author’s part until it happened to me. I’ve discussed the phenomenon here (and/news and Tommy Thompson’s novel Celebrity) and here (and/news again and the unexpected suicide of Rodrigues in A Death of Honor).

But Chuck’s post made me realize that this doesn’t necessarily happen with characters.

As I alluded in my last post, something odd happened while I was writing the back half of the Pembroke Hall story. Protagonist Boddekker was at a party and ended up dancing with Dansiger, a member of his creative team. For all of the first book and a good chunk of the second, Dansiger was at odds with Boddekker over creative decisions and control of the team. But a funny thing happened at this party. They clicked. It was as if Dansiger’s inner strength and sarcastic wit made up for Boddekker’s own moral weakness. And his creativity and drive offset Dansiger’s blinkered world view, her practicality. They both loved the agency and their work, they both were concerned over the rise of the Devils. They had real chemistry, and in this time of crisis, I realized something that they probably already knew – they were meant to be together.

(To put it in more realistic terms, this had probably already been worked out in my subsonscious, and I just hadn’t become cognizant of it yet.)

There was just one problem. Letting them get together, while being a cool thing to do, would really gum up the works of the novel. The Devils were Boddekker’s creation, and in order for the story to come full circle, he had to un-create them, and he had to use advertising in order to do it. Dansiger would have come up with a much more practical solution that would have been much less satisfying and effective. And the potential ending, with him going off into the sunset with the new Love of His Life, would have been a little too pat.

So I did the meanest thing I have ever done to a character. And I’ve done some pretty horrific things to characters in my time. I’ve dangled them from railings while their hands were broken with bats. They’ve had girlfriends abducted, spacecraft repossessed, friends kidnapped for medical experimentation. They’ve been shot at, shot, beaten, chased, had best friends blown to pieces, and lost their lovers to a member of the same sex. But none of it matched taking away the person who should have been the love of Boddekker’s life, the person he had been looking for for 3/4 of a long novel, and giving her to someone else, conducting the breakup with the words, “I just couldn’t wait any longer.”

This was a case where the show had to go on as planned. The Rodrigues suicide turned out to be better for ADOH. I vividly remember writing what was supposed to be the first of a series of scenes between Payne and Rodrigues. I was describing Payne walking out the door when my fingers started telling me and he hears a gunshot and goes back in and sees that Rodrigues has taken a gun and shot himself in the head...

I stopped writing and told myself, “No. That’s wrong. Rodrigues has to live because he has to do X, Y and Z in order for the novel to work out.”

No, no, my fingers told me. Rodrigues takes a gun and blows his brains out, right here, right now.

“But do you realize what that’ll do to the plot of the book,” I protested. “Just wait. He’s going to die anyway.”

Trust us, said my fingers. It’s better this way. Really.

So I put my fingers back on the typewriter (this was a long time ago) and wrote it the way my fingers told me. Then I spent the next day reworking the outline of the rest of the book to cover up the fact that Rodrigues was gone. I had to kill off a major character to do it, and it meant losing a bit of symbolism I wanted to use at the end of the book – but it all worked out. Better, I think, than if Rodrigues had lived an extra 100 pages.

That was my first experience with the phenomenon. I’ve since quit having this type of dialogue with my fingers – it now takes the form of an internal Q and A, reasoning out whether this new turn of events is good for the book or not. Sometimes I win, and sometimes my fingers do.

How do you know when your fingers are right and when your brain is right? Good question. I’d say the split is 50/50, but I’ve been lucky with my instincts. Mostly. Fortunately, when I’ve chosen wrong, it was in the draft form and fairly easy to fix. Learning how to do this is simply a matter of experience for the individual writer. And how do you get the experience to know when to tell the difference? By planting your backside in a chair and churning out pages.

Now for the Stephen King/Cujo question. The little boy does indeed die at the end of the novel, but I’m not sure that I buy the story that King got so carried away that he did it without meaning to. I can see where the decision to let the boy die could have been made in a flash, like Rodrigues’s suicide. It could have been some kind of artistic statement by King. But to say he didn’t mean to do it sounds fishy. After all, if it was an accident, it managed to survive however many drafts King put the book through, plus discussions over the book with his editor, plus seeing it again in galley form before the book came out. If it was an accident, it sure stayed put.

However, in King’s defense, he has since admitted that he was drunk when he wrote Cujo, and with what we know about King’s struggles since, other substances could have been involved as well. His judgment may have been off during the entire process. He has said that letting the boy die was a mistake, one that he corrected when he wrote the screenplay for the film version (where, just when you think the kid has cashed in his chips, he comes coughing and hacking back to life).

Whatever the case is, King got to correct his mistake. That’s a luxury most of the rest of us will never, ever have. So plan with your brain, listen to your fingers – and be very, very careful.

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