Writing doesn’t work the way everyone thinks it does. At least, it doesn’t work that way for me.
Most people probably imagine that writing a book goes something like this:
You come up with an idea for a storyline and a couple of characters. Then you begin to plot the whole thing out. There might be a big whiteboard full of notes. There might be Post-its. There might even be graphs, charts, inspirational photographs, and snippets of quotes or even news clippings relevant to the story.
Only after a great deal of planning, it’s time to begin writing. Each scene, and then each chapter, follows a detailed blueprint dictating the plot arc, character development, themes, and motifs.
I’m sure for some people, it really does work that way. I envy those people, because if they want to write a romantic comedy, for instance, the book they end up with is probably actually a romantic comedy.
I’m not one of those people.
In my case, writing a book is an intuitive process that, at times, doesn’t make sense even to me. It usually goes something like this:
I come up with an idea for a romantic comedy. I have a setup and a couple of characters in mind. I write a first chapter based on the established idea and characters. The dialogue is frothy and fun, the characters are who I’ve imagined them to be, and some kind of crazy, amusing hijinks ensue.
But around Chapter Two, things start to go sideways. My characters begin doing things I didn’t anticipate. Sometimes, they become angsty. Sometimes, they insist on working out deep, meaningful issues I didn’t even know they had. Sometimes, they pursue romantic partners who are different than the partners I’ve chosen for them.
You think that when you’re writing a book, you can play God and make your characters behave exactly as you want them to. But for me, it’s more like watching helplessly as the people in my mind do whatever the hell they want to do.
More often than not, I discover that the characters’ issues—the ones they insist on working out—closely mirror the issues in my own life that have been nagging at me but that I haven’t quite made peace with.
I bring this up with you because many people enjoyed the Main Street Merchants series for its humor and would like me to write more books with that same lighthearted quality.
I’ve tried—and will try again—but in the end, the books turn out to be what they want to be. The characters do what they will do, regardless of what I might have planned for them.
Some people will say this is hocus-pocus bullshit (a charge that has been leveled against me before). But that’s a misunderstanding of what I’m actually saying. There’s no “muse.” There’s no outside force dictating my books to me. That’s not what I’m trying to tell you.
What I’m saying is that my process is based entirely on intuition, and when I try to make it about rational decision-making, it just doesn’t work. The characters are flat, the story is boring, and the magic just isn’t there.
You may have heard the term “pantsing,” meaning that a writer flies by the seat of his or her pants. That’s me; that’s what I do. To me, it feels as though the story already exists out there somewhere, and my job is to find it and report it accurately.
I’m telling you all of this because I’m working on something new, and the characters are already misbehaving.
To tell you the truth, I kind of love it when that happens.