Towards the beginning of our relationship, my husband used to say this this thing that infuriated me. I would be all upset over a program and he’d say, “Calm down, these people aren’t real.” He got away with saying this a couple of times before I found the words to argue back. “When I’m writing, I totally feel like my characters are real,” I told him. “In fact, I find it hard to believe that they don’t exist somewhere. Some writer toiled over these characters, and I respect that they were written to be real.”
And that kind of thinking is basically why I don’t get writer’s block. I got stuck a few places in 32 CANDLES, and at first I would wait until inspiration struck for the next bit, but when I finally committed to a daily writing practice, I had to write every day and couldn’t wait on my mercurial muse, so I just started asking my main character, “And then what happened, Davie?” After all, it was her story, she should be able to tell me what happened next.
Lo and behold, she always answered. “I decided to fill out a college application,” she’d say, Or “I memorized a bunch of standards” or “I talked to him for three days straight, and here’s what he told me…“
Sometimes, she would tell me things after the fact. Like I’d be driving by a movie billboard, and she’d say, “Did you know that billboard inspired me to do that big thing I do towards the end of the story?” And I’d answer, “No, I thought you just decided to do that out of the blue.” And she’d say, “No, it was the poster.” And I’d have to reopen chapter twenty-whatever and rewrite it to reflect this new information.
I think that’s what makes writing a new book so daunting. It’s not just the months and months of work ahead of you, but also the new relationship with your characters that you’re going to have to build. Right now, I’m getting to know them. I’m prodding them about their motivations, asking them questions about where they live, and reading their horoscopes. I’m also asking around about their backstories and performing psychological evaluations behind their backs.
But most of all, I’m just hoping that they’ll answer when I ask, “And then what happened?”
Collage Credit: Tanja Novakovic
Ernessa T. Carter is the author of the novel, 32 CANDLES, which will be released by HarperCollins/Amistad on June 22, 2010. Pre-order your copy on Amazon here.