Kate= Purple, Bree= Blue
Let’s get this started…this is some intense stuff we are talking about today…
Don’t Fear the Reaper… or Commitment.
I stepped off the backline and took the seat next to my improv comedy teammate, mirroring the small, intricate motion he was doing with his hand as the scene started. Between two fingers I mimed holding a small, rounded object while my other hand twisted another small object over and over as if screwing a nut onto its bolt. Or, as my mind saw it, making bullets.
I wasn’t so far off because the scene started around us with dialogue from two other team members. With comedic measures, our scene was the meeting of a murder club, a completely ridiculous spoof on Fight Club.
The creative collaboration of the scene took shape and I was the simpleton member who answered only by nodding her head yes or no (and still got it wrong) and just loved making her bullets and lining them up in neat rows.
But then the scene was made even more ridiculous when the conflict was introduced. The newest member was told he had to “kill” the next person that walked in the door or he would be out of Murder Club. Enter another teammate pretending to be a cute girl scout selling Samoas.
The scene continued from there and I could feel my simpleton character breaking. I could feel the laughs coming and the desire to be an audience member taking over. But I caught myself by internally stating, “You will stay here. Stay right here.”
Literally. My inner voice became the inner drill sergeant. “You chose to be the creator and not the viewer so commit. You WILL stay here.”
Commitment: it’s something stressed in every improvisational theater school and needed in any creative process. It’s also something guys say they’re afraid of, but I’m convinced it really means, “Your toothbrush doesn’t belong there, it belongs way far away in your apartment.” But that’s for another day.
Commitment in your creative writing process is huge, and so important, because as you fall deeper into the writing coma you feel as if you shift from writer to transcriber. The story is taking place in your mind like a movie and you’re just kicking back going along for the ride, watching your characters’ lives play out…
…and sometimes end.
Your fingers freeze and the silence in your room is overpoweringly loud now that the clickity clackity of keyboard keys has called it quits. Your brain stops for a moment and you think, “NO!” For so many “reasons” such as: “It’s so early, what if I need her/him later?” or “I could be shooting myself in the foot here,” or “That’s way too dark.”
But mostly, those are just excuses because what you can’t necessarily admit is somewhere along the way you went from writer to reader and became emotionally attached to your characters. You can’t let them go emotionally.
I’m working on the additional books in the Burden of the Soul series and I’ve come up against this wall a number of times already. I gave over fully to the writer’s coma and trusted the story completely. So when I had a hunch to visit a shooting range for research, I didn’t question it. When I felt a hunch to start asking car specialist about the mechanics of car chases and crashes, I didn’t question it. When I started Googling “Krav Maga classes” near me, I didn’t question it.
I gave over completely to my sense of creative process. I became that same simpleton just lining up the bullets, never piecing it together where those bullets would go.
So then the moment came where the story and my subconscious actually put it on the page. My fingers froze and the silence in my kitchen became overpoweringly loud when the clickity clackity of keyboard keys called it quits. My brain stopped for a moment and I thought, “NO!” Then, “Oh shit, Bree is gonna kill me,” because Bree is emotionally attached to these characters too.
But then another voice kicked in, stern and convincing. “You will stay here. Stay right here. Commit.”
Still I didn’t budge. Then a softer voice: “Trust.”
Slowly, the clickity clackity returned.
It’s such a difficult balance to strike as a writer, trusting your inner storyteller and your inner reader and hoping they agree at least majority of the time. As the moments piled and got bigger, darker or more tragic, I finally had to take it to someone. The doubt was setting in.
Sitting on the grass along the Missouri River in St. Charles, I told the darkest of these moments to Bree Ogden in great, vivid detail. She sat really quiet looking out over the river.
She. Didn’t. Say. A. Word.
I panicked and started the rewrite in my mind immediately and continued it on the flight back to Michigan through the night and into the next day.
But then came the Facebook message, the email, the text. Her reaction was… Well, I’ll let her tell you.
I’m going to take a step back for a moment. There are several authors whose words stick with you long after you read them. For me, one of those authors is Chuck Palahniuk. Often times I’ll read something he has written, completely unaware of the impact it will have on me later that week. And then, I’ll be going about my life and POW, this insanely strong emotion will set in and I won’t recognize its source. This happens often with Chuck. And it happened with Kate.
I read Kate’s manuscript, the one I currently represent, Burden of the Soul a few times, and was emotionally involved with the characters. And that day, sitting by the river, I learned of the absolutely gut wrenching, and I mean absolutely rip-your-heart-out-of-your-chest-with-a-fist, complete story of a few of these characters.
I was heartbroken. It wasn’t necessarily the loss of the characters. It was the way I had to watch them fade out of my life. But life went on. It’s just a book right? They’re just words. Right?
Weeks later, I felt sad. Really sad. I felt like something was missing in my life but I couldn’t place it. It was the same feeling I had after I read Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk. And when I recognized that feeling, all of a sudden a bloody, tear-streaked montage played through my head. Blood drenched hands. Chains. Anger. Tears. Passions and admissions—I remembered what Kate had told me in Missouri.
I felt genuine pain for her characters. And I knew that as much as I hurt for them, Kate must hurt for them ten-fold. Still, weeks passed and at random times of random days, I would feel the loss.
As an author, this is the type of devotion you want your readers to feel towards your characters. And it’s okay to take them away from the reader. Rip them away from us, smash them to bits, tear them into pieces, splatter the reader with their blood and guts if you must. But make sure that your reader has had the chance to develop some sort of emotional connection with these characters before you do so. You want your reader to be wiping tears from their face along with the blood and guts of your characters.
In Invisible Monsters when I’m mentally watching a character write haunting words on the wall in her own blood—I’m crying, and I’m re-reading, and I’m unsure—but I’m hooked.
The doubt faded and the inner artist smirked with an “I told you so, you idiot” gloating air.
Because if we trust and commit, and give over fully to that artist living inside those chunks of meat in our chests, then something amazingly powerful will come out of it. You must trust. And you must commit.
This isn’t dating advice, but it is relationship advice for you and your Work in Progress. Trust it. Don’t give up on it the moment it shows its less attractive, gritty, dark side. It’s never going to be all bubble gum and roses. What may strike you as “too far” and difficult to accept may just end up being your most haunting plot turns or the moments in your story that the characters pull at your readers’ emotions and ignite empathy.
Your characters have a story to tell. Your characters are chomping at the bit to connect with your readers, so step aside and let them. Think of yourself as the conduit.
And as for Murder Club? I did stay there and the scene continued to wonderfully absurd heights where the Girl Scout revealed she was an orphan, could sing and dance, and saw nothing but the beauty of endless possibility and rainbows outside the window. The newest member struggled and eventually got kicked out of Murder Club, unable to make the kill.
Admit it. At first read you cringed at the thought of “Murder Club”, and now you want to see that scene where a sweet little Girl Scout outsmarts a room of trained killers.