Yesterday I started a new scene in Book 3. It wasn’t a natural continuation of any scene before it, it was an abrupt shift introducing a new character in a new setting who will, in a few more scenes, be engulfed by the main story line.
I managed to write this new character’s name down, then a sentence or two after that. Then I became completely and totally stuck. I knew nothing about this character. I knew nothing about her average day, or the color of her hair, or whether she likes to laugh or enjoys torturing puppies.
All I knew yesterday was that she existed.
That’s about as tiny an opening into a character’s world as you can get. You are aware of their presence, but that’s it. Usually you get a little more than that. You get flashes of what someone looks like, or you have an ear for their dialogue, or you know how their appearance effects the mood of a story. In those cases when you bring a character in for the first time it’s not too bad.
But every once and awhile you just know that a body with a conscious mind inside of it exists somewhere in the world of your story…and that’s all you get.
This is a terrifying situation to be in.
The amount of laboring that something like this presents is, I think, where the fear comes from. Every sentence has to be thought and rethought. Dialogue has to be held up to constant scrutiny (and generally during a first draft, anything held up to scrutiny gets pooped on). Since this character is appearing in a totally new setting that means that you’re going to have to come up with a bunch of new names and secondary characters, because odds are this character doesn’t sit around by herself until she enters into the main story line.
The entire life of a human has to be crafted out of nothing, and I mean nothing, simply because your brain tells you that it is time to switch to a new character.
And so I wrote a few sentences and then I stopped, because I had absolutely no freaking idea where to go with this person.
But then I had a thought. A very simple one. I thought, “Meh, I’ll be going back over this plenty and I’ll be thinking about it constantly. In a week I’ll know more about this character’s world than I ever thought possible.”
It’s important to remember that all of the stories that you’ve written right up to this very moment have been exercises in a craft. Because writing isn’t really about typing. Not always. Typing is the edge of the forest. Writing is what you’ve trained your brain to do. Writing is constantly sucking up information, throwing it together, filing away what you think works, and then doing it again and again and again. Writing is knowing how to approach a subject you know nothing about, and in a day be able to act like an expert at it.
Writing is creating a world as an additive process, so that even if you are terrified as you lay it down brick by brick, you will still be able to look back after a period of time and see that a structure has formed. Maybe it will still need a lot more work, but it will be there.
Her hair. What she eats. Who lives with her. What she’s doing when we first meet her.
These simple things are what I worked out over the course of last night while I was watching TV. I wasn’t trying to think about them, but I was writing even though I wasn’t typing, my brain was at work, and some decisions were made. And as I made those choices, they stuck, and they combined, and when I sat down to write her today I had an opening scene.
Never forget that you are always doing two things while you write. You are, obviously, creating whatever your work in progress is.
But you are also honing a craft. You are strengthening a muscle. You are training your brain to do tricks that you’ll be able to pull on for your next work.
You are always growing.