There are a few things about writing that are a mystery to pretty much everyone who never tried it. There are a few phenomena, in my experience, that happen to many or even most fiction writers that seem wild and almost crazy for someone on the outside. Something like Writer’s Block is commonly known and widely discussed. But there are other things that happen that not even writers understand, many figuring it is something that only happens to each of them. Over the years I have been meeting more and more writers and talked with many about their writing and confirmed that these kinds of phenomena are not a figment of the imagination. So today I’d like to talk about three of these things – see if they make sense to you.
- THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE EFFECT
You know that Disney short movie in FANTASIA where Mickey Mouse plays the Sorcerer’s Apprentice who tries to wield his insipient magic to complete his domestic tasks by enchanting brooms and scrubs, making them wash dishes and clean the kitchen, and then they get out of hand and the apprentice loses control and soon the whole place is flooding and plates are breaking and everything becoming chaos? Well, sometimes that happens with our writing. I’m speaking in particular about the characters and how they sometimes refuse to do what we ask them to do. Maybe the Sorcerer’s Apprentice is not the right metaphor, as in the movie this happens because of the incompetence of Mickey Mouse, and in writing it happens, I believe, in spite of or because of a high level of competence of the writer.
Here are a couple of examples: in a recent WIP I had plotted that Character X would save the protagonist in the last Act. For that, Character X would have to get separated from his group in a fight. However, as I wrote the fight, it didn’t make sense that Character X, because of several of his characteristics, would be in a certain position and get separated – it would have become a mess. Instead, I took a seemingly major step (but actually quite simple to take) and decided to have Character Y get separated, and he’s the one appearing in the last Act and doing the saving.
Let me give you another fictional (but maybe better) example of the phenomenon: imagine a woman who comes home and finds her husband in bed with another woman; now, you have plotted the story and it requires that your character just runs out of the house and runs into the man she will eventually fall in love with. The problem is that you have been carefully building your female character and making her grow and even have some rebellious streak in this or that scene – and as she finds her husband with another woman, your character stops obeying your orders: she doesn’t want to run away, she wants to confront her husband right there and expel him from the home she mostly paid over the years. But if she does this, she won’t run into her new love interest. And now you have a problem. Should you ‘force’ her to run away? Or let her stay and fight?
Many people see this problem as a plotting/outlining problem, and thus it denounces a lack of preparation. I don’t see it that way. First, because not everyone is an Outliner, some people need to be looser as they write, and preparation will restrain their spontaneity and creativity. Second, because as you yourself get involved with your characters, you make them more real and you start adding small details and characteristics that you hadn’t thought of before, characters start moving in directions that are richer but not intentional. In my view, if you are doing the right things and writing from your heart, not only from your mind, you will have better characters and better stories. Characters become organic. And as characters become organic, you lose a bit of control over them. That may give you plot problems, and that’s a curious phenomenon. But you shouldn’t either feel incompetent nor overwhelmed – just fix the problem, either by re-writing the character or changing the plot. Remember: if you encounter this phenomenon you are doing something right.
- THE EMOTIONAL LINK
Say your story is developing very well. All the plot points were at the right places and happened just as you planned, and your characters have become bigger and fuller and richer and stronger. But then you have to kill one of them. It’s imperative. Your story demands it. But as you start to write the scene where the painful departure is going to happen, you feel anguish and sorrow. As you write it, your eyes swell and you start to cry. You are still writing and it’s incredible that you can even do it as tears flow down your face. You have to stop for a few minutes to dry them until you are able to resume your writing. As you finally finish and your beloved character is dead, you feel an overwhelming sense of loss. It’s as if that character was a real person. A person that really died in your life. But how silly is that? It came from your imagination, right? It was your puppet. Why is it affecting you so much? Is this normal?
I think anyone who ever cried at the end of a movie or jumped in triumph when the hero overcame impossible odds must be able to understand this phenomenon. Studies say that we experience in our brains the same things a character experiences on the screen or on the pages of a book. It’s that amazing identification phenomenon usually called ‘The Suspension of Disbelief’. To ‘enter’ the story and the characters, we suspend in our minds the obvious truth that those events are not really happening. Writers, however, must go much deeper than the usual audience. They must develop a true Emotional Link with them. I think it was David Mamet who said ‘Writers must be a bit schizophrenic.’ This happens, in my view, for two reasons: a) the characters we create are projections of our inner selves, our angels and demons inside of us, and; b) to make characters and scenes writers must ‘incarnate’ a character just as much as an actor does.
I think each of these reasons deserves a post for itself in the future. I’ll speak of Freud as the basis for a). As for b), I will probably write a post on Stanislavski’s system and Method acting. What do you think?
- THE CAESURA EFFECT
Here’s a strange one. So you’ve been writing for a while, maybe years, on that book you really wanted to write. You are coming to its end and you have been satisfied with all that’s been done until then. But suddenly, as the end approaches, the doubts start to appear. Is it good enough? Have I made the right choices? Will anyone like the story or the characters? And the act of writing itself becomes more and more difficult. Maybe you get blocked and can’t sit down to write any word at all. Maybe you procrastinate and find any excuse not to write. Because every time you sit in front of the computer it seems the weight of the world is on your shoulders. And as you get closer and closer to the end, it all becomes harder and harder.
This is what I call the Caesura Effect and I have been talking and writing about it since the 1990s. It happened to me several times before I identified it as a real phenomenon. What happens, I believe, is that you start to realize, consciously or not, that sometime in the near future you will lose control over your text. You will want to release it to the world, have it read, maybe publish it. And that feeling of powerlessness over the evaluation and criticism of others, that feeling you may be rejected, starts to become real to you. And if you invested a lot in your work, as you should, it will scare the bejesus out of you. But you must overcome it. You must cut the umbilical link. You must understand that if you never finish your story and free it to the world you are betraying yourself, your work, your characters, and your story. None deserves such a fate. If it becomes really hard to do the work just write it without care until the end and finish it anyway. You will have time to re-write afterward and submit it to an editor. If you do it after you have a few beta-readers going over it, better still. I promise you will be much happier if you do this. Finishing writing a novel or another great work is a feeling close to an orgasm. You will not forget it.
And that’s it, fellow warriors. Do you recognize these phenomena? Have you experienced them? Do drop a line and tell me about it. See you around the next campfire.