A great animator-cartoonist once asked: “Can you remember, or care to remember, the plot of any great comedy? Chaplin? Woody Allen? The Marx Brothers? It’s all about character. Personality is everything.”
Mark Twain wrote: “The writer merely has some people in his mind, and an incident or two, also a locality. He knows the selected locality, and he trusts he can plunge those people into incidents with interesting results.”
For me, and I suspect for all writers who’ve come into their own (although not necessarily into money or critical acclaim), this is exactly how it is. Someone, a character, a personality, enters my head and starts talking. Sometimes a place comes first, or a time in history. What does NOT come first is story, a plot, a structure. I’m suddenly filled with a personality seemingly not my own who wants to act out her or his own story. And I follow, often blindly, but I follow, always in the dark.
I’ve read writers who tell you that you can’t know your tale unless you know your ending. They mean a goal. Writing means reaching that goal. I’ve read writers who tell you before you write a word you must write a detailed outline of all that will happen. When I was young and had not come into my own, this kind of thing seemed true. And I despaired. I never know my ending. As for an outline, well, one always dislikes a thing one cannot do. I cannot write an outline because for me story is not a mechanism, a Lego structure, a feat of engineering. A story is organic and it flows from the personality of my main character. He or she knows what she wants. I write as I’m told by some inner voice whispering as I go, trying to keep up. I make wrong turns when I don’t listen, when I impose “me” on my character. Hypatia of Alexandria fought back. I knew I’d lost the story when I felt her struggle with me. But when I stopped messing with Hypatia’s one true voice, the story once more wrote itself.
I have no idea if the advice I heard when I was young works for anyone. All I know is that it doesn’t work for me and it’s lovely to know it didn’t work for Twain or for the man who created some of the world’s most iconic cartoon characters.
If it doesn’t work for you, stop doing it. Sit in front your computer, your typewriter, your pad of real paper, and just listen. Someone will begin speaking to you. Write down what they say. And word by word, day by day, they will tell you a tale no one else has ever told before.
I AM, therefore I write.
Over the last few years things have changed radically in the world of the writer. For a hundred years or so, the publisher has been mightier than the pen. A tremendous industry grew up around us. They told us what we could write and how to write it. They designed our covers. They pushed us into bookstores. Or out. If we would not or could not comply, we simply weren’t published. That is, unless we dared to publish ourselves. And oh, what an outcry from the “industry”. Vanity press, they called it. Conceit and folly! Only worthless writers need publish themselves, said they. Writers like Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, T.S. Eliot, Deepak Chopra, Margaret Atwood…and other such worthless ilk. They sneered, they laughed. And we bought it. Everyone bought it.
They broke our hearts.
And for those they “allowed” to join them, those they considered “real” writers? For those, they cooked the books.
Wee sidebar: I’ll never forget being shunted into a rather shabby, rather useless little room at the London offices of Harper Collins (my first publisher) and being told by the receptionist, oh so secretly: “They think you writers are nuisances. We’re told to keep you in here so you won’t wander about and bother people.”
But ah, the internet has changed all that, oh lordy has it. The industry that lived off us for so long is scrambling for its very life. Just as the rapacious music “industry” went down, the publishing industry is going down. One by one, the houses disappear, or get bought by Bertelsmann, the German behemoth. I think there are seven majors left. As I write this, we could be down to six. We writers are supposed to mourn this. We’re supposed to feel we are bobbing like small wee boats on a tossing sea with nowhere to land. And I do admit that the cache of standing on the decks of a great and venerable ship like Random House or Doubleday (I’ve stood there; it’s cold) still has its romantic grip on an unpublished writer’s mind. But that will pass. It’s passing now. And all because of the internet which spawned Amazon and those who would be Amazon like Barnes & Noble. It gave birth to the ebook.
A revolution has taken place in the world of publishing, one that’s been stewing for quite some time, one only recently taken seriously by the industry. And for them it might be too late. Amazon has announced it is hiring editors and other publishing professionals to launch its own in-house publishing business. They now are not only selling more books than anyone else, they may soon be publishing more.
What does this mean to writers? Without fear of snide remarks, we can publish ourselves. We can promote ourselves. Bedad, we can design our own covers! In the day of the Big Publisher, we weren’t allowed a single word about how our book would look. I always thought that how my books looked meant that the door in a big publishing house with a sign that read: Art Department opened into a broom closet.
If our work is worthy, we will sell. Maybe not quickly, maybe not to the masses, but it will pass into the hands of that truly beloved person out there waiting, a reader. And maybe it will sell quickly and to the masses. You never know. If it’s not worthy, we can still look at our work, bound or kindled or nooked, and know that we wrote it. It’s ours. No one can send us those horrid form letters writers used to paper their walls with. “We’re sorry, but your book isn’t suitable for us at this time.”
I’ve been lucky. I have an agent and it’s your agent who sees such things and doesn’t tell you. I’ve also known what it’s like to be published by the big names, quite a few of them. A moment’s heady rush and then the frustrating truth. If your book doesn’t sell well enough in its allotted time span (a matter of weeks), it’s literally trashed. Every unsold copy is destroyed.
But that too has changed. If you publish yourself you will never go out of print. Your books will never wind up on a tacky remand table for a buck a copy. My latest book, my one and only (so far) tale of supernatural horror, Houdini Heart, will live as long as I do. And hopefully a lot longer.
As I said, the industry built on our hopes and our dreams and our talent once had the power to break our hearts. Only our writing, published or not, read or not, could mend it. But now their power is waning. Publish and be damned. Publish and be blessed. But bloody hell, publish. They can’t stop you. And they can’t trash you.