I’m finished. After six months, three weeks, and two days, I now have a completed manuscript for book one of a work tentatively called The Paths Life Takes. I hooked up my removable floppy disc drive to my ancient laptop and copied it on to disc, ready to take to the printers on a moment’s notice should the need arise.
My main reaction right now is one of relief. It was starting to feel like the proverbial albatross around my neck. Until I had finished editing, reformatting, and preparing it for printing, I didn’t feel able to continue on with part two of the story. With book one incomplete, it didn’t seem right that I let the characters continue on with their journey.
I think part of that was because of how fast I wrote the first draft. I didn’t really feel like I had gotten to know my characters all that well because I hadn’t spent a great deal of time with them yet. We had been introduced briefly, spent a small but intense time together, and hadn’t talked since – sort of like someone you meet at a party with whom you have a great conversation but don’t talk to again. You know something about them, but only as it pertains to the topic of conversation. It’s not until you have a chance to meet the person in the cold light of day, away from the exhilarated atmosphere of a party, and whatever was feeding your exhilaration, that you begin to form a truer picture of their character.
That’s the way I felt in regards to the people who were populating this world I had created. I had spent time with them under very specific circumstances – hellbent for leather to get a first draft done, but hadn’t really gotten to know them yet. So much of what I had written during the first draft phase had been by instinct alone that I had no idea of what details I may or may not have included for each person.
What colour were their eyes? How old were they? What’s their favourite food? What colour is their hair? Being their creator, I can see each one of them in my mind’s eye. As I was writing the story I was watching them carry out the actions I described. But what kind of image had I painted for the reader?
I wasn’t interested in having painted a completely realistic portrait where ten pages are spent describing each person in minute detail down to their preference in toenail length. But it was also important that enough information be provided that each reader would be able to form a picture of the person they were reading about in their head.
As I was reading through it again, editing and rewriting as needed, I realised the image a reader will create in his or her head may actually have quite little to do with any specific physical characteristics described by an author. Certainly they will form a framework for perceptions, but it’s these other details that will flesh out the creations.
Information comes out through their interpersonal relations with others, the ways other see them, and how they are described behaving in certain circumstances. People can change over the course of their lives, and characters in a novel are no different. So one has to keep that in mind while writing lest you end up with cardboard cutouts that simply parrot the words you put in their mouths without revealing anything of their soul.
I would think that ideally you’d not want to recognise the people you’ve created. When you re-read your draft they have grown so far beyond what you were thinking, although they are the same character you created, that they reveal themselves to be much more then you remember.
Konstantin Stanislavski has developed a less then stellar reputation among modern theatre people due to the wrongful belief that he is responsible for method acting. Lee Strasberg’s “method” was guilty of a glaring omission from what Stanislavski had created to assist actors in bringing honesty to their stage creations.
While Stanislavski preached character development based on the information provided by the script and an actor’s imagination, thus removing the personality of the actor from the performance, Strasberg skipped that part and focused solely on teaching his pupils how to recreate emotions on stage through sense memory. Instead of the actor creating a character who would express those emotions, Method actors would be themselves on stage emoting all over the place.
An actor with a fully developed character has no reason to wonder what his or her motivation is for doing something, the answer lies within easy reach simply by asking what would my character do in these circumstances. The Method actor, having nothing of substance to draw upon, will puzzle over the simple task of opening a door to get to the other side for hours. (Federico Fellini, the great Italian director, was reported to have said that he hated working with American actors because they were constantly wondering what their motivation was to open a door.)
As an author I have to hope that the characters I’ve created are more in line with Stanislavski’s idea, although instead of basing their creation around an already existing source of material, I have created them as part of the material. When I re-read what I have written I look for those things that were the hallmarks of a Stanislavski-trained actor’s creation: consistency in action and reaction.
Do they stay in character, and do what is logical for them given the circumstances? Are all their actions justified by the information that I have made available to the reader? Yes, they can change, but have I given sufficient reason for that change to be affected? If they do something “out of character,” do the circumstances justify their actions?
Maybe it’s only because I was an actor and worked in theatre for 12 years that I took that perspective, I don’t know. What I do know is that it seems to be what I did instinctively anyway. While plot and circumstances are important to the novel of course, the characters — their stories, their inter-relationships, their growth as people, and their responses to the various situations they are presented with — are the major focus of the novel.
I seem to have created something that is the result of a union between the novel and a play, combining the character-driven narrative of a play with the neutral narration of the novel to hopefully incorporate the best of both worlds to facilitate the telling of the story.
If you were to ask me if that were my intent when I set out, in truth, I don’t know. Honesty forces me to admit that I had no stylistic plan at all; hell, I didn’t even have an outline. It was more along the lines of one long improvisation. I gave myself circumstances, a location, and developed characters as needed and created as I went.
Each new chapter was a microcosm of the overall, as certain individuals would be given their situation and tasks to accomplish, than left to their own devices as to how that would happen (as much as that’s possible with me dictating the action). I had a visual concept of how I saw the scene developing, like seeing performers on a stage, and I attempted to accomplish that with the tools at my disposal.
Of course the risks inherent in this type of work are quite high. First you have to hope that the characters are interesting enough for the reader to care about what happens to them. Sure there is the suspense of the plot, but with the characters carrying the load of the narrative, if the reader loses interest in them they will quickly lose interest in the book.
The other major risk is that it will turn out to be crap. Improvisation is a highly tricky discipline, and without keeping a tight rein on the proceedings it’s very easy to meander off in directions that bear no resemblance to what you had in mind in the first place.
Well, as the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding, so it wasn’t until I began the process of reading and editing that I knew if I was able to start working on the second volume. If I were going to end up being forced to almost completely rewrite the majority of the novel to make it read truer, then there was no point in even contemplating focusing on part two.
Like I said earlier, I also needed to remind myself of who these people were again, for as they developed the plot, the plot and the story developed them. When dealing with that type of symbiotic relationship you can’t just randomly pick up in the middle of nowhere and start again; you have to be sure of where and what you’re dealing with.
So the process of re-writing and editing was not just an exercise in cleaning and polishing, it was a means of reintroducing myself to the characters I had created through writing the story. Now that I’ve gotten to know them again, I can pick up from where I left off, and walk with them to the end of their journey.
I just hope they know how they’re getting there, because I know where they have to end up, but have no idea how that’s going to happen. Should be a fun trip. I hope you’ll want to come along for the ride.