Tuesday, March 15, 2011

To Every Character There is a Season

I have no idea why anyone writes for a living.  Maybe they have the right skill set, get paid well for it, and find it a more pleasant lifestyle than anything else they've tried.

Then again, maybe the old adage is right: we write because we have to.

I don't have the right skill set, I doubt I'll ever make much money, and as I was previously comfortably retired, no, the lifestyle isn't more pleasant.  So, yeah, I'm guessing it's the "because I have to" line for me.  Or more specifically, because of all these stories I need to tell.

I have a score of characters inside me, waiting patiently (well, really -- what choice do they have?) for me to get around to writing about their romances.  I know these people, some of them very well, some more casually.  But I could sit down with any one of them and have a detailed conversation about anything -- what their 7th birthday party was like, for example, or whether they attended their senior prom.  How could I not write about them?

If writing the stories was all that was required, I'd be good to go.  I'd be an unpublished writer of bad fiction, but I'd be happy enough.  (I'd have a lot of imaginary people to talk to, at least.)  That's not what we writers think we want.  We think we want to be published, to be read, to be admired, etc.  And so we enter the marketplace, hoping someone will buy what we're selling.

Frankly, I don't care if it's self-publishing, getting an agent, submitting to an editor, or handing out leaflets on the street corner -- it's all ordeal by market.  Other people can argue about which is the best approach for new writers; I just know all approaches involve reviews, rejection, obsession about sales, and so forth.

Well, if I'm that much of a Debbie Downer about the process, why do I bother?

Because of situations like this:  The other night, as I was driving through heavy rain to a new-to-me critique group meeting only to find out it had been canceled because of the weather (!), I met some new people waiting in the queue.

Alex was twelve when his mother, who'd been drinking (but that was nothing new), ran a red light and broadsided a hatchback with a little kid in the backseat.  That was the last thing Alex saw before his airbag deployed -- the startled smile of a little girl who had no idea her parents were about to be killed.

Alex's mom survives the crash, thanks to expensive German engineering.  The passengers of the other car -- Cindy Lennox and her parents -- aren't so lucky.  Cindy was in a car seat, so she's okay, but her parents are killed instantly.  Unrepentant, Alex's mother hires killer lawyers to prevent a massive wrongful death verdict filed on behalf of the Lennox estate.  She wins, she remarries -- Alex's stepfather adopts him -- and then Mom and Stepdad drink themselves to death while Alex is in law school.  Alex ends up being very wealthy indeed.  Too bad you can't buy peace of mind in a Hammacher Schlemmer catalog.

There is one thing he can do with the money.  He funds Cindy's college education -- anonymously.  All he asks is that she write him a letter every month while she's at school.

If you guessed that I'm revisiting the plot of Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster, you get a gold star.  I love epistolary novels although I don't think I could do an entire romance novel in that format.  (Nope, not even if it was entirely in text messages, Gmails and Twitter DMs...)

But I have a problem because Alex has deliberately set up his bequest so that he doesn't get her letters directly.  He has a lawyer act as an intermediary.  The letters go to the lawyer who redacts anything that would disclose where the recipient of Alex's scholarship might live.  So there's no way for Alex to do what Jervis Pendleton does in Daddy-Long-Legs, namely go find his protogée and fall in love with her.

Instead, his heroine has to come find him.  Every year, in the six weeks leading up to the anniversary of the car crash, Alex rereads Cindy's letters, one by one, night after night.  He thinks they keep him sane, mostly because he can't see how how squirrely he's become.  He resents the well-meaning efforts of his colleagues at the firm to cheer him up, particularly the impossibly chipper new file clerk, Thea Adams.  She wants to pull him out of his darkness, while that's the one place he feels at home.  I'm smiling just imagining their arguments.

I could sit down and write their book right now.  I clearly want to.  (I particularly want to write Cindy's letters from college.  I plan to send her to Swarthmore, where my niece went.  There are some great stories from that school, like the April Fool's Day someone replaced all the labels for the trees & plants -- the entire campus is an arboretum -- with dummy ones in Latin that, when translated, read "small purple flower" and "large leafy tree.")

But I have at least three books ahead of Alex and Thea's story.  At least.  So they'll have to wait.

I hate that -- putting characters and stories off because I need to keep working on my skill set and capacity to endure the marketplace.  But I guess it'll be okay -- after all, the characters in the book I'm writing now have been in my head for 15 years.


  1. I don't have any real comments, but I really enjoyed this post!

  2. I love the premise. Great potential for internal conflict. :D I have ideas for several books in my files, and even more sketches for characters for whom I haven't yet conceived a story. I had a brilliant idea for a story while I had a fever recently. Thank goodness I wrote it down. My notes took some deciphering by my post-feverish self, but I succeeded. Now I just need to finish my current WIP so I can concentrate on that story.


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