Friday, November 12, 2010

A Sharp Right Turn in the Middle of Writing a Novel

By Judy Alter

Originally published online on August 9, 2010

Not many people remember Dorothy Johnson these days, but she was the master of the short story, most often about the American West, and the author of such stories as "A Man Called Horse" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance."

Years ago I was privileged to call her my friend and to correspond with her. In her later years (she hated the term octogenarian, which she said sounded like a scaly reptile with a skin disease), she was writing about New York City during WW II and the constant alert for fear of the bombing attack that never came. She titled it "The Unbombed," and I suspect she never finished it before she died.

One day she wrote me that she'd just had a terrible shock. She'd found out that the man she thought was going to be the hero of her book was going to be killed in the war. Who told her? Her muse. Dorothy was a firm believer in listening to your muse as you write.

Something similar happened to me today. When I woke up this morning, I lay in bed a long time, plotting in my head the end of the novel I'm about halfway through. I never was really comfortable about the murderer -- he's a nice guy, and I hated to turn him into a villain.

I finally made it to my computer to write down all the stuff in my head and happened to read an old file called "rough ideas" or something like that. In it, the villain was a totally different person and had a much more believable motive. So now I'm doing an abrupt right turn.

I hadn't gotten far enough into the end that this is a serious problem, but it does call for minor revision. I feel a lot better about the whole thing now. There are a lot of possible suspects, but now I know who really did it.

Most writers will tell you to listen to your characters and they'll tell you what's going to happen, and I've had that experience more than once.

I remember a writer who taught a seminar at TCU (Texas Christian University) who said, "What is this nonsense about listening to your characters? I'm the author. I tell them what to do."

I didn't much like his books.

My mystery of the day: how can you put four pillow cases in the laundry and only get three back? There's a poltergeist in my house!

Judy Alter is an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction for adults and children. She is presently working on finding a publisher for her first mystery and completing a rough draft of her third.

Photo courtesy of Judy Alter.


E. B. Davis said...

Listening to your muse is one of the reasons I can't be a total plotter. Some writers use graphs and diagrams to plot out the details. If I did that, my muse would draw an "X" through all my plans.

I think you have to be both a pantser and a planner. Most of the time what I think we refer to as our "muse" is actually our subconscious which evaluates our writing in the background of our minds. When you woke up that morning, it "told" you that how you had plotted using that character just wasn't plausible, and the reason why I listen.

My subconscious or muse also writes plots. I'll wake up having a total short worked out in my mine or the next chapter without any knowledge of how it got there.

Sheila Connolly said...

Those muses can be sneaky! I was sitting in a panel at Bouchercon (and even paying attention) when my muse spoke up and said "there's a letter under the bar." Sounds harmless, but in my WIP that letter eliminates an entire character and changes the book. But she's right. (Wait--who's writing this thing?)

Heidi Noroozy said...

Judy, this happened to me in my WIP! Except that I didn't realize it until the end of the first draft, and it ended up changing both the tone and genre (from whodunit to suspense). It's a much better book now, so I definitely believe in listening to the characters.

Norma Huss said...

Judy, I definitely listen to the muse. In the book I'm pitching to agents right now I went through multiple drafts without figuring out 'who-dun-it.' Finally, in desperation, I allowed each of my suspects to write a half page about the mystery, and darned if one of them didn't tell me how he did it!

Polly said...

My muse has created some very interesting characters that Polly would never have created. So many times when I've finished the final draft I wonder how I got there. Nothing I did. That muse--can't help loving her.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Judy, I think that would be a pillow-tergeist.

Good post -- thanks.


Linda Leszczuk said...

Hmmm. Although my characters will often correct their dialog if I get it wrong, and sometimes their actions, I've never had one tell me who done it. Or at least not a different who done it. Maybe I'm not listening hard enough.

The pillowcase is not missing. It went to visit the socks.

Polly said...

Oh, Linda, that's so funny about the socks. And so true. I laughed out loud.

Maggie Bishop said...

Following instincts/listening to muse is what makes the act of writing fun. The journey during writing becomes a thrilling exploration which, after many drafts, is transferred to the reader. Thank you for letting us know your experience.

Pen N. Hand said...

So far that has happened to me three times. I tried to do it my way and failed. Today, I'm a believer. Muse or gut feeling let your fingers go where they will. Besides, I love surprises in my own writing as much as I love reading a story that takes a sharp right turn, right before a "U" curve.
Good post.

Fran Stewart said...

Although I have only five books of my Biscuit McKee mystery series published so far, I've already started writing book #10 (or 12 or13), which is to be the last book in the series.

In book number five, though, one of my favorite characters got shot. Dead. I mourned for about a year. I couldn't believe it.

It turned out to be a much more complex book than it would have been if I had over-ridden what she was telling me -- that it was her time to die.

But then I had to go to the last book in the series and re-write all those scenes where she plays (played) such an important part.

Doggone it...