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Journal of a novel: Aug. 15, 2016. Surprise

August 15, 2016

In a series of posts, I’ll share both Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel and what I learn from it, and I’ll show you what the writing life is like for me.

I almost didn’t make it today. I spent the morning battling Internet access issues, problems that John Steinbeck never had. 😉

In his Feb. 23 Journal of  a Novel entry, Steinbeck writes that the novel he’s working on

is really beginning to move and breathe and have a life of its own

so much so that the characters are taking over. The character of Carl Trask was originally meant to be dealt with in a few paragraphs. Instead, Steinbeck has become fascinated with him.

I thought he was only going to have one wife and I find he has two. I thought he was an only child and he has a half brother.

This happens to me all the time. Characters who I thought would have only a walk-on part end up much larger and play a far more important role. I’m thinking in particular about Sir Maxwell who made an appearance in Book Two, The King’s Ransom, as a bit player, an inconsequential lad. Not only has he become one of King Bewilliam’s most trusted knights, he’s lobbying for his own book. He’ll probably get it, too. Like Steinbeck and Carl Trask, I am fascinated by Sir Maxwell. Perhaps it’s because unlike other characters who are evocative of people that I’m acquainted with, Sir Maxwell is unlike anyone that I know.

I know authors who create detailed biographies of their characters including what schools they attended and what car they drive. While I don’t do that much planning, I do begin a story with what I think is a good idea of who the players are. Before long, though, they toss the script aside and declare that they have a better idea. The characters begin as constructs. They have personalities and psychologies, to be sure, but they’re constructs nonetheless. Then before I know it, they are people whose conversations I can actually hear.

Being surprised by our own writing is one of the things that make it magical, even for us the writers. There definitely comes a time in the life of a work-in-progress when the story does take on “a life of its own.” I feel that I’m not so much writing as I am channeling, and that my responsibility as a writer is to do my best to keep up, to listen closely, and to find the right words to tell a story that wants to be told and has chosen me to tell it.

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