So, I just killed one of my favorite characters today. It’s done and she’s never coming back. As for me, I can’t write another word in that book right now. I need time to sit back, process it. After eight months of working up to the scene I saw it completely in my mind last night. It came to me in a dream. When I woke at four in the morning, I saw more of it in hot, bright flashes. I couldn’t get back to sleep. For a minute I thought about getting up and writing it all right then and there, but I resisted. I knew this was the time for unconsciousness to do its special work. This was the time to let the retinal circus tell me what I needed to write. All I had to do was listen.
Our best writing comes through us not from us. A friend and I have had a debate about studying writing versus just figuring it out as you go. I’m a voracious self-studier, though I’ve never much enjoyed formal training. I love to read anything I can. Other books. Magazines. The Internet. I especially love to read about writer’s craft. Techniques. Stock scenes. Dialogue tricks like “repetition works, baby, repetition works.” I’m long past these techniques spoiling the magic of fiction for me. Fiction is not magic. It’s alchemy. It’s what you put into it. My friend was afraid that I was being too scientific with my writing. I can tell you now truly that, that’s not the case. I know because I wrote that scene this morning and it was unlike anything I have ever read or heard. Now, that I am outside the torrent of words, I can see elements of this or that technique I’ve learned to ratchet up tension or deliver a hot dart of compressed emotion but what came out is something unique; its own thing. Ignorance of technique doesn’t change those techniques. You can figure them out on your own, but with the wonderful advent of the Internet it seems like a waste to reinvent the wheel to me. And yet studying is not everything. I study so that I have grist for my mill. I pour in everything and let my subconscious grind it up and give me something new and unexpected. The real trick to writing is getting the hell out of your own way.
What most writers don’t understand is that the unconscious works mysteriously. Sometimes the words won’t flow as they did today. I sat down and my fingers danced with the keys. The words and images spilled out of me. It’s a privilege to write a scene like this. You are making a pact with the audience that they will get their revenge. And they will. In fiction, justice is served. But it doesn’t always work like that. Sometimes, as writers, we struggle. The best we can do is lay down a quick scene, some cliche filler dialogue. We have to let that happen. This is when studying can really help. It gives you some common frameworks to slap down. Yeah, it will read like a hacked up cross between a few books that you read and the last movie you saw, but that’s not the end of it. You are doing something else when you lay down the broken words. You’re giving a gift to your unconscious. Now, it has something to work with. Rarely can it work with a blank page, which is why professional writers say write every day. You need momentum to carry you forward or else the fear will get you, make you quit. Into that standard, generic framework, something takes root and starts to flower. A new idea hits you suddenly when you’re sitting and listening to a company call or a when you’re talking to a friend. Don’t be fooled. It’s not instantaneous. There’s a lot of processing going on down there in the basement of your mind. Sometimes your story has to hit the biological supercomputing grid that’s in your unconscious and get to work. It’s a quantum thing, a black box. All you can do is put in the fuel and see what comes out. Unfortunately, it’s closed source, so far. You just have to trust it and be ready to catch the ideas when they come. Always carry a notebook or Evernote. Get it down, so you can go back and rewrite that generic scene and turn it into something of your own, that reflects your loves and hates.
I say, if you’re really trying to make an impact in a story, kill off one of your best characters. If you’re reduced to a puddle of tears before, during and after you wrote it, you did it right. Oh you’ll still have to rewrite it. You’ll go back and pick just the right word to drive the knife in your readers. You’ll layer in the imagery and the bits of background. J.K. Rowling was practically inconsolable when she killed Dumbledore. I would be too. As writers, it hurts us even more than it hurts the readers. These characters are the people of our minds. They reflect our spirit. They reflect our own hearts, our own deaths.
When you do this, people might throw down your book and never pick it up again. Other writers may warn you not to do it. Some readers may hate you. It might be too much for them to accept. Good. Don’t worry about those folks. They don’t get what literature is really about, which is making people feel. It’s about making people experience fear and joy and love and hate. It’s a catharsis. Your real fans will pick the book back up, after they’ve had a chance to mourn. They’ll thank you for taking them on a journey that mattered, that meant something, that pointed to purpose in their own life. Don’t cheat them of that. Slay your characters and slay them mercilessly. Fiction and dreams are some of the only places where we can truly play God. Revel in your ultimate power.