Sharing a precious piece of reality with our characters

I’m always intrigued by the various ways writers come up with their stories. What influences them. I like reading a massive story and learning of its simple beginnings, its simple roots in reality.

My ideas almost always come from imagery. Usually, one simple image. My second manuscript was brought on by seeing someone jingle their keys in a cemetery … nothing more.

My first manuscript started sitting in a pew in a church, staring at a rack of remembrance candles. My mom worked at the church. I was just hanging out after Sunday’s masses, waiting for her to finish up. I watched as, one by one, people came in lit the candles.

Pretty soon, every candle was lit … except one. Trying to assign meaning to this ritual — and to that one lonely candle — spurred a set of poems, my first real foray into writing.

I wrote a poem, then a follow-up of sorts, then a third. The character/voice wasn’t named. Just a person. I finished up the story in a matter of just a few pages of typed (barely poetic) text. Open and shut. All is happy and good in the world.

But the story never left my brain. It brewed and stewed there. In the time between that poem and deciding to turn it into a novel, I more than doubled in age. But it had to be written. Over the years, little pieces would crystalize and I’d say, “Okay, if I ever write more on this I know it will involve this happening.” Then a year or so later, “Okay, if I ever write that the character’s name will be Avery.” And so on and so on throughout my twenties and nearly half my thirties.

I finally decided to write it, in part, because I grew so angry with my old self for wrapping up this story so neatly, so perfectly and happily. What a bunch of crap, I thought. And it was. That’s when something odd happened that sent me off to write. I wasn’t telling myself “That story deserved better, how could you close it up like that.” No, I was saying, “Avery deserved something true and meaningful. How dare you cheapen her life.”

Life. Fictional character. In my brain. Life.

So as I wrote, she talked to me. She prodded me along, she chided me for bad chapters and revisions. Every now and then she had something nice to say, but that’s kind of out of character for her.

As I approached the end of this first attempt at noveling, the well ran dry. She got quiet. Went dark. Nada. The story was outlined in great detail. I knew what to write … the scenes, the themes, the events and even specific dialogue exchanges. I spent night after night after night staring at a blinking cursor. Hours of typing zero words.

“Writers block” comes in many shapes and sizes. I rarely get writers block, I may get “outliners block,” or “plotters block.” But not being able to write when I knew exactly what to write? That was a new one on me.

I don’t really know where it came from. I suspect it was nerves. After all these years, literally half a life so far, I was closing in on an ending and was terrified of doing it injustice again. I sometimes told myself, “What I really need is to find a writer to write this story.”

I tried a lot of things to break the stalled writing. I made my outline even more detailed. I went running (usually an automatic fix). I egged myself on. None of that worked.

And it didn’t work because I wasn’t talking to the person I needed to be talking to: Avery. So I sat down at my computer, with no clue what to say, and typed “Dear Avery,” … I was shocked by what happened next:

Dear Avery,

Terrible things are coming. And you don’t deserve any of them.

I’m telling you this because I care about you more than you could know. I think about you more than you’ll ever know. I want you to be strong, I want you to survive. But I can’t promise that is in the cards. I just can’t.

I am going to be putting you through hell. At times, it will seem as if every single good deed will only make you suffer more. You will be punished, and punished, and punished again. The tools of torture won’t be Medieval, they will be much, much older and much, much more sadistic: loneliness, contempt, ridicule.

Where you have earned grateful smiles, you will find only resentful stares. Where you have earned a following, you will find no one at your side. When you think the journey is over, an insidious decision will show its face.

This will provide no relief, but know I will be suffering with you. It pains me to pain you.

This is not your fight. It is mine. I have to face this, and I’m counting on you to walk the steps for me. Stay true to the values I have given you. Let them be your compass. If I can keep you on the path and you can keep your eyes forward, we may both survive this.

You have been inspiring me since before I even gave you a name. Decades ago, on a small notepad in my childhood room, this whole thing was born. At first it was exciting, it was new, it was a beautiful idea and I wrapped it up into a nice little bow and called it finished.

But that’s not how things really are. And over the years, the grand stupidity of my previous work has grown and grown. That nice little bow has been crushed under the weight of reality, a reality I have ignored … hoping to just cling to my happy little tale.

Like that bow, I too have been crushed. Where I thought I was honoring the spirit of my work with a quick, spirited conclusion, the opposite was the case. I have mocked the memories of so many that have gone before me, and this is what I put on you.

I’m tired, Avery. This has to end, and it has to end the right way. I won’t know what that is until we get there, but I promise you that nothing I put you through will be for anything less than how I truly feel. No more trap doors, no more false turns, no more lying to make myself feel better.

I’m sending you out into a world of deception. So please, my dear, take no comfort.

I’m sorry, Avery. Shall we begin again?


Two things happened the next day. First, I wrote about 20 pages. Second, my “working title” became “Take No Comfort.”

These characters are real. Treat them like they are fiction and they won’t let you breathe.


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