So I was talking before about trusting your “bus driver”—that companion who, if you know what’s good for you, is your best writing partner. When you’re “in the zone” writing, it’s not unlike hitting the cruise control and finding yourself discovering the story as it unfolds. (Yeah, there was a double negative there, and I loved it!) The act of writing becomes very much like reading—only it’s a little more Choose Your Own Adventure-y. Weren’t those books awesome?!—reading them can be very close to what writing feels like when you’re doing it right. When some people ask me if they should pursue writing I’ll often ask, “How did you feel about those Choose Your Own Adventure books?” If they loved the books, they may have the chops to write. If they didn’t like them, they may want to consider boning up on stock trading, nursing or competitive lawn darts. Writer/creator, Edward Packard, was somehow able to capture not only the magical feeling of writing and deliver it to the reader but essentially made these malleable stories feel like you were getting the genuine opportunity to live another life. Well, I suppose, more virtual than genuine—when your choices got you killed in the story it was a dramatic sting but you still got to walk away from the book (or start it over!).
This is fundamentally what storytelling has been about since its inception—giving the listener or reader a chance to learn from a sequence of decisions, safely made by someone else, real or fictional. If I tell you, Bobby got shot trying to rob a liquor store, you may be less likely to go rob a liquor store (or you’ll decide to better prepare). If I tell you, Sally found free lasagna in the break room fridge, you might go check (or decide to stop putting your lunch in there without labeling it). If I tell you the story of how Joan of Arc led an army, you might decide to go join the bowling team—after all, stories can mean different things to all of us. Often times the writer can be just as surprised about what they learn while writing a story as the reader will be reading it.
A friend of mine recently sent me this meme—you know, one of those pictures posted with a little phrase or idea on it?—this one had been pretty digitally chewed up by the time she posted it on my facebook page, but this is what the black text on a white background seemed to ask:
“Do authors cry when they kill the best characters or [do] they smile and laugh then have tea with Satan?”
We had some good “LOLing” over this because she had just read the manuscript for one of my recent novels where some death was involved. I have to admit, I’m not sure where this question comes from originally so, if you know, drop us a note (and/or link) below. When I first saw this, the laugh it triggered was a tension release because of the feelings I’d had once while writing the death of a character that I’d grown quite attached to. I remember trying to write through red wet swollen eyes for chapters even leading up to the moment, which was an emotional and slow execution for me.
When I’d finished detailing the event, I went back to review what I’d written—what had the bus driver made me do?! I had to admit, as emotional as it had made me, it was undoubtedly the way to go. And what did I learn from the fictional event my fingers had tapped out before me? To be honest, I’m still digesting it as of now—it’ll likely involve the value of life, purpose and choosing wisely how you invest both of these things—or it could be that I should get some Navy SEAL training. Regardless, my first test with how a reader might respond to the story is always how I’m responding. I figure, if I’m actually crying while I’m writing something out, there’s a good chance the material is going to resonate with at least some people.
That thought, along with the realization that the character’s death was indeed the most engaging flow the story could make at that point, was cause for me to celebrate—or, “have tea with Satan.” In my case, however, the “tea” is a bit stronger, and aged in a barrel, and “Satan” is not the dark lord himself but actually just the “bus driver”—who, as always, has the best interest of the story at heart.
So, in answer to this mysterious and clever meme; yes to the first part and a qualified yes to the second part… although, I can’t speak for all writers—especially the evil ones.
Shout outs to Joss Whedon and George R. R. Martin… you sons o’ bitches.